Uncle Sam

The United States government is often referred to as Uncle Sam, and the most famous image of Uncle Sam is James Montgomery Flagg’s WWI recruiting poster. But Uncle Sam was not the creation of Flagg. The term predates Flagg’s poster by over a century.

The earliest known use of Uncle Sam is in an 1810 letter by Isaac Mayo, a midshipman on board the USS Wasp. Mayo writes about being seasick on his first voyage:

Oh could I have got on shore in the h[e]ight of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one.

The “as they call him,” indicates that Uncle Sam was in common use among US Navy sailors as early as 1810.

A 1775 version of the song Yankee Doodle contains a reference to an Uncle Sam, but this is likely a reference to a particular, probably fictional, person and not a reference to the country. The name United States, in reference to the American nation, is not known to have been in use prior to 1776. So, it is highly unlikely that this use is a reference to the nation as whole. The relevant stanza reads:

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.

Uncle Sam gained popularity during the War of 1812. And the most common explanation for the origin is that it arose as a jocular reference to a Samuel Wilson, who was a government inspector of meat in New York state during that war. Workers purportedly joked that the U.S. stamped on barrels of meat was a reference to Wilson. But since this explanation does not appear for several decades after war and the fact that term was in use as early as 1810, this explanation is incorrect, although the propagation of the Wilson explanation in early nineteenth century newspapers undoubtedly helped popularize the term.


Sources:

Aldrich, Mark. A Catalog of Folk Songs for Wind Band. Meredith Music Publications, 2004, 33.

Hickey, Donald R., “A Note on the Origins of ‘Uncle Sam,’ 1810–1820.” The New England Quarterly, 88.4, December 2015, 681–92.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, s. v. Uncle Sam, n. (June 2017), United States, n. (Sep 2015).

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2019, by David Wilton