This Day In History: The United States Gets Its Name (1813)

On this day in 1813, the young nation of the United States gets its nickname, ‘Uncle Sam’.  Many people have longed referred to America as Uncle Sam but few know had the nation came to have that nickname.  The origin of the nickname is due to a meat packer from Troy New York, by the name of Samuel Wilson. He owned a meat packing company that  supplied barrels of beef to the United States Army during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. His company stamped the barrels with ”US” to indicate that they were destined for the American Government and Army. The soldiers referred to the label ‘US’ as Uncle Sam after the owner of the meat packing company, Sam Wilson. The local newspapers picked up on the joke and the name stuck. National newspapers picked up on the nickname and soon everyone was referring to the America government and nation as Uncle Sam.

Illustration from 1812 War

In the late nineteenth century, a political cartoonist’s and caricaturists by the name of Thomas Nast began to draw images of Uncle Sam. He gave Uncle Sam his trademark white beard and his stars and stripes clothing. Nast was a cartoonist of real brilliance and he is also credited with creating a whole host of popular symbols and figures.

He is widely regarded as establishing the modern image of Santa Claus as well as coming up with a donkey as a symbol for the Democrats and the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party.  These symbols are still in use today. Nast was also a gifted satirist and he lampooned the infamous corruption of the New York City authorities.  The cartoons of Nast are often credited with being partly responsible for the downfall of the corrupt New York politician William Tweed.

However, Nast did not create the most famous image of Uncle Sam.

The artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) created the most popular and the most enduring image of Uncle Sam. Flagg’s version of Uncle Sam has a tall top hat, a blue jacket and is pointing straight ahead. During World War I, this portrait of Sam was made available by the government as part of its recruiting drive for the army. The image was widely popular and the image was often reprinted in the newspapers and magazines. During the Second Word War, the image of Uncle Sam was also widely used and often appeared in cartoons and on posters. Once again it was used in the government’s recruiting drive.

In 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as being the inspiration behind the national symbol of Uncle Sam. Wilson died at age 88 in 1854 and is buried in  Troy, New York State,  that proudly refers to itself as the Home of Uncle Sam.