Sunday, October 4, 2009

Uncle Sam

So, we're all very familiar with the nostalgic imagery of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, "I want you for the U.S. Army" and because of our class discussions regarding the differences in posters between the Central Powers and the Allied Powers, I was curious about the story of how Uncle Sam really came to be. The poster was designed by James Montgomery-Flagg in 1916. It made its first appearance in Leslie's Weekly and was printed throughout 1917 and 1918.

Uncle Sam is one of the most popular personifications of the United States. However, the term "Uncle Sam" is of somewhat obscure derivation. Historical sources attribute the name to a meat packer who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812--Samuel (Uncle Sam) Wilson (1766-1854). "Uncle Sam" Wilson was a man of great fairness, reliability, and honesty, who was devoted to his country--qualities now associated with "our" Uncle Sam. James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) (American Treasures of the Library of Congress).

The poster was designed for use during World War I, but was later employed again during WWII by FD Roosevelt. Another source discusses Uncle Sam: Uncle Sam is the cartoon embodiment of the government of the United States of America, a character who appeared in newspapers and magazines beginning in the first part of the 19th century. The commonly accepted version of his origin, or at least the best explanation anyone's been able to supply, is that he was modelled after Samuel Wilson, a meat purveyor to the United States army during the War of 1812. Known as "Uncle Sam," Wilson put his initials on his goods. The initials U.S. were also taken to stand for United States. Over the years Uncle Sam evolved into a tall, white-haired man with beard, sporting patriotic colors and a top hat. The most common modern image can be traced to his depiction by James Montgomery Flagg from 1916, for a military recruitment poster calling "I Want YOU For the U.S. Army." (

Both sources describe the story similarly. It's pretty interesting how a fictitious character has been a successful heroic image for all this time.

Alex Riggio

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