Uncle Sam. You’ve seen the image…White-haired man in a star-studded top hat and blue coat, stern eyes staring at you below shaggy eyebrows, pointing his finger, and the words “I Want You for the U.S. Army” in bold type below. This indelible image of Uncle Sam embodies the pride, strength and patriotism of the United States, showing the well-known symbol representing the United States government.
But, why do we call him Uncle Sam, and how did this particular character and nickname become synonymous with the United States government?
The official story, sanctioned by a resolution from Congress in 1961, is that during 1813, a well-loved and respected businessman named Samuel Wilson, affectionately called Uncle Sam by the locals, got a meat-packing contract with the US government. He packed meat in barrels, stamped the barrels with the letters “EA – US” and delivered them to United States soldiers.
It was customary back then for goods to be marked with the initials of their makers and packers. So, when people saw the letters US stamped on Sam’s barrels, they assumed it was an abbreviation for Uncle Sam, even though it really stood for United States. The connection between Uncle Sam and the United States government was born. Local papers wrote stories about it, and the idea took off.
In 1816 a book titled “The Adventures of Uncle Sam, in Search After His Last Honor” was written by Frederick Fidfaddy.
Uncle Sam was mentioned in the original lyrics to the song, Yankee Doodle Dandy.
During the late 19th century, Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist, used Uncle Sam in a variety of political cartoons.
President George W. H Bush proclaimed September 13, 1989 “Uncle Sam Day” in honor of both Sam WIlson’s birthday and the bicentennial celebration of Troy, NY, where Sam spent most of his life working.
Senator Pete Sessions of Texas even gave an impassioned speech in Congress about the virtues of Uncle Sam as recently as September of 2015.
Without a doubt, the most popular and recognizable image of Uncle Sam, came around in 1916, when James Montgomery Flagg drew that famous recruiting poster for the U.S. Army. His image was used to recruit soldiers during World War I and World War II, as well as to call on the American public to support the war. Since then, the Uncle Sam name and image have been used to advertise everything from cereal to cash registers. Today, Flagg’s original drawing is stored in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
But, wait! That may be the “official” story of the origin of Uncle Sam, but Ben Zimmer over at Vocabulary.com reveals that the term Uncle Sam was used on at least two occasions long before Sam Wilson got that meat packing contract with the government during the War of 1812. The term Uncle Sam was referenced in a Vermont Newspaper in December of 1812, as well as in a March 24, 1810 journal entry of a young Navy midshipman, Isaac Mayo. Other evidence that the “official” Uncle Sam story might not be so true can be found on Barry Popkik’s Big Apple site.
So, there you have it. The official story and the detractors. Whatever its origin, Uncle Sam remains steadfastly synonymous with the U. S. government – proud, strong and patriotic.