Virgins in Cellophane
June 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
James Montgomery Flagg was one of the most famous illustrators of the early twentieth century. His most ubiquitous creation is that iconic World War I–era poster of Uncle Sam—the one where he points straight through the fourth wall and proclaims, I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY—which is, depending on whom you ask, a stirring call to arms or a brazen, manipulative act of jingoism that did violence to the national psyche.
Flagg, born today in 1877, was a master draftsman with heavy, distinctive penmanship. He was versatile and prolific, and he came to prominence at a time when improvements in printing technology made it easier than ever to reproduce complex drawings—accordingly, he enjoyed a degree of celebrity unknown to his profession before or since, hobnobbing in Hollywood, vacationing in Europe, throwing caution to the winds of many nations. At the height of his powers, he was reputedly the best-paid illustrator in America.
Flagg loved to draw women, preferably voluptuous women, and he was no stranger to the bawdy and the blue. But none of this explains what compelled him to illustrate Virgins in Cellophane, a collaboration with Bett Hooper, published in 1932—one of the creepiest paeans to chastity (wink, wink) this side of purity balls.
Virgins’s subtitle is “From Maker to Consumer Untouched by Human Hand”: that consumer is lecherous enough to launch a thousand nightmares. The drawing on its cover features three ample, pink-nipped nudes bursting forth from some guy’s vest pocket—said nudes are duly wrapped in cellophane, their condition undoubtedly pristine, their maidenheads presumably intact, and the guy’s fleshy, prurient fingers are in the process of plucking one of them out like a cheap cigar.
I’m sure you have questions; I wish I had answers. The Internet is scarce on metadata. I was unable to find any sort of descriptive copy about the book, its assuredly titillating plot, or its less famous coauthor, Hooper. I did find a few stray drawings from Flagg, all of them characterized by a chummy, inert misogyny of the Coffee, Tea or Me? variety. I’ve included them below; your mind will have to do the rest. You may not be surprised to learn that, if these drawings are any indication, the virgins aren’t as chaste as advertised; one wonders how they got out of the cellophane for all that hanky-panky, but we may never know. All of this is underscored by a terrifying irony: this is the same illustrator who implored record numbers of young men to enlist.