The Secret Origin of Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam

The Secret Origin of Uncle Sam

During the War of 1812 a New York meat packer named Samuel Wilson provided barrels of beef to the army. Stamped on the barrels were the initials U.S.  Soldiers, being soldiers, started calling the food “Uncle Sam’s”. A newspaper picked up on the phrase and eventually it became widely accepted to refer to the Federal Government as Uncle Sam.

The actual image of Uncle Sam evolved in the 1860’s to 70’s when famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast began featuring the character in his cartoons. He would eventually grant the character the long white beard and striped pants that became part of the icon. (Nast also was responsible for the modern depiction of Santa Claus and for deciding that the donkey would symbolize Democrats.)


During the WWI era artist James Montgomery Flagg updated the symbol with a top hat and blue coat. In his famous rendition the character pointed directly at the viewer. This image would become famous as the recruiting poster telling the viewer, “I Want You For The U.S. Army”.

In 1961 the US Congress officially recognized Samuel Wilson as the creator of the symbol. In 1989 President Bush even declared the September 5th would be Uncle Sam Day as already celebrated in Wilson’s hometown of Troy, New York.

Interestingly enough the original “personification” of America was the figure Columbia, a woman most often portrayed with arms held wide open.  The name most like was a play on Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Though eventually she would give way to Lady Liberty (before the statue) and Uncle Sam, Columbia is still around us today. Columbia University in New York, the capital of South Carolina is Columbia and even in Washington DC (District of Columbia).  Eventually Uncle Sam would surpass poor Columbia and become the personification of the country all across the globe.

Thanks to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Orlando for the picture and articles inspiration.