Steady Does It: American Sentiments Personified by Uncle Sam 1942-1952

Uncle Sam. The personification of the United States Government. The paternalistic captain at the helm of the Republic, through tempests and torrents. A steadying constant since his inception during the War of 1812, right? Well, not exactly. The origin tale of Uncle Sam is one of obscurity, confusion, and mystery. We do not know the exact date of birth of Uncle Sam, nor do we know where his iconography begins and the older character, Brother Jonathan, ends. What we do know is by the 20th century, Uncle Sam was securely in position as a figure who called people to action.

Like Uncle Sam, the Ad Council’s birth is fuzzier than the reasons for their existence. The Council’s founders sought to unite the American people for common causes. They solved and spoke to problems that the federal government could not tackle alone. Constant, yet always evolving, the Ad Council and Uncle Sam reflect the sentiments, hopes, fears, and desires of their times. Is Uncle Sam standing resplendent and regal, as always? Is he dressing down to better relate to the working class? What about his expression? Is he confident? Angry? Determined? Depressed? If pictures are truly worth a thousand words each, then choices by the illustrators hired by the Ad Council can reveal much about the State of the Union.

The earliest usage of Uncle Sam by the Ad Council dates back to 1943. Created in conjunction with the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Council, the Security of War Information campaign utilized a hushing Uncle Sam insignia. The Security of War Information campaign implored citizens to be careful about what information they shared, regardless of how much faith they had in the receiver of said information. Uncle Sam’s disapproving librarian glare cut to the heart of the issue: your silence was golden. No matter the importance of what you were sharing, it was ruining the lives of other users of “library” materials. People took to this metaphor like flies to honey. Companies were encouraged by the OWI and Ad Council to spread this code of silence through their advertising.

While the campaign was popular, an official propaganda office was not. Created by Executive Order 9182 in the summer of 1942, the OWI operated as a governmental counterpart to the Council. Both worked to present a unified message to the American people. Whereas the Ad Council was a non-profit entity outside of the purview of the government, the OWI was explicitly an American propaganda agency. President Roosevelt, like the founders of the Ad Council, recognized the importance of an organized delivery of information. As the OWI and the Council celebrated their first success, people within and without the government spoke out against the OWI’s existence. The department was not free from controversy, however. Those who did not oppose a propaganda office in concept felt that previous attempts were heavily flawed and unsuccessful. The press worried about the influence the government could wield over the media. Members of Congress even feared that the Office could eventually resemble the Nazi propaganda apparatus created by Joseph Goebbels. The agency’s operations and influence were quickly curtailed. Despite this, the OWI and the Council continued their cooperation throughout the war.

Another product of this union was a series of victory garden advertisements produced from 1944 to the end of the war. Uncle Sam features prominently in most ads, meant to take up either half or a whole broadsheet newspaper page. For Once, Uncle Sam is not dressed to the nines. He has his sleeves rolled up. His brow is furrowed, with visible beads of sweat. In others, he brandishes garden implements as if they are weapons of war, daring the viewer to take up the fight. As a character, Uncle Sam can personify sentiments that the federal government as an abstract entity cannot. By showing Uncle Sam in more practical attire, the artist puts the viewer and the government on equal footing, a “we’re all in this together, your fight is our fight” kind of thing. Images of Uncle Sam and gardening tools as weapons attempt to link groups with unequal responsibilities. The Council wanted to make victory gardeners feel more connected to the war front. All Americans had to make sacrifices to best the Axis Powers. Even if you cannot pick up a rifle, the Council and OWI wanted to acknowledge your labor and show thanks.

To the victor, the spoils of war, the saying goes. The United States and its allies achieved total victory over the Axis powers. While the world celebrated the end of the conflict, the Ad Council and the Federal Government looked wearily ahead to the struggles to come. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad.

One of these attempts was a series of pamphlets titled The Miracle of America. Here, Uncle Sam lectures the reader on the basics of the economy. The Ad Council (through the guise of Uncle Sam) states that America possessed a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. Uncle Sam admitted that American Capitalism is far from perfect. In the same breath, he states that our rise as a global power and the prosperity of our Nation would not be possible without it. The text juxtaposes two different concepts of what Uncle Sam represents. Firstly, we have Uncle Sam, the wise paternalistic leader of the Nation. While still friendly, there is a power imbalance inherent in the relationship between Uncle Sam and his “nieces and nephews.” He is the adult in the room. He is the authority on all subjects. All Americans must mind their Uncle Sam or suffer the consequences.

On the other, we have the proletariat Uncle Sam, the laborer hard at work around his “homestead.” This Uncle Sam does not awe you into submission with pomp and circumstance. He is an honest man, a simple one at that. This Uncle Sam is a paragon of American duty and sacrifice in ways that top hat and tails Uncle Sam could never approach. If formal Uncle Sam would host a cocktail party and discuss foreign relations, informal Uncle Sam would share a six-pack and discuss crop yields and issues at home. In short, one is the Federal Government looking outward. The other is when America puts itself under the microscope.

While people were already concerned about the spread of communism, this fear did not make its presence known in Ad Council materials until the beginning of the Korean War. Far from the first flare-up in US-Soviet relations, this was the first instance of armed conflict since World War II. As an avatar for the federal government, a stern but prepared Uncle Sam gears up for a fight he did not ask for but is more than happy to oblige. In this series of images, Uncle Sam returns to his formal attire. The humble Uncle Sam has been retired for one who means business. This Uncle Sam furrows his brows. He is disappointed to see peace be broken so soon after the cataclysm of the Second World War but is more than prepared to defend his vision for the world. The Uncle Sam we saw in earlier editions of The Miracle of America (and to a lesser extent the victory garden material) wanted to peacefully rebuild a better world and focus on getting his house in order. This Uncle Sam will flex his muscles and restore peace, even if he has to break a few bones in the process.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.

Selling Freedom: Madison Avenue in Defense of the American Experiment 1945-1950

The year is 1945. The Allies had defeated the Axis powers on three continents. Europe, except for neutral Spain, had been liberated from the evil specter that was fascism. Yet, as the ink dried on Germany’s capitulation, a new war appeared on the horizon. This new conflict was waged not on the battlefield but in the boardroom. Not on the Seine but with signs, posters, and bulletins. This war would be as frigid as the taigas and tundra of the Siberian landscape, with main combatants separated by thousands of miles and an infinitely wider political chasm. Little did they know, they were witnessing the dawn of the Cold War. But how does one win a war without physical battlefields? If you asked the Truman administration, the answer was on Madison Avenue.

The Advertising Council cut its teeth promoting government initiatives during the Second World War. While the boots on the ground fought overseas, the Ad Council was waging a war of its own in publications. To make good on President Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” broadcast, Madison Avenue marshaled their marketing experience to sell the American people the importance of their individual contributions to the war effort. Images and broadcasts bombarded Americans, summoning everyday citizens to do their duty to triumph in this existential conflict. As one Ad executive stated in 1944, “So advertising, the voice of American industry, foolishly denounced by some as wasteful, sometimes despised as frivolous and actually marked for destruction by extremists in various governmental agencies, has modestly accomplished tasks essential to the United States and to a free world.[1]

In this 1949 ad, the Ad Council announces that America is hiring “full time citizens” to build on the triumphs achieved by the American people.

Despite the end of armed conflicts in 1945, the wartime advertising apparatus did not dissolve. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed an organized front to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad, “The Radio Allocation plan is an excellent example of the teamwork in advertising that epitomizes the Council. After seven years, it still looks to many like the instrument which one national radio advertiser once called it: Perhaps the most powerful weapon for public service ever devised.[2]

Found on the rear of a pamphlet titled Freedom is Everybody’s Job, this questionnaire asks if the reader has been doing their due diligence as a citizen.

Before the Korean War, the “most powerful weapon for public service ever devised” was squarely aimed at reminding Americans what made America different from other countries in the world. The American Heritage Foundation ran several campaigns imploring Americans to take advantage of their freedoms and be more active democratic participants. The campaign admitted that the American system was flawed but stressed the importance of a politically engaged populace for a thriving democracy. Union members who never attended meetings, stockholders who sat idly on top of their profits, and parents who did not join the local PTA were all called out as hindrances. Their laziness contrasted with the “full time citizen” who embodied the principles outlined by the founders of the Nation. The ads implored Americans to diligently and willfully perform all the tasks expected of them as full citizens of the United States to truly “work for freedom.”

After consulting with the Truman administration on “the national economy, national defense, and foreign relations,”[[3] the Council created the American Economic System campaign. First released in early 1949, it sought to explain the economic virtues of the United States and its brand of capitalism. This campaign featured ads that the Council helped place in newspapers and magazines, promoting the uniqueness of the United States. The campaign explicitly connected the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution to the virtues of capitalism. Because of American capitalism, as the campaign materials claimed, people from all over the world flocked to the United States to escape famine and persecution.

Found on page 15 of the fifth edition of the Miracle of America, Uncle Sam encourages his fellow Americans to use the tools of democracy to build a healthier and stronger America.

Simultaneously, the Ad Council produced a pamphlet titled The Miracle of America which used Uncle Sam to lecture the reader on the basics of the economy. Uncle Sam explained that America was blessed with a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. The competitive nature inherent in capitalism made the US robust and resilient to whatever fate threw at the American people. The Ad Council’s pamphlet included several graphs that demonstrated how much better off the average American was. The average American worker made nearly twice as much as their contemporaries in the second most prosperous state, Canada.

In addition, the pamphlet sought to assuage fears of automation rendering American jobs obsolete. Between the post-war demobilization and the introduction of newer and more efficient machines, Americans worried about the long-term security of their jobs. Uncle Sam assured them that the introduction of new machines would not only create new jobs but continue to make lives easier. In his own words, “the machine isn’t an enemy, it’s a friend – and anything which helps us to turn out more work adds to our strength and prosperity.”[4]

Thanks to American’s industries being an ocean away from the brunt of the conflict, the United States was in a unique position to influence the restructuring of nations around the world. The Ad Council reminded Americans that they were truly lucky in more ways than one. There was much to be thankful for, and even more work to be done. If the United States wanted to make the world safe for democracy, its citizens needed to get their house in order as well.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.


“Advertising and the War Effort.” Collier’s, August 26, 1944.

Ketchum, Alton. The Miracle of America. 5th Edition. New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1950.

“Minutes of Meeting December 16, 1948.” Meeting Notes. New York, New York, December 16, 1948.

“Public Service by Radio Networks & Advertisers … 12 Months of 1948.” New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1948.