Happy Birthday Uncle Sam

Drawing by James Montgomery Flagg of Uncle Sam. Flagg called the recruiting poster that uses this image “The most famous poster in the world.”National Museum of American History

March 13 is the birthday of everyone’s favorite uncle, Uncle Sam. This moniker had been used to refer to the USA since around 1810, but it wasn’t until 1852 that he was given a human form when Frank Henry Bellew first depicted him in a cartoon in the New York Lantern.

Columbia, 1850–1880 — National Museum of American History

Of course, it’s not unusual to use some sort of human figure to represent a place. Originally, the United States was frequently represented by a female figure named Columbia. The origin of Uncle Sam most probably came from a Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, who supplied meat in barrels to soldiers during the War of 1812. His community standing was so high people took to calling him Uncle Sam. When Wilson marked his barrels “U.S.” for United States, some assumed the initials stood for “Uncle Sam.” Eventually the two ideas merged and Uncle Sam became a symbol for the United States. (True or not, this story is now official as decreed by Congress in 1961.)

Frank Henry Bellew 
ca. 1859

Since then, that depiction has become ubiquitous; the website Getty Images claims 3450 photos. Ironically, I haven’t been able to locate a picture of that original cartoon, although here is a photo of Bellew, courtesy of Wikipedia.

For more information, see “Uncle Sam: The Man and the Meme” by Natalie Elder at https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2013/09/uncle-sam-the-man-and-the-meme-the-origins-of-uncle-sam.html?.

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