History of Uncle Sam

Who the real Uncle Sam was and why he has a national holiday


Do you recall seeing those words? Perhaps in an advertisement or in a movie? It isn’t an unknown phrase for most Americans, and the famous Uncle Sam graphic, complete with the pointing finger and hard stare, is a picture that doesn’t fade easily. 

September 13th is National Uncle Sam Day in the United States, but very few know the story behind the symbol which dates back to the War of 1812 against Great Britain. 

After gaining its independence, the United States found itself facing the very nation it had previously broken free from only three decades prior. The whole country pitched in for the war effort including Sam Wilson of Troy, New York.

Wilson was born on September 13, 1766. A meat packer in his hometown, he began to supply the U.S. Army with beef during the war. The barrels he used for shipping were stamped with “U.S.” for the “United States,” and these initials quickly gained popularity among the soldiers. The meat was referred to as “Uncle Sam’s.” It didn’t take long for a local newspaper to get wind of the excitement and publish an article in regards to Wilson and the labeled beef barrels. The idea spread. Citizens and soldiers alike were now calling their country “Uncle Sam”.

The nickname stuck and Uncle Sam became a term of endearment for the country, even beyond the War of 1812.

By the 1860s and 70s, a political cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nash took it upon himself to use the nickname to create a personification of the image. He is credited with the original version of our modern Uncle Sam, with a white beard and stars and stripes. Fun fact: Nash is also credited with the creation of the modern Santa Claus image that we still know today.

However, it was in World War One that Uncle Sam put on his top hat and pointed his finger with the words “I Want You for the U.S. Army”. Artist James Montgomery Flagg created the first Uncle Sam posters used for military recruitment, originally appearing in a 1916 issue of the newspaper “Leslie’s Weekly.”

Throughout the 1900s and the wars that our country saw during that century, Uncle Sam became associated with volunteering for military service. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named Sam Wilson’s birthday, September 13th, as National Uncle Sam Day. 

It was the same year that Wilson’s hometown of Troy, New York, celebrated its 200th birthday. 

Today, Uncle Sam is a symbol of patriotism and American pride. Tall red, white, and blue striped hats and white beards are often worn to show support and love of the U.S. Uncle Sam ranks among symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle, and the Liberty Bell. And it all started with one simple meat packer over two hundred years ago. 

Author’s Note: All research in this article is credited to History.com, National Day Calendar, and National Today webpage.

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