Uncle Sam

The most famous image of Uncle Sam is from James Montgomery Flagg’s WWI recruiting poster. But Sam was not the creation of Flagg. Uncle Sam predates Flagg’s poster by over a century and is the product of a different war.

The earliest surviving use of the term is from the Troy, NY Troy Post of 3 September 1813:

“Loss upon loss,” and “no luck stiring but what lights upon Uncle Sam’s shoulders,” exclaim the Government editors, in every part of the Country....This cant name for our government has got almost as current as “John Bull.” The letters U.S. on the government wagons &c are supposed to have given rise to it.

But legend has it that the name derives from a real man, and the origin is much akin to that of Kilroy. Samuel Wilson, so goes the legend, was a meat inspector in the service of the federal government whose task it was to approve the quality of meat bought by the army. Workers handling barrels of meat stenciled with “US” questioned what the cryptic phrase went. The joke went up that it stood for Uncle Sam Wilson. From John Frost’s 1843 Book of the Navy:

Immediately after the last declaration of war with England, Elbert Anderson of New York, then a contractor, visited Troy, on the Hudson; where was concentrated, and where he purchased, a large quantity of provisions, beef, pork, &c. The inspectors of these articles at that place were Messrs. Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson. The latter gentleman (invariably known as ”Uncle Sam”) generally superintended in person a large number of workmen, who, on this occasion, were employed in overhauling the provisions purchased by the contractor for the army. The casks were marked “E.A.—U.S.” This work fell to the lot of a facetious fellow in the employ of the Messrs. Wilson, who on being asked by some of his fellow-workmen the meaning of mark (for the letters U.S. for United States were then almost entirely new to them), said “he did not know, unless it meant Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam”—alluding exclusively, then, to the said ”Uncle SamWilson.

The story is tempting. The dates and the place, Troy, NY, are right. But unfortunately the story doesn’t appear until a generation after the alleged incident. It’s unlikely that this Sam Wilson was the inspiration, or at least the sole inspiration, for Uncle Sam.

The exact origin is lost in history, but it undoubtedly arose as a joke on the paternal nature of the government.

(Sources: Mathews’s Dictionary of Americanisms; Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms.)

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