Who is Uncle Sam?
Many people may be familiar with a poster showing an elderly gentleman usually wearing a white and blue hat with stars, possibly a blue jacket and a white shirt, along with a red bow tie. In addition, the man is pointing at the viewer of the poster saying, 'I want you for U.S. Army.' Of course, this affectionate, and often misunderstood character is referred to as Uncle Sam and is the most popular personification of the United States. When a person sees the character, they most likely think of America.
The origin of the Uncle Sam character varies depending on the source of information and who is telling the story. It has been used most often with Army recruitment posters since the early 1900s as in the example above. However, the actual figure of Uncle Sam can be traced back to the War of 1812 or even earlier.
During the War of 1812 there was a renewed interest in patriotism, which had faded out following the American Revolution. Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from New York is said to have been the origin of the original Uncle Sam character. During his work as a meat packer at a company he co-owned with his brother, they were supplying the War of 1812 soldiers with food rations. Wilson had previously fought during the American Revolution at the age of 15, so he understood patriotism and was devoted to America. Locally, the residents referred to the well-liked, fair, honest, and reliable man as 'Uncle Sam'.
The company Wilson ran with his brother were supplying meat to the troops, which was arranged through a contract with another company, Elbert Anderson, who was responsible for all food rations for the U.S. forces in New York and in New Jersey. Their contract required them to fill thousands of barrels of pork and beef for one year.
Each of the packages they provided had to be stamped with the supply company's name, and Wilson used Anderson's initials along with the abbreviation of United States, US. The bottom of each can was then stamped 'E.A. - US'. When someone in the meat packing plant asked a co-worker what the letters stood for, the co-worker joked and said the US was short for 'Uncle Sam', which referred to Sam Wilson.
Some of the soldiers the cans of meat were feeding had been from New York and were familiar with 'Uncle Sam' Wilson, and they believed the US meant the same thing. A local newspaper heard of the story and published it resulting in Uncle Sam gaining widespread acceptance as a nickname for the U.S. federal government. Of course, there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the story, but nonetheless, it is one that has been passed on for many years.
Uncle Sam was also mentioned before the War of 1812 in the popular song Yankee Doodle in 1775. However, there is little evidence that the term referred to America, a person, or to something or someone else. Another early reference appeared in 1819, but that too is uncertain and without factual evidence.
Regardless of the source, the long-used symbol for America has been the character Uncle Sam, becoming quite popular especially during war time. It has appeared quite often with the image of Abraham Lincoln replacing the familiar face of Uncle Sam in some posters and drawings.
In the late 1860s and 1870s, a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, popularized the use of the Uncle Sam image, giving the gentleman the white beard and the stars and stripes red, white, and blue suit. Nast's work also includes the creation of images and symbols for the Democratic Party (donkey) and the Republican Party (elephant, as well as creating a modern image of Santa Claus.
The most well-known image of Uncle Sam, though, has been used with military recruiting posters, and of course, it has been used by companies advertising products, as part of political cartoons, and many other places. Uncle Sam continues to be an icon and the national symbol of the United States.
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