Episode 19 (formerly 1607): Uncle Sam


Uncle Sam is a well-known cartoon character that symbolizes the United States. But where did he come from? His history is a little complicated and all the details are not fully known. However, here are some facts:

Back during America’s Revolutionary War in which we separated from Great Britain, Americans were referred to by the British as Yankee Doodles. A Yankee Doodle was thought to be disorganized, a little sloppy and somewhat foolish. There is even a song called Yankee Doodle from that time period that mocks the American soldiers. Interestingly, this song, with some added verses, has become very patriotic in America.

Around the same time there evolved a cartoon character named Brother Jonathan who depicted the people of New England. Brother Jonathan wore clothing with stars and stripes on it, just like the American flag. He appears in many plays, stories, poems and songs, portraying supposedly American behaviors and viewpoints. He was often presented as an opposite stereotype to John Bull, a symbol of England.

During the War of 1812 against the British, a businessman in Troy, New York, named Samuel Wilson shipped rations to the American troops. On the sides of the barrels used for shipping, he stamped “U.S.” for United States. Local residents in Troy, however, jokingly said the letters stood for “Uncle Sam”, meaning Samuel Wilson.

Somewhere along the line the name Uncle Sam came to stand for the United States. The history of that process is unclear, but the first printed reference to the name used in this manner was in 1813. In 1830, the New York Gazette newspaper reported the connection between Uncle Sam and Samuel Wilson for the first time.

From the 1830s to around 1860, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam were used interchangeably in political cartoons in newspapers. At first their appearance was very similar. During the Civil War (1861 – 1865), the Brother Jonathan character faded from use. At the same time, Uncle Sam began to look like Abraham Lincoln, the president of that time. He was drawn taller, older, bearded and wearing a tall hat. But he still had the same stars-and-stripes clothing.

Finally, in WWI, an army recruitment poster made Uncle Sam famous and established the appearance that we think of today. The poster was designed by James Montgomery Flagg and its slogan was “I Want You”. The same recruitment poster was used during WWII as well.

In 1950, the US government formally adopted Uncle Sam as an official symbol. And, although the history is disputed, Congress proclaimed Uncle Sam to be Samuel Wilson’s namesake in 1961.

Today, people dressed as Uncle Sam appear in patriotic parades and political events. The ‘I Want You’ poster is often parodied in jokes and advertising. And in language, Uncle Sam refers to the US government, especially the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), which is the agency that collects taxes. For example, “I want to buy a new car, but I have to pay Uncle Sam first!”

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