Uncle Sam isn’t just a guy in a white beard. It was never a real name for a person. Uncle Sam is a nickname for the people or government of the United States.

The first recorded use of this nickname is in the Troy Post on September 7, 1813, which was sent to everyone on United States government wagons. After it frequently appeared in New York newspapers, most of the people reading were opposed to the War of 1812. The first appearance of “Uncle Sam” in a book was in The Adventures of Uncle Sam made in 1816.

 

By 1860 the term was in the dictionary as a normal word. Uncle Sam was supposedly named after Sam Wilson. Sam Wilson was a meat packer in New York, who supplied rations for the soldiers. They had to stamp their contractor’s name and where the rations were coming from onto the food they were sending. On the packages, they were labeled “E.A – US.” When someone asked what that stood for, a coworker joked and said “Elbert Anderson (the contractor) and Uncle Sam,” referring to Sam Wilson, though it actually stood for United States. As early as 1835 Brother Jonathan made a reference to Uncle Sam implying that they symbolized different things: Brother Jonathan was the country itself while Uncle Sam was the government.

By the 1850s the name Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam were being used and interchanged nearly to the point that images of what had been titled “Brother Jonathan” were now being changed to the title Uncle Sam. The appearance of both varied wildly. For example, one portraying (a representation of a portrait) of Uncle Sam in 1860 depicted him looking like Benjamin Franklin, in Harper’s Weekly’s on June 3, 1865. And the portraying of Brother Jonathan in the January 11, 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly looks more like the modern version of Uncle Sam.

However, near the end of the Civil War, Uncle Sam didn’t get a standard appearance until the well-known “recruitment” image of Uncle Sam was created by the James Montgomery Flagg. It was this image more than any other that set the appearance of Uncle Sam as the elderly man with white hair and a goatee wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, and red and white striped trousers. 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.

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