The Story Of Uncle Sam
September is a time for celebration and remembrance. Either way you slice it, it’s one month that reminds me every year why I’m proud to be an American. I can just imagine Uncle Sam smiling down on us as summer ends and the air starts to cool.
But I was thinking the other day…where did Uncle Sam come from? I guess I never thought about it. I’ve always known him like everyone else does: he’s the guy on the poster wearing an American flag suit saying, “I want YOU!” Well, I decided to sit down one day and get to know Uncle Sam a little better. Here’s what I found:
Uncle Sam was a real guy! At least, his identity is the direct result of a real person. It was the War of 1812 and his name was Samuel Wilson. He was a meat packer from Troy, New York, that was contracted to supply barrels of beef to the U.S. Army during the war.
Wilson would stamp the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but eventually the soldiers started calling the grub “Uncle Sam’s.” It wasn’t until a local newspaper picked up the story though that Uncle Sam gained widespread acceptance as the established nickname for the U.S. Federal Government.
It wasn’t until the late 1860’s and into the 1870’s that famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast began to popularize an image of Uncle Sam. When he started out, Uncle Sam didn’t even have the iconic beard, suit or hat that we know and love today. After letting the image evolve for a while, the white beard, stars and stripes were added to make the modern image of Uncle Sam, and they never left.
(Something else I found out about Nast: A German immigrant, he also developed not only the modern image of Santa Claus, but the donkey and elephant of the democratic and republican parties, respectively. Pretty cool.)
The most iconic image of Uncle Sam wouldn’t come until around 1916-17. In Flagg’s version Uncle Sam sported a taller top hat and blue jacket while pointing right at the viewer. During World War I, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. It was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.
In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” And now Troy, New York, proudly hails itself as the birthplace of Uncle Sam.
So that’s the story of our beloved Uncle Sam. The next time you see that iconic American flag suit and burly white beard, remember what you learned here today. Like America itself, Uncle Sam grew over time into the symbol we all love and respect. Now let’s have fun and get ready for some good baseball next month!