Uncle Sam is one of America’s most familiar icons, but most Americans have little to no idea of his origins. If asked most Americans will probably point to the early 20th century Army recruiting poster, which was actually borrowed from Britain. The final version of Uncle Sam that we are most familiar with today, came about in 1917. The famous “I Want You” recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg set the image of Uncle Sam firmly into American consciousness.
The reality is, that Uncle Sam dates back much further, with beginnings during the colonial period of the United States.
The actual figure of Uncle Sam, dates from the War of 1812 where the setting was ripe for a national icon. Before the War of 1812 most icons had been geographically specific with most centered on the New England area. The War of 1812 sparked a renewed interest in national identity which had faded in the years following the revolutionary war.
Like many mythological and symbolic figures, Uncle Sam has origins in actual fact and, in this case, an actual man. Born in Massachusetts, Samuel Wilson settled in the town of Troy, New York. Known locally as “Uncle” Sam, he would be the impetus for a regional saying which would eventually become a national icon.
Sam Wilson moved to Troy New York with his brother, Ebenezer, in the late 1700’s where they established a meat packing business. E. & S. Wilson acquired contracts for the U.S. Army as meat suppliers in 1812. The contract stated that all supplies be stamped with the manufacturers name and point of origin. Troy residents associated the “U.S.” on the sides of the barrels of troop rations with “Uncle Sam” — who they all knew was feeding the army.
The connection between this local saying and the national legend is not easily traced. As early as 1830, there were inquiries into the origin of the term “Uncle Sam,” which first appeared in print in 1813. The connection between the popular cartoon figure and Samuel Wilson of Troy, NY was reported in the New York Gazette on May 12, 1830, and later confirmed by Samuel Wilson’s great- and great-great-nephews.
By the early twentieth century, there was little physical resemblance left between Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam. As a symbol of an ever-changing nation, Uncle Sam had gone through many incarnations. Initially cartoon versions of Sam were very familiar to those of Brother Jonathan. The Civil War saw a major transition in the development of Uncle Sam as his image was associated with that of Abraham Lincoln. It was during this period that Sam aged and acquired a beard.
Although there continue to be numerous variations on the image of Uncle Sam, the Flagg version from 1917 is now considered to be the go to standard from which all others deviate.