For the Fourth of July, Uncle Sam puts in an appearance right along with parades and fireworks. There was a time when he was far more ubiquitous, and many people are unaware of his remarkable journey from government contractor to American icon! When the U.S. was entrenched in the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson, a small-town meat-packing magnate from Troy, New York, obtained a government contract to supply troops in the northern parts of the country. Barrels of salt beef marked “U.S.” were shipped to the troops, who began to joke that the initials really stood for “Uncle Sam.” Of course, many military-issued supplies were marked in this manner, and before long, soldiers were joking about getting presents from Uncle Sam when each shipment arrived.Uncle Sam may have gotten his name in 1812, but it took forty years for someone to bring him to life in an illustration; this illustration must have captured the imagination of thousands of Americans, as Sam soon began to appear everywhere! Folk artists were among the first to pick up Uncle Sam’s image, but the familiar bearded visage has also been used to market everything from tobacco to candy (whilst inexplicably riding a rabbit) to paint. My personal favorite is this cutout of Uncle Sam, who seems to have abandoned his coat and tails in order to shill for OshKosh overalls.
Fortunately, he was dressed up again and at his gravest by the time he “posed” for his iconic 1917 World War I poster depiction (pictured above) by artist James Montgomery Flagg.(For more on Flagg, click here to read our reference note.)