How Did Uncle Sam Become an American Symbol?

Look back on just about any kind of wartime propaganda, and you will see an American gentleman in a blue coat and white hat with a blue stripe on it emblazoned with stars. This guy is Uncle Sam, and for many, he is the caricature of American patriotism. For others, he is a symbol of everything America stands for. How did this individual become such a face of the country, though? 

Photo: Library of Congress/Unsplash

Who is Uncle Sam?

One of the oddities of the Uncle Sam posters is that he is never directly called Sam. Interestingly, many assume that he would have been some form of military or political high-ranker: he was nothing of the sort. He was a meatpacker!

Part of this is the appeal, though; the average American is asking you to stand up and defend them. It is easier to imagine yourself on the frontlines fighting for your friends and family as opposed to a government or military name.

Uncle Sam – or Sam Wilson

Samuel Wilson is from New York, and he is the basis for this particular kind of political propaganda. He was hired to supply barrels of beef to soldiers in 1810. The barrels were stamped with the letters US – for the United States, of course – but some soldiers took to referring to them as Uncle Sam’s. 

Photo: Robert Linder/Unsplash

The story got to the media and before long the iconic character was created. Uncle Sam became a nickname for the US Government, and this was first brought to the media attention in September 1813. By the mid-1850s, now, the Uncle Sam poster was a common element of propaganda.

During the First World War, the Uncle Sam image was updated to make him look a bit more stern. He was given the red and blue suit and the star-spangled hat. He also took to pointing as he does in all of the most commonly seen media. The first print for an army poster took place in 1916, and this became a vital part of American recruitment propaganda.

So, Uncle Sam was not a military leader or a political expert – he was an ordinary man transformed into the face of a nation. At least now when you next see one of these posters you will have some understanding of who Uncle Sam actually is!