History

Why Uncle Sam's origin is still shrouded in mystery

He's often depicted as an old man with a grey goatee rocking a red, white, and blue suit and top hat. Uncle Sam is synonymous with Americana and is the personification of the United States government. His image has graced recruiting posters and political cartoons alike, but surprisingly little is actually known about how he came to be.


He wasn't first the unofficial mascot of the United States. That honor originally belonged to Columbia. She was the embodiment of the "Spirit of the Frontier" and the goodwill of its people. Even many years after the introduction of Uncle Sam, Columbia would often be depicted side by side with him. Sadly, she grew out of favor around the 1920's when immigrants identified more with Lady Liberty as the symbol of America. Then, Columbia Pictures' rise to notoriety kind of stole the rest of her thunder.

She had a good run, but I blame the silly hat. (National Archive)

The first reference to an "Uncle Sam" in America is found within the original lyrics to the song Yankee Doodle. The original 13th stanza went,

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.

The original draft of the iconic song was far less metaphorical, so it's assumed it may have just been a reference someone's old uncle named Sam.

The next possible origin is one that stems from Brother Jonathan, or the original Yankee Doodle. Long before Colonial Americans adopted the moniker of "Yankee Doodle" as a badge of honor, the term was used disparagingly against Americans by the English. It was their way of saying that we were uncivilized hicks in comparison to the English personification, "John Bull."

Apparently being chiseled farm workers was worse than being plump aristocrats? (National Archive)

The term "Brother Jonathan" was used in much the same way a few decades prior. The name "Jonathan" is directly pulled from Jonathan Trumbull, the only Colonial Governor to side with the Americans during the revolution. The Brits took his perceived betrayal of the Empire, exaggerated his characteristics and, thus, the caricature of "Brother Jonathan" was born.

Just like Yanke Doodle, Brother Jonathan became a prideful rallying cry for early Americans. It's agreed that his long coat, luscious locks, and goatee were incorporated into the look of Uncle Sam.

Albeit, he was depicted as being much younger than Uncle Sam. (Library of Congress)

The most widely accepted origin of Uncle Sam, however, stems from the War of 1812 when a New York meatpacker, named Samuel Wilson, supplied many troops with rations labeled with "EU-US." "EU" were the initials of the contractor, Elbert Anderson, and "US" marked the location. Troops were said to have loved Sam for his food and jokingly referred to it as coming from "Uncle Sam." This is still disputed, however, because there is no written record of it until 1842.

By the 1860s, Uncle Sam had taken the spotlight as the personification of the United States government, rocking his overly patriotic suit. (National Archive)

While there's no denying the likenesses between Sam Wilson and the Uncle Sam that everyone knows today, his look wasn't solidified until the printing of James Montgomery Flagg's iconic "I Want You For U.S. Army" poster. Flagg wrote in his autobiography that he took some liberties when creating the poster. He made him manlier, more chiseled, and is even said to have based some of the looks on himself — a fact that was praised by President Roosevelt.