Since my entire education has been in the United States, I was surprised to find out that I don’t think I ever knew how the United State’s became known as Uncle Sam.  The nickname was coined on September 7, 1813.  The name is linked to Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, New York, who supplied barrels of beef to the United States Army during the War of 1812.

Samuel Wilson

Samuel Wilson

Wilson (1766-1854) stamped the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers began referring to the grub as “Uncle Sam’s.” The local newspaper picked up on the story and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. federal government.

One of the first ever published images of Uncle Sam. The image is a cartoon from the December 21, 1861 edition of Harper's Weekly. The cartoon is captioned, "Chief Cook CAMERON divides the VIRGINIA GOOSE between MARYLAND and DELAWARE. " This cartoon appeared shortly after the start of the Civil War, and is dealing with the issue of Virginia being split into two states.

One of the first ever published images of Uncle Sam. The image is a cartoon from the December 21, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon is captioned, “Chief Cook CAMERON divides the VIRGINIA GOOSE between MARYLAND and DELAWARE. ” This cartoon appeared shortly after the start of the Civil War, and is dealing with the issue of Virginia being split into two states.

In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast continued to evolve the image, eventually giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today.

Thomas Nast's First Image of Uncle Sam, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner"

Thomas Nast’s First Image of Uncle Sam, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner”

A more familiar image of Uncle Sam by Thomas Nast

A more familiar image of Uncle Sam by Thomas Nast

The German-born Nast was also credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as well as coming up with the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic Party and the elephant as a symbol for the Republicans. Nast also famously lampooned the corruption of New York City‘s Tammany Hall in his editorial cartoons and was, in part, responsible for the downfall of Tammany leader William Tweed.

Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey, Thomas Nast

Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey, Thomas Nast

Tweed-Ring_Tammany-Hall_Thomas-Nast

Perhaps the most famous image of Uncle Sam was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960).

James Montgomery Flagg

James Montgomery Flagg

In Flagg’s version, Uncle Sam wears a tall top hat and blue jacket and is pointing straight ahead 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.

Unclesamwantyou

The image, which became immensely popular, was first used on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”  The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.  I couldn’t find an image of that Leslie Weekly cover but I found this from the issue of the following week.

Advertisement in July 13, 1916 Leslie Weekly

Advertisement in July 13, 1916 Leslie Weekly

In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Wilson died at age 88 in 1854, and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”

Apparently there is also some controversy over whether Troy, NY and Samuel Wilson are the origin of “Uncle Sam.”  You can read about it at https://www.vocabulary.com/articles/wordroutes/two-hundred-years-of-uncle-sam/

4 responses

  1. gpcox says:

    Great research. I’ll bet half the people (at least) of the U.S. do NOT know the origin of Uncle Sam. Thanks.

  2. Sheryl says:

    I learned something new today. I have heard of Thomas Nast but never realized his role in popularizing images of Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and the democratic and republican party images.

    • I know me too. That picture of santa and others similar that I saw as I was putting the post together are so familiar to me (Christmas cards probably). I never questioned why the US was called “Uncle Sam” and it is funny how such things evolve.