Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam with his pointed finger, white goatee and star-spangled garb is a symbol of American patriotism, strength and determination. As a familiar metaphorical figure, he serves as the icon of American history and our national spirit.

Although he is one of the most familiar American symbols, the history of how the character became such a prominent figure isnt as clear-cut. While historians have come across a number of different legends, they have traced the inspiration for the figure to a man named Samuel Wilson.

Who was Uncle Sam?

Samuel Wilson was born in Arlington, Massachusetts on September 13, 1766. During the War of 1812, Samuel supplied large quantities of meat to the U.S. troops in his telltale crates stamped with a clear “U.S.”

According to legend, troops started saying that the “U.S.” stamp on the crates stood for “Uncle Sam”, since they considered Samuel Wilson to be like a family member because he was responsible for feeding them. As troops began to use the label “Uncle Sam” interchangeably with “United States,” this nickname extended beyond Samuel Wilson, representing the U.S. government itself.

Although Uncle Sam initially referred to Wilson, our current image of the icon is strikingly different from the clean-shaven Samuel Wilson. In fact, the famous 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast created the modern portrait of Uncle Sam (bearded, stern and dressed in a red, white and blue suit). Nast also came up with the famous pictures of Brother Jonathan, more popularly known as Yankee Doodle.

The Depiction of American Icons

Although cartoons of Uncle Sam had been around since 1857, his picture was first published on the cover of Leslie”s Weekly on July 6, 1916. The initial publication of Nasts drawing was widely circulated, leading to the reproduction of Uncle Sams image on posters, post cards and a number of other items. In fact, over 4 million copies of his image were printed between 1917 and 1918 as the United States entered World War I.

Because the image of Uncle Sam was such a recognizable symbol for the government, James Montgomery Nash used it to create the now famous WWI poster in 1916-1917. The poster depicts a stern-faced Uncle Sam wearing a top hat and pointing his finger at the viewer. Beneath this image is the direct message, “I WANT YOU!” compelling people to enlist in the military.

Modern Images of Uncle Sam

With the close of the 20th century, images of Uncle Sam evolved from their early association with Samuel Wilson. As our nation has changed and evolved, so have the images we use to represent it. Over the decades, the similarities between the representations of Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathon have become more unique and distinct.

While artistic renditions of Uncle Sam during the Civil War looked remarkably like Abe Lincoln, they evolved to representations of a bearded Uncle Sam.

Although Uncle Sams image has changed over the years, this icon has and continues to symbolize a stern, unbreakable patriotic spirit that remains focused and unyielding.