By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Originally published September 7, 2018
Most of us remember seeing the poster, somewhere, at some time stating that “Uncle Sam Wants You….” Did you ever wonder why it is everywhere, and why this United States mascot is called Uncle Sam?? Prepare to be informed…
During the War of 1812, Sam Wilson (Marvel’s Falcon was aptly named), a meat packer in Troy, New York delivered meat for the soldiers fighting the battles of the war. There was a directive from the government that all supplies sent to the troops be stamped with the name and location of the supplier. He stamped the barrels with a U.S. which actually stood for United States. Sam was locally called Uncle Sam; when the barrels were delivered to the troops, soldiers from Troy knew Sam Wilson and called him Uncle Sam to other soldiers. Word spread and hearing the story, more and more soldiers began saying that the meat came from “Uncle Sam.” The soldiers began calling themselves Uncle Sam’s soldiers. By the end of the War of 1812, Uncle Sam was considered a new nickname for the United States.
The United States of America had also been called Columbia, shown as a classical Greek statue of a woman, sometimes holding a flag – dos the song “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” ring any bells? The name Columbia was based on Columbus, since he discovered America (but maybe not the first discoverer any more…)
So now we know how the name Uncle Sam became associated with our armed forces. But what about the picture? We have to go back earlier than you might think. Thomas Nast was the first artist to create a picture of Uncle Sam. He’s the same artist who made Santa Claus into the character we see today. He created his image in the 1870s and 80s, and then continued to refine the image; he was the first artists to give Sam a white goatee, top hat and a suit of stars and stripes.
We’re probably all familiar with the poster Uncle Sam Wants You! Artist James Montgomery Flagg (truly, his last name is Flagg!) designed over 40 recruitment post for the United States as it entered World War I. Flagg was under a deadline; he didn’t have enough time to find a model for the poster. He looked in the mirror and used his own face for inspiration for Uncle Sam. He had a long face, with bushy white eyebrow and full beard. So he had the image he wanted for the poster. Flagg also had illustrations in “Photoplay,” “McClure’s Magazine,” “Colliers Weekly,” “Ladies Home Journal,” “Saturday Evening Post” and “Harper’s Weekly.”Now…, to find the message. He remembered seeing a poster of Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of War, asking the British to “Join Your Country’s Army – Lord Kitchener Wants YOU.” Inspiration! He created the poster with the soon to be iconic image of Uncle Sam with the caption Uncle Sam Wants You To Join the Army. It was this image more than any other that set the appearance of Uncle Sam as the elderly man with white hair and a goatee wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tail coat and red and white striped trousers, and his pointing finger. Flagg’s Uncle Sam first appearance is generally believed to be on the cover of the magazine Leslie’s Weekly, on July 6, 1916. Also on the cover was the title “What Are You Doing For Preparedness.” A poster of the image was also created, using the now famous phrase I wan You for the US Army. More than four million copies of this cover image were printed between 1917 and 1918. When Flagg was asked to update his famous image, he hired Indianan veteran Walter Botts as a model. Family lore has it that he was chosen because he had long arms, a long nose and extremely bushy eyebrows.
In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized that Sam Wilson “Uncle Sam” as the progenitor of America’s national symbol. Wilson died in 1854, and is buried in Troy, New York, which rightly calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”