Although Uncle Sam is one of our most familiar icons, many Americans have little or no concept of his origins. If pressed, the average American might point to the early twentieth century and Sam’s frequent appearance on army recruitment posters. In reality, however, the figure of Uncle Sam dates back much further.
Uncle Sam is the culmination of a tradition of representative male icons in America which can be traced well back into colonial times. The actual figure of Uncle Sam, however, dates from the War of 1812. The setting was ripe for a figure such as Sam at that point. Previous icons had been geographically specific, centering most often on the New England area. The War of 1812 sparked a renewed interest in national identity which had faded since 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.
Uncle Sam Wilson moved to Troy with his brother, Ebenezer, with whom he later began the firm of E. & S. Wilson. It was through this firm, and the war contracts they acquired in 1812, that Sam gained his notoriety. One such contract was for the supply of meats to the Army. 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.
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.
Although there continue to be numerous variations on the image of Uncle Sam, the Flagg version can be considered the standard from which others deviate.