Cool Things - Uncle Sam Army Recruitment Poster
For more than 170 years, Uncle Sam's name and face have evoked American identity, loyalty, and patriotism. This World War I army recruitment poster is perhaps the most famous version of Uncle Sam's image.
It is generally accepted that the character Uncle Sam got his name from Samuel Wilson, a successful meat-packer from Troy, New York during the early 1800s. In addition to butchering and preserving, Samuel and one of his brothers also made wooden casks to transport the meat throughout the Hudson Valley.
During the war of 1812, while northern troops were headquartered near Troy, the Wilson brothers received a government contract to supply meat to the soldiers. Sam also began working as an army meat inspector. On all the Wilson brothers' casks of meat, and on all other casks that passed his inspection, Sam stamped the initials "U.S." Although intended to stand for "United States," this caused some consternation because the more typical abbreviation at the time was "U. States."
Samuel was widely known by friends and business acquaintances as "Uncle Sam" for his genial character and sense of humor. Taking their cue from his reputation and the "U.S." he stamped on meat casks, army troops began joking that their food came from "Uncle Sam" and calling themselves "Uncle Sam's soldiers." After the war, people started to associate "Uncle Sam" with anything related to the U.S. government.
The appearance of the Uncle Sam character developed over time at the hand of political cartoonists. In the 1830s it was not uncommon to see a round-faced, dark haired Uncle Sam. Some historians believe the death of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 influenced cartoonists to make the character more like the nation's assassinated leader-tall and lean with high cheekbones.
Even today there is no "official" image of Uncle Sam, but the preferred one is lanky and has gray hair and a goatee. His red, white, and blue top hat and tails are inspired by the national flag. The most famous 20th century depiction of Uncle Sam appeared on a World War I recruitment poster in 1917, pictured above. Pointing his finger directly at the onlooker, Uncle Sam declared "I WANT YOU" in an effort to encourage army enlistment. Many subsequent artists have chosen to represent Uncle Sam in this same commanding pose on such diverse items as weathervanes, toy banks, mailbox holders, and other examples of folk art.
In 1961 the U.S. Congress acknowledged what political cartoonists had known for years, that Uncle Sam was a national symbol. Congress passed a resolution saluting "Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America's National symbol of Uncle Sam."
The Kansas Historical Society has several representations of Uncle Sam in its collections. These include the recruitment poster pictured on this page (in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History), a carved folk art figure, political cartoons, government publications, and sheet music.
Entry: Cool Things - Uncle Sam Army Recruitment Poster
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2001
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.