Have you ever wondered about the origin of Uncle Sam? I remember looking at the poster as a young girl. There was a serious looking silver haired gentleman who pointed his finger at me. I wondered, “what exactly does he want me to do?”
I was familiar with a poster with the words “I Want You” inscribed below the picture. The original title underneath the now famous picture actually said, “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” It was drawn by James Montgomery who created 45 other graphic images in support of our efforts in World War I. Montgomery claimed the image was a self-portrait. The same image was placed on a poster with the words: “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” under it. That particular poster sold more than four million copies, and the image continued on to be used in a World War II era poster.
So much for the image, but what about the name I have always associated with image? Who was Uncle Sam? That answer is not crystal clear. A reference to Uncle Sam occurs in the 13th stanza of the 1775 song “Yankee Doodle.” The words in the stanza are as follows: “Old Uncle Sam come there to change; Some pancakes and some onions, For ’lasses cakes, to carry home; To give his wife and young ones.” Other sources speculated that Uncle Sam may have been a man who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812. His name was Samuel Wilson. Wilson placed a stamp on what he sent to the troops that read “E.A. – US.” Someone who worked with Wilson reportedly claimed the stamp referred to Elbert Anderson, who was a contractor of some sort, and Uncle Sam (Wilson). Congress actually passed a resolution in 1961 which recognized Wilson, who had a reputation as a fair and honest man, as the progenitor of the name Uncle Same. However, the character of Uncle Sam was not necessarily shiny and clean in Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy’s 1816 book, The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor. The book, complete with a scathing review of then President Jefferson’s actions, lamented changes made to the “Great Experiment of 15 years” as originally established by George Washington. The book is available on Google Books, and it is certainly an interesting read.
While the origin of the name is in question, the name Uncle Sam gradually replaced others that once personified the United States. In particular, it became a direct reference to the Federal Government itself. The name and now familiar image was cemented with Flagg’s poster.