Uncle Sam - An American Icon

The Story Behind the Icon

Flagg's Uncle Sam
Flagg's Uncle Sam. Public Domain Photo

Who isn't familiar with Uncle Sam? There are many icons the represent America - the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, and Uncle Sam , among them. What makes Uncle Sam different is that he is the personification of the United States. He doesn't just symbolize the country, he is the country. He is everything that we have been, that we are, and that we hope to be. While nearly everyone knows who Uncle Sam is and can recognize him no matter who dresses up to play him or who draws him, not many people know much else about him.

Help your kids understand this famous iconic figure!

Was Uncle Sam a Real Person?

No one really knows for sure where the idea for Uncle Sam came from, but the accepted theory is that he started out as Samuel Wilson, a butcher who supplied meat to soldiers during the War of 1812. The meat was delivered to the soldiers, who were stationed near Troy, New York, in barrels stamped with the letters US. The soldiers, supposedly knew the name of the supplier and using the initials US, referred to him as Uncle Sam.

In 1989, Congress officially recognized this theory as the official theory when it designated September 13 as "Uncle Sam Day." September 13, 1776, was the birth date of Samuel Wilson. So was Uncle Sam a real person? He was if you consider "Uncle Sam" Wilson to be the original Uncle Sam, but when you know the full history of the character we now recognize as Uncle Sam, you know that he is much more than what Sam Wilson represented.

Before Uncle Sam

Before 1812, there were other embodiments of America. Probably the first was Brother Jonathan. He was an early personification of America. He was portrayed as an American revolutionary complete with a tri-cornered hat and long military coat. But Brother Jonathan wasn't the Uncle Sam we know today.

From around 1776 to 1783, Brother Jonathan was a term that Loyalists used to express their contempt for the revolutionaries.

Americans, though, happily adopted Brother Jonathan, who continued to represent America even after the appearance of Uncle Sam in 1812. Fifty years later, Brother Jonathan was beginning to look like our familiar Uncle Sam. In 1862, he appeared in a Harper's Weekly cartoon, wearing a top hat, striped pants, and a long-tailed coat. But Uncle Sam had more competition for the personification of America than Brother Jonathan. From as early as 1738, America was personified as the female Columbia, the feminine version of the name "Columbus." Columbia did not disappear after Uncle Sam showed up. In fact, she showed up in posters during World War I right alongside the recruiting posters using Uncle Sam. Also, if you remember watching movies made by Columbia Pictures, then you know Columbia! She was the woman holding the torch. But other than that representation, Columbia seems to have faded away after the 1920s.

The Development of Uncle Sam

The first image of Uncle Sam seems to have come from Thomas Nast in an 1869 cartoon for Harper's Weekly called "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving. He looks a little familiar, but by 1877, Nast's drawings of Uncle Sam look very much like the Uncle Sam we know today. But even though, the character looks familiar, Nash's Uncle Sam was still not the Uncle Sam we know today. Nash was a political satirist and his cartoons, including those with Uncle Sam, were critical of the government. He actually used Uncle Sam to represent the incompetence and short-sightedness of the government.

So how did Uncle Sam go from representing the faults of the government to personifying the nation? The answer lies in World War I. When the war broke out, the American military hired James Montgomery Flagg to create patriotic posters that would inspire men to enlist. Flagg's image of Uncle Sam looking stern and pointing his finger with the caption "Uncle Sam Wants YOU" is probably the most famous image of Uncle Sam, one that nearly everyone has seen.

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