A look back at Sunset: July 1942 - The American Flag Covers

Sunset  – August 23, 2004

In July of 1942, at least 350 magazines, from Time and National Geographic to American Hairdresser, featured the American flag on their covers. Each celebrated Old Glory in its own way. Sunset’s flag flew over a green river valley. Vogue’s cover girl stood proudly in a gown billowing like the flags around her. A color guard of chicken eggs marched across the Poultry Tribune. Gathered together in a new exhibits online and at the Smithsonian, the covers illustrate the artistic vitality of the period, and a collective love of home and country.

None of this was coincidence. The stars and stripes on American newsstands 60 years ago were part of a coordinated effort – some called it a patriotic conspiracy – between publishers and the U.S. Treasury Department.

Pearl Harbor had been bombed just months before, and “people were pretty upset about what was going to happen,” says Helena Wright, curator of graphic arts for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The government wanted to boost morale and sell war bonds. Publishers wanted to reassure readers and prove their value in the war effort.

The partnership worked. From June 14 to July 4, the covers reinforced national unity and helped raise about $1 billion, Wright says. Today they resonate with a new generation facing uncertain times. ― Sheila Schmitz

One hundred flag covers are on view through Oct. 27, 2002, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A companion virtual exhibit includes some 300 flag covers and a rich background story. Go to virtual exhibit »

Sunset’s July 1942 issue acknowledged the period of hardship with, among other things, suggestions for creating a backyard vacation zone. See story »