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"Uncle Sam" was originally a real person, but his character was developed over a century and a half by political and commercial artists into a universal personification of the United States.
Samuel Wilson of Massachusetts (1766-1854) served as a drummer boy and then soldier in the Revolutionary War. In 1789, he moved to Troy, New York, where he built up a thriving business as a meat-packer. Because of his friendly and fair-dealing business manner, Wilson soon earned the affectionate nickname of "Uncle Sam."
In the War of 1812, Wilson provided pork and beef to the Army troops camped on the outskirts of Troy. He shipped these rations in barrels labelled "US"i.e., for the Army and not for retail sale. But the abbreviations "US" and "USA" were not yet in general use at that time. When a Federal inspection crew visited Wilson's plant on October 1, 1812, they asked a workman what "US" signified. Unsure, the worker replied with a laugh that it must mean his employer, "Uncle Sam."
Soon, soldiers and civilians alike transferred the nickname from the real Uncle Sam to the Federal Government. This made it inevitable that caricatures of Uncle Samlike those of "John Bull," already then used to personify Englandwould appear in the press. Though Sam Wilson was tall and thin, the imaginary Uncle Sam first appeared as a portly man, in a black top hat and tails. Later, he was dressed more patriotically, in the colors of the Flag. Finally, he became tall, gaunt and bearded after Thomas Nast and other 19th-century political cartoonists began to model him on Abraham Lincoln.
Throughout the 20th century, Uncle Sam has continued to embody the government and spirit of the United Statesfor critics as well as admirers. His most famous role has been in the poster (above) designed by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916-17. True to his avuncular nature, Uncle Sam remains a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous symbol of the USA.
*1898 image is from Jim Zwick, ed., Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935 . Used with permission.
**Photo courtesy of David R. Smith, from his "Uncle Sam Image Gallery", the premier website devoted to Uncle Sam.