American Icons: Or How Trade Characters Rule the World

Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.” —Confucius

In the early 1900s, advertising pundits devised pseudo-scientific assertions rooted in psychology and sociology to convince American industry that an ancient practice—identifying products with distinctive marks—was a modern innovation that would forever change marketing strategies and increase profits. The cited epigram—taken from the title page of The History of Trade Marks by Clayton Lindsay Smith, a 1923 booklet exploring the origins of America's most familiar commercial icons—is just one of many quotations speciously appended to promotional tracts by early graphic design propagandists seeking to validate their burgeoning, though not yet officially labeled, “branding” profession.

Dredging up those supposed words of wise old Confucius (551–479 BC) was rather gratuitous since his wisdom had little contemporary relevance. However, in this case, he did state the obvious: visual language reigned supreme before the invention of writing and by controlling their communication systems prehistoric image-makers did indeed rule their caves, if not their worlds. Yet certainly by the early 20th century images shared the stage with other mass media. Invention of the printing press had insured that civilization was predicated on “words and laws.” Nonetheless, the thrust of Smith's treatise—which by all accounts had a sizeable readership and said that signs and symbols implanted messages in the public's consciousness, thus swaying mass consumption—supported his zealotry and that of other design advocates who sought serious recognition.

Patriotic trade calendar illustrated by Roy Best, c. 1930.

Trade calendar illustrated by Roy Best, c. 1930.

Smith fervently promoted image over word, in part because the advertising industry retained a Calvinist adherence to The Word. During the late 19th century, American advertising was largely a Protestant profession, serving Protestant businesses, in a Protestant nation. Pictures were not entirely shunned but words were certainly preferred. Since many American consumers read their bibles, most print advertising pitches were akin to Sunday sermons; strongly worded messages were easier for the public to understand and, therefore, believe. Yet by the end of the 19th century it was clear to advertising and business leaders that the capitalist religion demanded more vivid pictorial proselytizing than old-fashioned, word-based evangelical ads could achieve on their own. With advancements in low-cost black-and-white and color printing, reproduction of images precipitously increased in many nationally circulated periodicals. Businesses that had relied solely on brand names and clever slogans sought new visual icons for salvation. Older pictorial trade characters evolved into contemporary mnemonic logos. Industry turned to signs and symbols, some abstract and others with human characteristics, to gain the public's trust.

But these trademarks did not simply spring like butterflies from cocoons, happily fluttering into the American consumers' eyes, hearts and minds. They sprung from centuries of graphic art traditions dating back to antiquity. Like the heraldic signs and coats of arms that represented royalty, the scions of industry sought similar trappings of tradition. Some contemporary marks also owe a debt to those functional though elegant merchant's brands that were emblazoned on sacks and barrels.

Enter the first official American icon
Recruitment poster featuring Flagg’s personification of Uncle Sam, 1917.

Flagg's personification of Uncle Sam, 1917.

Uncle Sam, the premier symbol of America's manifest destiny, is the most recognizable American icon ever created. It began as a quaint commercial trademark around 1812, based on the self-proclaimed “Uncle” Sam Wilson, a real life Troy, New York, merchant, who owned E. & S. Wilson, which supplied provisions to the American army fighting against the British. As legend goes, Troy's residents assumed that the “U.S.” stamped on his shipping sacks and barrels stood for “Uncle Sam,” and Wilson exploited the illusion because patriotism and profit were happy bedfellows. His trademark portrait, in which Wilson wears a stovepipe hat, both presaged and influenced the typical Uncle Sam image. By the mid-19th century, however, various artists had radically reinterpreted and transformed Sam's face, so little remained of the original. In fact, during the American Civil War the clean-shaven Sam grew a beard, which bore a curious resemblance to President Abraham Lincoln. Uncle Sam continued to appear in various iterations until 1917, when illustrator James Montgomery Flagg enduringly codified the character with his distinctive rendering for the Army's “I Want You” recruitment poster (which was a copy of earlier British, German and Russian propaganda poster motifs). Flagg used himself as the model, thus insuring his own immortality.

Aside from the ubiquitous dollar sign (the overlapping initials “U.S.” with the bowl of the U cut off), no other symbol telegraphed the American essence more instantaneously and unambiguously than Uncle Sam. Neither of his two sister icons, Columbia or Liberty, which personified the essential ideals of American life, suggested America's ever-expanding global diplomatic and military influence. As un-modern as his calcified visage may appear today, Sam's craggy features and scraggly goatee spoke directly to the American myth of a classless society baptized in the blood, sweat and tears of grassroots pioneers. Sam was also a composite of the U.S. forefathers, and more. Because he was old (or ageless, in a Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel portrait-of-god sort of way) he represented the legacy of Americanism: strength, fortitude and honor. He could also be comical and serious, fatherly and brotherly. Oh, what a guy!

Uncle Sam ornaments from a Cobb Shinn printing cuts book, c. 1920.

Uncle Sam ornaments from a Cobb Shinn printing cuts book, c. 1920.

Multinational corporations in today's global economy pay branding specialists (whom some critics might argue provide the same pseudo-scientific, rhetorical mumbo-jumbo today as they did a hundred years ago) billions of dollars to create icons as unmistakably recognizable as Uncle Sam, and then legally protect them from potential infringements. Which is why it is so curious that no single government agency or political entity actually owns the trademark registration rights to this valuable American “intellectual property.” Any American—or foreign—business wanting a patriotic pedigree may freely use Uncle Sam in whatever political or commercial, silly or profound, context and for any purpose they desire, legal or extralegal. An unwritten law guarantees free and easy access to democracy's symbolic trappings to any individual or institution that desires them. If the government held licensing rights, then the profits from royalties they would generate could pay for major social programs. But no one receives a dime from the countless Uncle Sam reproductions once sold through type catalogs, clip art books and printers' stock catalogs, and now widely available on the internet.

Conversely, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels decreed through the Protection of National Symbols act that reproducing the NSDAP's logo, the swastika, was limited to state- and party-sanctioned materials. Strict rules were enforced to insure that Germany's most charged icons were not trivialized through wanton commercial schemes. Adolf Hitler's image was also prohibited from being used in any commercial enterprises, though his face was licensed for postage stamps from which he received a generous royalty for each and every purchase. Surely this iron fisted retention of exclusive image rights served them well during their reign in power.

Patriotic chromolithographic postcard, c. 1910.

Chromolithographic postcard, c. 1910.

While America is no less respectful of its cherished icons, it is more laissez faire when it comes to their widespread usage. The American colors, for instance, have long been an effective and ubiquitous marketing tool. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, red and blue were among the most popular printing inks after basic black. Whatever the image—even if it had nothing directly to do with patriotism—printing it in these primary hues produced an unmistakably American style. Today, red, white and blue, stars and stripes, and the American flag itself continue to be used any time patriotism can generate profit—which is not to imply that red, white and blue does not evoke a real sense of national pride. In fact, using these colors effectively in posters, packages and advertisements exploits that pride. The application of national icons in advertising and design is not only a privilege: it is something of a requisite.

Free for the taking, no matter how silly

Only one resolution ever really governed the American flag's design. After Independence on July 4, 1776, the U.S. Congress resolved that “the flag of the 13 United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be 13 stars, white on a blue field.” The color symbolism was straightforward: white signifies purity and innocence, red exemplifies hardiness and valor, and blue equals vigilance, perseverance and justice. Aside from a few conventions dictating how a flag must be hung (i.e., it must never touch the ground) and various Army and Navy rituals, the U.S. government has never imposed Constitutional restrictions on how to use the basic form or colors, because every citizen has a basic right to “own” a piece of American style. Even when the South seceded from the Union, launching the bloody Civil War, the same color scheme was used for the Confederate flag. Congress has never even been able to agree on a viable flag desecration act either, because it seems antithetical to democratic principles. While many other nations view as treasonous the desecration of their national symbols, when democracy and capitalism wed, expedience rules. So, as long as Uncle Sam and the stars and stripes are boons to the economy, they will forever remain unregulated.

Corporate U.S. flag by Adbusters.

Corporate U.S. flag by Adbusters.

American business and industry, however, are not as libertarian regarding their so-called trade dress icons. Trade characters, trademarks and logos have long been shielded from misuse by trademark registration and copyright safeguards. Even parody, which is allowed under law, has come under fire by eager, litigious intellectual property attorneys. The Disney Corporation, for example, reflexively issues cease and desist injunctions virtually anytime Mickey's mouse ears pop up without authorization. Coca-Cola and Nike have their respective waves and swooshes locked up tighter than Queen Victoria's chastity belt. Moreover, defiling the likes of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Betty Crocker would be tantamount to vandalizing George Washington's (and even his horse's) tomb.

In a nation that allows widespread, and often trivial, dissemination of its national symbols this veneration of its commercial ones is a bit paradoxical. It would seem that high visibility of commercial marks only aids popular recognition, and sales. But branding experts long ago realized that controls must be vociferously maintained or they lose legal rights to their cherished marks. Also, to be a bona fide American icon demands that a graphic image is somehow beyond reproach. A couple of decades ago, for example, UPS's big brown delivery trucks, known as Queen Marys, routinely blocked urban streets, so they did not affix their mark to the backs of these vehicles lest they become publicly reviled for causing annoying traffic jams. Since marks trigger a wide range of responses and memories today they are usually tested and retested to make certain that all the composite elements have positive recognition factors.

Buy American, whatever the cost

“The world is managed and its people controlled by influences—simple, elemental influences—of which we are steadily gaining more knowledge,” wrote Clayton Lindsay Smith in his aforementioned booklet. Although forgotten today it was one of the key documents of its time in the advancement of commercial icons as holy artifacts. “So the trade mark persists and in its modern improvements it has become the World's Great Salesman,” he continues. “You stop when a red light or red flag commands. A picture of Santa Claus makes you think of Christmas. An arrow points direction and guides you. A striped barber pole asks about your tonsorial needs and bids you enter. And with the same forceful authority the Campbell Kids make you hungry for soup and cause you to buy this particular brand.” (Italics are Smith's.)

The “forceful authority” of Uncle Sam caused citizens to buy into the American brand of democracy, just as the Campbell Kids caused citizen-consumers to buy into a decidedly American brand. Loyalty to Campbell was by extension loyalty to the American way of life. Hence an American graphic icon had to stimulate national pride and consumer desire all in one fell swoop—and what could be more apple pie than retail consumerism? Of course, the greater the American trappings imbued in an icon, the greater the urgency of the message for Americans.

Early Campbell’s Soups ads featuring the Campbell Kids.

Early Campbell's Soups ads featuring the Campbell Kids, from 1918 (left) and 1923.

Yet not every trademark or logo has an Uncle Sam or flag on it, so they had to symbolize American values in other ways. “In the dominion of the mind”—as Smith so quaintly refers to the mass consumer's cranial cavity—the leading American icons are those that promote the biggest brands, which exemplify American capitalism. Control the “public consciousness,” he continues, “keep [the icons] alive and active in the Buyer's Memory,” and America, American commerce and Americans in general will triumph.

Uncle Sam's iconic visage is no longer as viable today as it was a generation ago. His antiquated image has been usurped by a slew of dynamic corporate logos. Nike's swoosh, the Microsoft Network's butterfly and McDonald's golden arches, among others, do not overtly exude nationalism but are rather signposts (even ambassadors) for businesses that provide American services and collect American profits. Nonetheless, vocal “no logo” critics in the United States and elsewhere around the world charge that American commercial icons today symbolize this country's excessively domineering global reach and, like Uncle Sam, they force materialistic American values down the world's throat. Others argue this is simply anti-American claptrap. Yet one thing is certain—whether political or commercial, American icons trigger strong emotions and in this way at least one part of that epigram—“Signs and symbols rule the world”—has validity today. Or as wise old Confucius might have also said: “Man who sits on tack gets the point.”

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.