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Who Is John Bull?

John Bull could be referred to as Uncle Sam’s older brother. He is a symbol for Great Britain much the same way that Uncle Sam is for the United States.

“Who’s Absent? Is it You?” ca. 1916 James Montgomery Flagg, artist. “I Want You for U.S. Army : Nearest Recruiting Station.”

As personifications of their respective nations, Uncle Sam and John Bull became popular during the 19th century. John Bull originated earlier, as a character in John Arbuthnot's “The History of John Bull” (1712). He became widely known from cartoons by Sir John Tenniel published in the British humor magazine Punch during the middle and late 19th century. In those cartoons, he was portrayed as an honest, solid, farmer figure, often in a Union Jack waistcoat, and accompanied by a bulldog. He became so familiar that his name frequently appeared in books, plays, periodical titles and as a brand name or trademark. Although frequently used through World War II, since the 1950s John Bull has been seen less often.

Uncle Sam originated in popular culture. His origins are disputed, but the name usually is associated with Sam Wilson, a businessman who supplied the army during the War of 1812. His barrels were stamped "U.S." for the government, leading him to be nicknamed "Uncle Sam." The symbolic Uncle Sam's appearance evolved from that of Brother Jonathan, the most common earlier symbol for the United States. The two characters were used interchangeably from the 1830s through the 1860s.

As with John Bull, the cartoonists of Punch helped develop the figure, showing him as a lean, whiskered man wearing a top hat and striped pants. The famous American cartoonist Thomas Nast crystallized the image with his cartoons beginning in the 1870s. By 1917, when James Montgomery Flagg depicted him on the famous World War I recruiting poster, Uncle Sam was an icon, readily recognized around the globe. He was officially adopted as the national symbol of the United States in 1950.

John Bull and Uncle Sam have often been depicted interacting, as friends or antagonists, and thus their names were selected as appropriate symbols for the Library exhibition “John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations.”

The Library of Congress maintains an active exhibitions program. These exhibitions, which draw mostly from the extraordinary materials in the Library, are on view in Washington for a finite time period. However, they are online indefinitely in the Exhibitions section of this Web site.

“John Bull and Uncle Sam” was presented in collaboration with the British Library. The Library of Congress has worked with other great libraries of the world to offer materials that have rarely, if ever, been seen in the United States.

“Rome Reborn” was a remarkable display of treasures from the Vatican Library; “Creating French Culture” featured important works from the Biblioth鋂ue nationale de France; “Dresden” placed on view items from the Saxon State Library in Germany; and “Scrolls from the Dead Sea” introduced many Americans to the scrolls that have been the subject of intense debate and how modern scholarship views these ancient artifacts.

More than 40 other exhibitions are available, covering subjects as diverse as the Gettysburg Address and African American history and culture to Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead.

A. “Who’s Absent? Is it You?” ca. 1916. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London. Reproduction information: Not available for reproduction.

B. James Montgomery Flagg, artist. “I Want You for U.S. Army : Nearest Recruiting Station.” Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: reproduction No.: LC-USZC4-6692 (color film copy transparency). Publication may be restricted. For information see "Yanker poster collection"); Call No.: POS 6 - U.S., no. 1161 (C size) [P&P] POS 6 - U.S., no. 1162 (C size)

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