“Uncle Sam” is commonly used as a symbol of the United States, but where does the name come from?
The name, which happens to have the same initials as the country, has been around since the War of 1812 (which actually lasted from 1812 to 1815) between the U.S.A. and the U.K. The officially sanctioned story is that Samuel Wilson from Troy, New York, supplied barrels of preserved beef to the army and stamped them with U.S., standing for United States. Wilson’s nickname was Uncle Sam and the two became associated. By 1813 the name was being used in newspaper articles to designate the country or its army.
Later in the century, cartoonists used the figure as shorthand in their cartoons. Thomas Nast in particular often depicted Uncle Sam and gradually fixed the image of him as tall and thin with white hair and whiskers and red-white-and-blue clothes. (Nast had form with white hair and whiskers, he is also credited with coming up with the classic image of Santa Claus).
Uncle Sam wasn’t the first character used to represent the young nation. The goddess Columbia was a common figure. Yankee Doodle was a figure used by the British to personify the U.S., and “Brother Jonathan” appeared in folk tales as personification of a wiley rural American.
The image most people have today of Uncle Sam is that created by James Montgomery Flagg for a World War I recruitment poster. Modelled on a British poster where Lord Kitchener was depicted with the slogan, “Your Country Needs You”, Flagg’s version featured Uncle Sam pointing out of the frame and the slogan, “I Want You for the U.S. Army”.
Uncle Sam has become so associated with the United States that Congress passed a resolution in 1961 recognising Samuel Wilson as the namesake of the national symbol, and another in 1989 establishing 13 September, Wilson’s birthday, as “Uncle Sam Day”. The 1989 resolution begins:
Whereas Samuel Wilson of the City of Troy, New York, is accepted as the progenitor of our national symbol Uncle Sam;
Whereas Uncle Sam, the embodiment of Samuel Wilson, represents the enterprising, idealistic and strong spirit that is the backbone of our nation…
Library of Congress