Americans Can Thank Canada for the Icon of Uncle Sam

The birthday of the Uncle Sam meme is September 7, 1813, 205 years ago. It was the second calendar year of the War of 1812, the war between the U.S. and the British imperialists in Canada.

Sam, as few Americans know, was not only a poster icon for World War One. He was a real dude, Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, New York. He lived and died in the 19th century.

It was soldiers who first turned the man into a legend, but political cartoonists since that time have cemented the meme into the national iconography.

Uncle Sam shares the same iconographic space occupied by the donkeys and elephants designated to the political parties of the States. He might not be as popular, but Uncle Sam could definitely take Mickey Mouse in a fight.

One can trace his fame to three people in history.

Samuel Wilson

The most critical contributor to the Uncle Sam legend is the man himself, Sam Wilson. The original Samuel Wilson served in the U.S. revolution at age 15. After the war, Sam and his brother started their own meat packing business in Troy, New York.

When the War of 1812 broke out, the Wilsons’ meat packing business served the U.S. Army, packaging meat for the soldiers.

Sam’s official job responsibility was to stamp the meat with the letter “U.S.,” indicating that it was U.S. meat. The soldiers who knew Wilson took the stamp to mean something else, Uncle Sam, a name they ascribed to the meat from the Troy plant.

Had the nickname stayed there, nobody would have cared, but a local paper picked up on the story on September 7, 1813, blowing the first air into the legend. Folks started referring to the United States as Uncle Sam.

Thomas Nast

Had it not been for Thomas Nast in the 1860s, the term Uncle Sam may have faded in time, as popular phrases often do. Nobody says “rad” anymore, not seriously.

Nast gave the name an image, not Wilson’s, but that of a white-bearded white man, wearing a suit of stars and stripes. The image stuck in the hearts of Americans, probably because of Nast’s reputation.

Nast is the same cartoonist who created the donkey to represent the Democrats, and the elephant to capture the Republicans. He must have liked white beards because Nast also recreated the modern image of Santa Claus.

James Montgomery Flagg

Nast created such a lasting impression of Uncle Sam, that when the Great War unfolded, Sam rode again. In 1917, the United States entered the War to make the world safe for democracy.

That was all well and good, but the people needed a mascot. James Montgomery Flagg, an artist, and illustrator who’d worked for Life Magazine (starting at age 14!) came up with the winning poster.

Using the template for Uncle Sam created by Nast, and borrowing from the British recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener, Flagg used his own face to make the “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army” poster.

The Army adopted his design for a massive recruitment campaign. The magazine, Leslie’s Weekly used it for a cover, and since then countless movies, books, posters, and other media have alluded to Flagg’s poster.

Sam Wilson, the man, lived until 1854. He was 88 when he passed.

Almost 100 years later, in 1961, Congress would honor the deceased veteran, bestowing upon him the title of “progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Not bad for meat packer.