The image of Uncle Sam as a symbol of America was first used on September 3rd 1813.
Samuel Wilson, a New York meatpacker, provided food to U.S. forces during the War of 1812. His shipments were stamped with “U.S.” which was shorthand for United States. Soldiers, it is believed, joked that this abbreviaton stood for “Uncle Sam”.
The earliest personification of the United States, however, was a woman. Her name was Columbia, and she was used as this symbol prior to the Revolutionary War. Columbia segued into the film industry and in the 1920’s she became the mascot of Columbia Pictures.
Modern historians question the link between New York City’s meatpacker and our national icon. Historian Donald R. Hickey uncovered a reference to Uncle Sam in a U.S. Navy midshipman’s diary in 1810. Uncle Sam is also mentioned in the original lyrics of “Yankee Doodle” from 1775.
While the link is uncertain, the character is not. The first drawings of Uncle Sam were by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly – whiskered face, top hat, red-and-white striped pants. Coincidentally, Nast also created the modern image of Santa Claus and the elephant as the symbol for the Republican party.
Modern day Uncle Sam evolved through the contributions of other cartoonists such as Sir John Teniel and John Leach of Great Britain and Joseph Keppler of the U.S.
In 1916, artist James Montgomery Flagg designed a series of recruiting posters for the Division of Armed Forces. Some say Flagg superimposed his own face on the national symbol. Other accounts cite a recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of War, as the image source.
Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Wilson as the “progenitor of American’s national symbol of ‘Uncle Sam ’” in 1961. Twenty eight years later, “Uncle Sam Day” became an official holiday. A Congressional Joint Resolution designated September 13th, the birthday of Samuel Wilson, as the date of that holiday.
There are two memorials to Uncle Sam, both of which commemorate the life of Samuel Wilson: the Uncle Sam Memorial Statue in Arlington, Massachusetts, his birthplace, and a memorial near his long-term residence in Riverfront Park – Troy, New York.
Samuel Wilson died on July 31, 1854, aged 87, and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York. The town calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam”.