March 05, 2013

Fun fact: "Uncle Sam" was based on a meat packer

This 1917 poster by James Montgomery Flagg encourages kids to support World War I.

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt / ASAS Communications

It was the War of 1812. The British readied their cannons to blast apart the East Coast. The U.S. Army readied their soldiers to defend the fledgling country.

A meat packer named Samuel Wilson knew what to do. He prepared barrels of meat for the U.S. troops. After checking the freshness of the beef or pork, Wilson had his employees stamp the barrels with the letters “U.S.”

Officially, the letters stood for “United States.” But some soldiers thought it was more personal. Maybe “U.S.” really “Uncle Sam” Wilson.

According to William Bartlett’s “Life Story of Uncle Sam,” Wilson had a long history of protecting U.S. meat supplies. Wilson had joined the Revolutionary Army in 1781 at the age of 15. The Revolutionary Army was worried that the British would sabotage their food supply, so it was Wilson’s duty to guard cattle, mend fences and package meat. In the days before USDA, Wilson was part cattleman/part meat inspector.

After the Revolutionary War, Wilson and his brother, Ebeneezer, moved to Troy, New York and started a meat packing business called E&S Wilson. Their facility was near the Hudson River, which let them take advantage of trade routes along the coast. When war broke out in 1812, Wilson’s business was a natural choice for an army contract.

According to the Library of Congress, “Uncle Sam” Wilson was known for being reliable and “devoted to his country.” Soldiers who knew his nickname connected his “U.S.” label to other Army supplies, and Uncle Sam became a sort of mascot. The real “Uncle Sam” Wilson reinforced the idea of a patriotic “Uncle Sam,” who was mentioned in the 1775 song “Yankee Doodle.” Because of “Uncle Sam” Wilson, the myth became a real man.

Sam Wilson died in 1854 at the age of 87. A photo from the time shows his white hair and stern expression. It is tempting to think the top-hat wearing “Uncle Sam” image was based on Wilson, but that’s where the history gets even more complicated.

James Montgomery Flagg with his most famous illustration. Flagg said he used himself as the model. Note the similarity in facial features.

The patriotic Uncle Sam image was used in political cartoons and ads in the late 1800s, but his image varied. Sometimes he looked like a white-haired old man, and sometimes he looked like Benjamin Franklin. At some point, Uncle Sam got his own outfit. The image of Uncle Sam in striped pants and a top hat was probably taken from a “Brother Jonathan” character who was popular in during the Revolutionary War.

An artist named James Montgomery Flagg gets credit for our modern image of Uncle Sam. In 1916, the U.S. was again preparing for war – this time it was war against the Germans. Flagg reportedly used his own face as the model for an Uncle Sam illustration for the cover of the July 6, 1916 edition of Leslie’s Weekly magazine. Flagg’s Uncle Sam character leaned out above the headline “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” The image became very popular, and Flagg started using Uncle Sam in other illustrations.

Uncle Sam was later adapted for recruiting materials during World War II. Flagg even presented President Franklin D. Roosevelt with an Uncle Sam poster.

In 1917, the USDA used Uncle Sam to encourage Americans to garden to cut food costs.

The myth of Uncle Sam took on new meaning during the 20th century, but meat packer Samuel Wilson was not forgotten. On Sept. 25, 1961, the United States Congress adopted the resolution: “Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

Uncle Sam also continues to be connected to food safety. Just last year, the National Archives hosted an exhibit titled “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” which taught children about the role of the U.S. government in protect food safety and promoting good nutrition.