Happy Fourth of July, internet! Throughout your celebration of our country today, you will see various caricatures of Americana, with the most prominent being Uncle Sam. While the United States has official Founding Fathers, that were real human beings, it is pretty fascinating that we have an "Uncle" as our own mascot.
During the War of 1812, various businesses around our young country supplied the military with everything from ammunition to blankets to food. One of these suppliers was Samuel Wilson from Troy, New York. His company provided barrels of beef to various Army units, with each barrel marked and stamp with the letters "U.S." to represent the United States. Lore tells us that Sam Wilson was well liked in his small community, to the point where locals would refer to him as their "Uncle Sam". With the iconic U.S. branding, United States and Sam Wilson soon became merged and soldiers created this character that provided everything that they needed: Uncle Sam. Anytime the U.S. logo was seen on a box of supplies or a sack of provisions, soldiers had a sense of familiarity and trustworthiness that their Uncle Sam was taking care of them.
Uncle Sam became a reference to anything governmental or American by the population. While referenced in writing or banter, it wasn't until a mid-19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast came along, did we have the now known popular image of Uncle Sam. This dapper, lanky gent in top hat and striped pants appeared in dailies and magazines all over the country. His version of Uncle Sam would come to represent a positive aspect and myth that Americans had in their government. Nast also produced other characters and images, including our modern take on Santa Claus, as well as the donkey and elephant for the Democratic and Republican party, respectively. Nast's Uncle Sam, like many of his creations, became embedded in our culture to the point where we forget how they were even created.
In World War I, an artist by the name of James Montgomery Flagg created posters and propaganda for the war effort. In the mix was the reemergence of the image of Uncle Sam, now characterized as a blue suited, top-hat wearing older gentleman that was pointing straight to the viewer and telling them that they were wanted for the U.S. Army. The sense of trustworthiness was now reversed, with this icon now entrusting young Americans to take up the cause and join the fight.
Since the Great War, our Uncle Sam has become a fixture in our American pop culture, historical awareness, and even commercialization. Uncle Sam's image has been co-opted and rebranded many times over to represent our United States. So, remember this Fourth of July week that when you see Uncle Sam out and about that it harkens back to a simple food supplier from upstate New York that provided much needed nourishment of our soldiers.
Written by Brian Wilson, Creative Technology Manager, Combined Arms.