You’ve seen him alright. A slightly funny looking man dresses in red, white and blue. He wears a stars-and-stripes suit, top hat and he looks straight at you. His name is Uncle Sam and he is a symbol of the United States government.
How did this man become a personification of the American government and how did the United States gets its nickname Uncle Sam?
The story of Uncle Sam has its start in the 1810s. There was actually a real-life Uncle Sam, but proof of his existence was unearthed only a quarter of a century ago. Had the evidence not surfaced, doubt about a real-life prototype would still exist, and the character would today be considered a myth, as he was for decades.
The name Uncle Sam is linked to a man named Samuel Wilson who was a born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on September 13, 1766.
When Sam was 14 years, he joined the army and in the American Revolution. With independence from Britain won, Sam moved in 1789 to Troy, New York, where he worked as a meat packer and supplied barrels of beef to the United States Army during the War of 1812.
Wilson stamped the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers began referring to the grub as “Uncle Sam’s.”
On October 1, 1812, Sam was visited by government inspectors who asked him what the ubiquitously stamped “U.S.” stood for. Sam was a little uncertain and joked that the letters must represent the initials of his employer, Uncle Sam.
The local newspaper picked up on the story and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. federal government.
Samuel Wilson died in 1854 and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”
Over the years, Uncle Sam was depicted in different ways by various artists. The colorful image of Uncle Sam we are familiar with today is a creation made up of several contributions by many illustrators.
The first Uncle Sam illustrations appeared in New England newspapers in 1820. At that time, the friendly figure was clean-shaven and wore a solid black top hat and black tailcoat.
In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast gave Uncle Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today.
The famous image of Uncle Sam wearing a tall top hat, blue jacket and pointing straight ahead at the viewer was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960).
During World War I, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster.
In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam. In 1989, «Uncle Sam Day» became official.
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