Who Was Uncle Sam?

Posted by Kelli McKinney

As far as national symbolism goes, I have to confess at the risk of sounding unpatriotic: Uncle Sam was always been somewhat of a puzzler for me. So I did a little research on the Interwebs to inquire after the history of our Uncle Sam. Who is this tall man sporting a greying goatee, white top hat, and a penchant for pointing emphatically?

Some of you probably know the history and evolution of Mr. Sam Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, NY.  Sam worked for Elbert Anderson, a contractor who supplied rations for U.S. soldiers during the War of 1812.

These meat rations were packed into wooden barrels and stamped with the initials E.A.-U.S., referring to the contracting company name and the rations’ place of origin – United States. When a bystander asked what the initials stood for, a meat worker jokingly said “Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam,” referring to the man who packed the rations rather than the country who paid for them. The worker, like most Troy residents, associated “Uncle” Sam Wilson with the power to feed the army. The joke stuck around, apparently.

The War of 1812, among many other things, re-ignited a fading American interest in a national identity. Uncle Sam’s development as a widespread representative of the U.S. was welcome, since most icons up until that time, Columbia or Brother Jonathan, had carried only regional appeal.

The imagery of Uncle Sam varied and evolved over time, but has its origins in caricatures drawn of Jonathan Turnbull, a former Governor of Connecticut and frequent confidant and advisor to George Washington.

The symbol of our ever-changing nation has been through as many transitions as the country it represents. What we think of today as the “standard” Uncle Sam image was created by James Montgomery Flagg on the cover of the magazine “Leslie’s Weekly” on July 6, 1916. The caption, “What  Are You Doing for Preparedness?” paired with the white-haired, goatee-sporting man in a blue-banded white top hat and red and white striped pants became synonymous with America and its ideals.

It’s hard to really quantify the impact that the WWII Uncle Sam recruitment poster has had on our collective psyche, but I think it’s probably pretty substantial. Uncle Sam as a character may very well have been the advertising industry’s first attempt at personalization: The old man in his stars and stripes, glaring intensely at the viewer and pointing seems to call each of us on the carpet, letting us know at once that our effort — or lack therof — made a difference.

Since he was first drawn, he’s been parodied as often as he’s been paraded at 4th of July picnics, used as a stand-in for “big brother” in political cartoons as often as he’s represented some of our deepest sorrows.

Although Uncle Sam, and our perception of him, has changed over time, he remains a powerful symbol of patriotism, government, and  idealism. After looking through collection after collection of Uncle Sam images and stories, I think he stands for an ideal that is as important today as it was during Sam Wilson’s time 200 years ago: One person can make a difference. He might look like an aging rock star, but Uncle Sam Wants You. He believes in you, and he wants you to participate. To care and to stand up for what is right, very possibly now more than ever.

 

What did you think of Uncle Sam when you were growing up? Did his image influence you to join the military or affect your perception of military service? Tell us below!

 

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