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Uncle Sam is the national personification of the United States and sometimes more specifically of the American government, with the first usage of the term dating from the War of 1812. He is depicted as a serious elderly white man with white hair and a goatee beard, and dressed in clothing that recalls the design elements of flag of the United States—for example, typically a top hat with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue band, and red and white striped trousers. The first use of the term in literature is seen in an 1816 allegorical book, The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy, Esq.
Earlier representative figures of the United States included such beings as "Brother Jonathan," used by Punch magazine. These were overtaken by Uncle Sam somewhere around the time of the Civil War. The female personification "Columbia" has seldom been seen since the 1920s.The well-known "recruitment" image of Uncle Sam was created by James Montgomery Flag, an illustrator and portrait artist best known for commercial art. The image of Uncle Sam was shown publicly for the first time, according to some, in a picture by Flag on the cover of the magazine Leslie's Weekly, on July 6, 1916, with the caption "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" More than four million copies of this image were printed between 1917 and 1918. The image also was used extensively during World War II.
The American icon Uncle Sam was in fact based on a real man.
A businessman from Troy, New York, Samuel Wilson, provided the army with beef and pork in barrels during the War of 1812. The barrels were prominently labeled "U.S." for the United States, but it was jokingly said that the letters stood for "Uncle Sam." Soon, Uncle Sam was used as shorthand for the federal government.
The man himself looked nothing like the gaunt, steely-eyed patrician of popular lore. Uncle Sam was first portrayed in human form by cartoonist Frank Bellew in the March 13, 1852, issue of the New York Lantern. The Abe Lincoln look, along with the star-spangled outfit, was a product of political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was one of the most popular artists of the 1800s. (Nast was also responsible for the popular images of Santa Claus, the Republican Elephant, and the Democratic Donkey).
Uncle Sam became a useful icon in cartoons, much like the John Bull character who represented the United Kingdom. John Bull and Uncle Sam have squared off in hundreds of political cartoons throughout the years.
The most famous image of the Uncle Sam persona was a World War I recruiting image that depicted a stern Sam pointing his finger at the viewer and declaring, "I want you". It was painted by artist James Montgomery Flagg in 1917, just prior to US involvement in World War I. It is based on the famous series of British war recruitment posters featuring Lord Kitchener, published on Britain's entry into the war in 1914.
It has been argued by historian Glen Clever that the image of Uncle Sam was influenced by or even based on the character Sam Slick, created by Canadian satirist Thomas Chandler Haliburton.
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- Fenster, Bob. They Did What!?, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7407-3793-7
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Uncle Sam|
- "The Most Famous Poster," U.S. Library of Congress
- Historical Uncle Sam Pictures
- James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 "I Want You" Poster and other works (Internet Archive copy from 2004 October 28)
- What's the origin of Uncle Sam? The Straight Dope
- "USA Thinking Team" - new images of a modern Uncle Sam promoting peace. Messages from his helpmate, Aunt Sarah.