Sam I Am: How a Butcher Became America’s Most Famous Face

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by Mark S. Longo

Mascots. You gotta love ’em. England has its bulldog, Canada has the beaver, and America … well, America has a New York meat packer. But you know him better as wacky, stilt-legged Uncle Sam. Allow us to explain.

Sam’s Club

Arguably America’s most famous eccentric relative, Uncle Sam is a fairly recent addition to our national consciousness. But that’s not to say the United States didn’t have its fair share of political personifications before Sam came along. Lady Liberty was one of the earliest. Usually depicted draped in a toga and donning an elaborate headdress, she represented the blending of classical ideals and new world spirit. Another early mascot, Brother Jonathan, served as the face of the common man. Appearing in countless political cartoons, plays, and novels, his character applied homespun wisdom, acerbic wit, and a generous dose of orneriness to both political issues and pop culture.

Then came Uncle Sam, the famous face of U.S. Army recruitment campaigns. And fittingly, he’s an icon born out of a military contract. During the War of 1812, a meat packer from Troy, N.Y., named Samuel Wilson won the right to supply beef to the American troops. Wilson, apparently more genial than your average butcher-slash-military contractor, was known to his neighbors as Uncle Sam.

So when soldiers from the Troy area started spotting barrels of meat stamped with the initials “U.S.,” they joked that the letters stood for Uncle Sam, rather than United States. Before long, even civilians were saying that “Uncle Sam was feeding the troops.” The phrase became common, and Sam-as-symbol made his debut in an 1838 political cartoon alongside Brother Jonathan. But, with his red stocking cap and conspicuously whisker-free face, ol’ “U.S.” didn’t look much like the poster-boy we know today.

Earning His Stripes (And Stars)

By the time the Civil War started, Uncle Sam had become representative of a united federal government. That meant he had more resonance in the Union than Brother Jonathan, who’d become more associated with individualism. Consequently, when the North won, so did Sam. In fact, over the course of the next two decades, Jonathan virtually disappeared from newspapers’ editorial pages.

With Uncle Sam’s new political symbolism came a new look. The nation desperate for leadership, he began to take on the characteristics of another famous icon, Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, this transformation is widely credited to 19th-century illustrator Thomas Nast, who’s also responsible for our jolly, fat, red-suited image of Santa Claus as well as the use of the donkey and the elephant as political party symbols.

But Sam still had one last (extreme) makeover ahead of him. That came during World War I, when artist James Montgomery Flagg designed the famous “I want YOU” recruitment posters for the U.S. Army. In the process, he gave Uncle Sam a new face with a stern expression. That signature mug, ironically, was made in Flagg’s own image. In order to save the hassle and expense of hiring a model, Flagg decided to paint a self-portrait. The result was a national icon that’s truly a cross-section of America—incorporating the face of an artist, the style of a president, and the name of a New York meat packer.

I Want YOU (Sometimes)

When the U.S. Army first started using Uncle Sam during WWI, recruitment skyrocketed and morale on the home front soared. In fact, the image formed the bedrock of all military enlisting efforts from World War I to Korea. At the height of WWII, Uncle Sam even had his own comic book. But during the Vietnam era, the icon’s overtly patriotic appeal clashed with growing public cynicism over the war, and recruiters were forced to phase him out. For a brief time, he even became a popular symbol of the anti-war movement. However, by the time the Gulf War rolled around, Uncle Sam had once again regained his place as a stirring symbol of national pride.

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September 2, 2010 - 11:23am
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