Monday, March 13, 2017

Uncle Sam Takes a Bow

By the Civil War, Uncle Sam was already an established national symbol.  But maybe not so national.  He was always a Yankee, as in this depiction of a knock down, drag out battle with his Southern spouce.

On March 13, 1852 the first cartoon featuring a figure identified as Uncle Sam appeared in the New York Lantern, a weekly paper.  But Uncle Sam as a personification of the United States dates back to the War of 1812 when a sharp tongued but shrewd Yankee farmer was used to disparage Mr. Madison’s War.  This first reached the printed page in the 1816 book The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search of his Lost Honor by one Fredrick Augustus Fidfaddy, an obvious nom de plume. 

Was Troy, New York Army purchasing agent Samuel Wilson really Uncle Sam?  I wouldn't bet on it.

Some trace the name to a Troy, New York man, Samuel Wilson, known locally as Uncle Sam, who inspected provisions purchased for the Army.  He affixed a stamp with the initials U.S. to the goods.  Although monuments have been erected celebrating Sam Wilson as Uncle Sam, most scholars now scoff at the idea. 
More likely Uncle Sam is simply derived from the initials U.S. on military buttons and branded on Army mules and horses.  

Uncle Sam supplanted and earlier figure, another Yankee named Brother Jonathan who appeared in the humor magazine Puck.  Sam seems to have appropriated Jonathan's wardrobe.

By the time of the Civil War, Uncle Sam had displaced Puck magazine Brother Jonathan—another Yankee--and was rivaling the allegorical female figure of Columbia as a national personification.  Cartoonists in popular pulp magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated were showing him complete with white chin whiskers, striped pants, and an old fashion cut-away coat.  

The most famous Uncle Sam of all was created by illustrator James Montgory Flagg and used on this famous Army recruiting poster which adapted Lord Kitchner's pose in an equally famous World War I British poster.
The most famous version of Uncle Sam is the one created by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916 featuring a grim Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer.  The original version was featured on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly with the phrase “What are you doing for Preparedness.”  It was soon made into an Army recruiting poster with the bold words, “I Want You for the U.S. Army.”  The pose and slogan were actually adapted from a hugely popular British recruiting poster featuring the image of Lord Kitchener. The poster was re-issued during World War II and versions of it can still be found in most recruiting stations.  The iconic image has been parodied many times.
Sam worked his way into popular culture in many ways.  As accurately portrayed in the classic MGM musical bio Yankee Doodle Dandy,  George M. Cohan’s father portrayed Uncle Sam in the Four Cohans vaudeville act and George employed him in his patriotic musical extravaganzas.  The Uncle Sam stilt walker became a staple of circuses and Fourth of July parades.  He has been employed in countless animated cartoons and is a staple of advertising.

Uncle Sam has been appropriated by both political parties and by the Left and the Right, but as a nationalist symbol he has often been adopted by racists, xenophobes, and and anti-immigration zealots. 

In the 1960’s and’70’s Lar “America First” Daly was a perennial candidate for Mayor of Chicago, Governor of Illinois, and President of the United States always campaigning in an Uncle Sam hat and suit.  Uncle Sam hats are became a regular motif at Tea Party events and Republican campaign rallies.  But don’t blame Sam, it’s not his fault.



  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hello. I have an issue of Diogenes Hys Lantern the weekly magazine dated January 31, 1852 (volume 1, Number 4). On page 33, in the lower right hand corner, there is a cartoon called Cure for Impertinence, showing Uncle Sam kicking another man down some stairs. This seems to be two months prior to the Bellew cartoon in the Lantern that everyone says is the first instance of Uncle Sam in a cartoon. Further it is not signed by Bellew but rather has a monogram that looks like “SL del”. There is also what appears to be a doorbell on the door frame labeled “Uncle Sam”. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thanks, Doug

    1. Interesting. I have never seen a copy of the cartoon you mention but would like to. Is there anyway you could scan it as a pdf or even better a jpeg and e-mail it to me at I could use it when I revisit the Uncle Sam blog in the future, with full credit to you for the discovery. Thanks!