Uncle Sam's most famous picture. Artist: James Montgomery Flagg.


Original Medium: Folklore
Produced by: inapplicable
First Appeared: early 19th century
Creator: inapplicable
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Legend has it that the original model for Uncle Sam, the cartoon character who has symbolized the United States of America for …

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… well over a century, was Sam Wilson (1766-1854), a meat packer in Troy, New York. While there is very little documentary evidence to support this theory, there's even less to refute it. So, let's assume it's true.

Wilson supplied provisions to American troops during the War of 1812, as the story goes, and when shipping it, indicated the recipient by stamping "U.S." on the boxes. Someone on the receiving end naively asked what that stood for, and was told it meant the boxes had come from "Uncle Sam" Wilson. From there, the character spread. Tho the process took decades, Sam eventually won out over Brother Jonathan (a typical farmer), Yankee Doodle (who wore red, white and blue like Sam, and definitely no relation) and Columbia (aka Liberty, a woman in flowing robes), to become the fictional individual who symbolizes the country.

What Sam Wilson definitely did not contribute was Sam's appearance. That aspect of the persona developed over time. Cartoonists were using him as early as 1832, but not always in a form we'd recognize today. The basic appearance may have been popularized by Dan Rice (1823-1900), a popular circus performer, who apparently wore an Uncle Sam get-up as part of a clown act, possibly beginning in 1844 — but it's hard to be sure of anything Rice claimed, because he didn't always tell the truth. It was some time during this period that Sam was more-or-less standardized, wearing a stars-and-stripes tuxedo with tails, a matching top hat and a white goatee.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) gets a lot of credit for Sam's development. But while Nast was important in standardizing the modern appearance of Santa Claus, and in giving the Republicans and Democrats their elephant and donkey, respectively, it isn't clear that he played a similar role with Uncle Sam. The character was already close to his modern form when Nast began to draw him. What Nast probably did contribute was Sam's lean build, based on that of Abraham Lincoln.

Sam's appearance was finalized once and for all by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). It was Flagg's famous U.S. Army recruiting poster, used in World War I and revived for World War II, that did it. That's the one where stern-faced Sam points his finger directly at the viewer and declares, "I Want YOU". That wasn't the original caption, however. When it first appeared, on the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Leslie's Weekly (well before the U.S. entered the war), Sam was asking, "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" With its more familiar wording, it appeared on an estimated four million posters, which made it, at the time, the most widely circulated poster in history.

By the way, the model for Sam's face in that painting was Flagg's own.

During the 20th century, the Wilson/Rice/Nast/Flagg version of Uncle Sam was seen in newspaper political cartoons the world over. He's appeared in animated cartoons, magazine and book illustrations, movies and TV shows, and many other media. He was even made into an ongoing comic book character, a two-fisted superhero.

And for the 21st, it looks like more of the same.


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Text ©2003-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Uncle Sam is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.