The image of a tall man with a white beard, top hat, and striped pants is now universally recognized as Uncle Sam— the nickname and symbol of the United States. But where did this icon come from?
The name Uncle Sam is connected to a meat packer from Troy, New York named Samuel Wilson (1766-1854). At the start of the War of 1812, Elbert Anderson, a government supplier, contracted with Wilson to provide the Army with meat. The meat was packed in barrels, which were stamped with “E.A U.S.” Visitors to the E.A. Wilson company wharf knew “E.A.” stood for Elbert Anderson, but on October 1, 1812 one visitor asked what the significance of “U.S.” was. Never missing an occasion to joke, Jonas Gleason, Wilson’s foreman, replied that those were Uncle Sam’s initials. When the visitor asked who Uncle Sam was, Gleason replied, “Don’t you know Uncle Sam? He owns near everything around here and he’s got the best beef and he’s feeding the whole army.” The joke spread quickly, and soon soldiers began to refer to the food as “Uncle Sam’s.”
The local newspaper picked up on the story and eventually Uncle Sam became a recognized nickname for the United States government. But by 1820, the term was still only occasionally used. Prior to the Civil War, the character Brother Jonathan was more commonly used as a symbol for the country.
One of the first published images of Uncle Sam was in the December 21, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly. In this cartoon, you see Uncle Sam in a striped vest and a hat with stars dividing the Virginia Goose between Maryland and Delaware. This cartoon appeared soon after the start of the Civil War and addresses the issue of Virginia’s division into two states.
By 1864, the image of Uncle Sam had become the universal symbol for the United States in newspapers and other publications, with Brother Jonathan gradually fading away. In the late 1860s and 1870s political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast is also credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as well as the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey. His image of Uncle Sam continued to evolve until he eventually gave Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today.
The most famous image of Uncle Sam was created by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) in his 1917 U.S. Army recruiting poster, “I Want You.” Flagg’s version shows Uncle Sam wearing a tall top hat and blue jacket pointing straight ahead at the viewer. The image was first used on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” Flagg’s poster was widely distributed and his image of Uncle Sam became immensely popular. It has since been re-used numerous times by the U.S. government for recruiting for subsequent wars.
The image has also been widely used by satirists and protestors. During the Vietnam War, one poster showed Uncle Sam looking battered and bandaged, telling Americans “I Want Out.” Mad Magazine also parodied the image in a 1969 issue with the famous Mad character Alfred E. Neuman asking “Who Needs You.”
Uncle Sam remains one of the most recognizable images in American culture, and from World War I to the Iraq War he has proven to be a powerful symbol for artists in wartime propaganda.
The History Channel website “United States Nicknamed Uncle Sam” Accessed September 7, 2011.
Mouraux, Cécile and Jean-Pierre. Who Was “Uncle Sam”: Illustrated Story of the Life of Our National Symbol. Poster Collector, 2006.
Son of the South website “Uncle Sam.” Accessed September 15, 2011, .
IN THE COLLECTION
16A “I Want YOU” 1917, 30×40, WWI, framed
16A “I Want YOU” 1942, 30×40, WWII, framed
16A “I Want YOU” 1968, 10×14, Vietnam War, framed
16A-1 “I Want YOU” 1980, 12×15
16A-2 “I Want YOU” 1989, 11×14
“Who Needs You” 1969, Mad Magazine mini-poster