The History of Uncle Sam

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Uncle Sam I Want You U.S. Army SignFor about 200 years, Uncle Sam has symbolized the United States of America and the federal government.  His name and image evoke feelings of national pride, patriotism, and loyalty to country.  He is seen as the personification of America and is an internationally known emblem.

No one is entirely sure of the origins of Uncle Sam.  Folklore describes a man named Samuel Wilson who worked in the meat packing industry in Troy, New York in the early 1800s.  Supposedly, he was known as “Uncle Sam” to friends and family because of his sense of humor and jovial nature.

During the War of 1812, Sam received a government contract to supply barrels of meat to the American soldiers stationed Upstate.  The sides of the barrels had “U.S.” stamped on them, and it has been said that the soldiers believed the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” (Wilson).  Also suggested is that by supplying the soldiers’ rations, Uncle Sam came to symbolize the US federal government, and from there, the country itself.

The story of Uncle Sam traveled, and as early as 1838, political artists and cartoonists illustrated their renditions.  Thomas Nast was one of the most famous to create political cartoons with Uncle Sam.  Uncle Sam was portrayed as an older man with white hair and a goatee or beard.  He wore a top hat with a blue band with white stars around it, and a blue overcoat with striped trousers of red and white.

Although cartoonists were drawing Uncle Sam in the mid 19th century, it was illustrator James Montgomery Flagg whom received credit for creating the illustration of Uncle Sam we all know today.  On July 6, 1916, Leslie’s Weekly published Flagg’s illustration of Uncle Sam on the cover of the magazine with the caption, “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”  Flagg’s illustration of Uncle Sam was then used in military recruitment posters with the famous slogan, “I Want You For U.S. Army.”

Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster

It is believed Montgomery Flagg used a British recruitment poster as inspiration of Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” poster.

It has been said that Flagg used his own face as that of Uncle Sam, and that he used a British recruitment poster as inspiration.  The British recruitment poster shows Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer with the words “Britons Wants You, Join Your Country’s Army!  God Save The King.”

More than 4 million copies of the original Uncle Sam poster were printed 1917 and 1918. The poster was used again during World War II.

Aside from posters, Uncle Sam was featured in many publications, including comic books.  In 1940, he appeared in Quality Comics’ National Comics.  His character was depicted as the spirit of a Revolutionary War soldier who comes to the aid of his country whenever necessary.  His character was seen in comics from 1940 to 1944 and he even received his own comic book series, Uncle Sam Quarterly.  When DC Comics acquired National Comics, the Uncle Sam character was used as the leader of the “Freedom Fighters” in the 1970s comic book series, Justice League of America.

Uncle Sam has also been portrayed in movies, on music album covers, and in professional sports.  The New York Yankees use Uncle Sam’s hat to bring a patriotic spirit to the team’s logo.

Other collectible merchandise, such as signs and figures, have also been produced throughout the years.

Although it has not been conclusively proven that Sam Wilson is the original Uncle Sam, in 1961 Congress adopted a resolution that recognized “Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”  Monuments have been erected at his birthplace in Arlington, Massachusetts, his boyhood home in Mason, NH, and his burial site in Troy, NY.

Uncle Sam is a powerful national symbol and patriotic emblem.  He symbolizes the freedom Americans enjoy, and the hard work the military does to ensure such freedom. He will forever be a part of America’s great history.


Last updated: Nov 13, 2008
Filed under: Retro Characters Tagged with: American icons