The Origins of Uncle Sam

Posted on June 14, 2010

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Uncle Sam is perhaps the most famous personification of America and its culture. But, is Uncle Sam a completely fictional character or partially historical caricature?

Samuel Wilson: The Original Uncle Sam

From the very beginning “Uncle Sam” was used as a direct reference to the United States government. During the outbreak of the War of 1812, in the city of Troy, New York, a government contractor, named Elbert Anderson, began purchasing large quantities of pork and beef for the U.S. Army. To be sure of the quality of the meat, a full inspection was conducted by the owner of the meat packer plant. The plant owner’s name? Samuel Wilson. You can probably guess where this is going. Every barrel going to the army was designated by two stamps, “E.A.” for Elbert Anderson and “U.S.” for the United States. That is, unless you ask one of the workmen. Unsure what “U.S.” could stand for, they believed it to be a reference for their boss who affectionately called Uncle Sam. The fusion of the United States government and the name Uncle Sam was sealed.

As for the imagery of Uncle Sam, the story is a little less arbitrary. As early as 1869, the classic figure of Uncle Sam was defined by Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who gave us the Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey. The detailed portrait of an aged gentleman with slender features, white hair, and the trademark goatee came from, quite literally, cartoonist James Montgomery Flagg. To save from the hastle of finding an appropriate model, Flagg made aged selfportrait and added the goatee and top hat. The resemblence can easily be seen in one of the most famous images in American history.

 

  • Here and here are more illustrations and further details in Uncle Sam’s story.
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