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A Salute to Uncle Sam
by Bob Brooke


Everyone has heard of Uncle Sam. And while this name may not roll off the tongues of most people today, it was very popular from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. But who was this character and where did he come from?

Who Was Uncle Sam?
Supposedly, the term Uncle Sam came from Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, New York who supplied barrels of beef and pork to the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. There was a requirement at the time for food purveyors to stamp their name and where the rations came from onto the food they were sending. Wilson labeled his packages "E.A – US."

During a routine check on Sam Wilson’s meat packing plant, government inspectors, along with a soldier named Pheodorus Bailey, spotted the stacks of crates marked “U.S.” and wanted to know what it meant. A meat packer, either with a sense of humor, or not knowing the true meaning of the letters, informed the officials they must be the initials of his employer, “Uncle Sam.”

The soldiers began referring to the grub as “Uncle Sam’s.” The local newspaper picked up on the story, and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. Government.

Samuel Wilson was born on September 13, 1766 in Massachusetts at a little place called Menotomy, which has since been renamed Arlington. He became a patriot very early on. When Sam was 8 years old, he became a drummer boy. A year later he warned everyone in the village that the Redcoats were coming by beating on his drum while on duty in Menotomy’s village green. By the time he had turned 14, Wilson joined the army and saw active service.

He was 23 in 1789 when he moved to Troy, New York, where he started a meat packaging company. He became well respected for his fair and honest ways and his business flourished. A friendly, happy and convivial man, he was soon affectionately referred to as "Uncle Sam" by the locals.

Samuel Wilson went on to become active in politics after the War of 1812 and led a full and happy life. He died On July 31, 1854 at age 87. He may have been forgotten in the rest of the country as the original Uncle Sam but not in Troy, New York In 1931, the town erected a tombstone in Oakwood Cemetery which reads: “In loving memory of Uncle Sam, the name originating with Samuel Wilson.”

There are two memorials to Uncle Sam, both of which commemorate the life of Samuel Wilson—the Uncle Sam Memorial Statue in Arlington, Massachusetts, his birthplace, and a memorial near his long-term residence in Riverfront Park, Troy, New York.

In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.”, and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”

Images of Uncle Sam
By 1820 New England newspapers began including illustrations of Uncle Sam. These early drawings show him as a clean-shaven man dressed in a black top hat and tails. The colorful image we know as Uncle Sam today came about over the years, with additions by various illustrators.

When Andrew Jackson was president, artists gave Uncle Sam red pants. The long beard sprouted during Abraham Lincoln's tenure, as a sort of homage to the president.
But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that artists decided to dress the popular character patriotically. They added white stripes to his red pants and added stars and stripes to his top hat. His clothes started to resemble the National Flag, and soon he became a short, plump and flamboyantly dressed figure.

The noted cartoonist and illustrator, Frank H.T. Bellew was, at one time, thought to have created the first published form of Uncle Sam, but his rendition of the character didn’t appear in print until 1852.

In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the same artist who created the image of Santa Claus, began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast continued to evolve the image, eventually giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that everyone associates with him today. He depicted Uncle Sam as very tall and thin with sunken cheeks. His drawings were the closest to Samuel Wilson, although Nast had modeled his version on Abraham Lincoln.

The most recognizable Uncle Sam and the one that has been most reproduced, is that of James Montgomery Flagg. He created his version as a self portrait. This is the famous dour faced, finger-pointing figure that appeared on World War I posters with the caption "I want you for U.S. Army." The poster sold 4 million copies during the first world war and another half million during World War II.

There are literally hundreds of Uncle Sam artists. Each one has brought his own vision of the character into his work and provided countless pieces of ephemera for today’s collectors, ranging in price from a few dollars for a postcard to several thousand for an original painting. Sheet music and greeting cards sell for less than $50 while World War II posters can go as high as $500.

Bernhardt Wall, another wonderful artist and illustrator, produced Uncle Sam postcards. Wall had opened his own studio in New York City in 1894 at 22 years of age. As one of the most prolific postcard artists, he worked with the Ullman Manufacturing Company to produce a fine set of Independence Day cards depicting a sharply drawn Uncle Sam for the firm’s Independence Day Series.

Clare Victor Dwiggins was another artist who created Uncle Sam cards. He dropped out of school at 16 and became a hobo before becoming a cartoonist. Later he worked for. various newspapers and postcard companies including Raphael Tuck in 1903 on the "Toasts of Today" series.

However, Uncle Sam didn’t get a standard appearance until the noted "recruitment" image of Uncle Sam, created by James Montgomery Flagg, inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose. The immensely popular image first appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” It was this image more than any other that set the appearance of Uncle Sam—the elderly man with white hair and a goatee, wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tail coat, and red and white striped trousers. In one year, from 1917 to 1918, over four million copies of the image were reproduced.

The U.S. Army used Flagg's image again during World War II, during which the German intelligence agency Abwehr codenamed the U.S. "Samland." The term also appeared in the lyrics of the song "The Yankee Doodle Boy", featured in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in 1942.

Uncle Sam Collectibles
Manufacturing companies have always found Uncle Sam helped to promote their wares and thousands of them have used his image to advertise their products. Early advertising pieces such as trade signs, freestanding store counter signs, tobacco tins, cigar boxes, match holders, coffee containers, candy containers, and cookie tins are in great demand by collectors and can cost hundreds into thousands of dollars.

Of all the Uncle Sam collectibles, the folk art pieces are the most whimsical. There’s nothing as kitschy as a painted wooden Uncle Sam holding a mailbox, or a waiter carrying a tray or balancing an ashtray, or with arms rotating wildly when presented as a whirligig. Since they’re often one of a king, they tend to be costly, ranging anywhere from $500 to $1,000 or more.

Heavy cast-iron banks and doorstops have also been fashioned in Uncle Sam's likeness along with tiny glass, papier-mâché, or metal candy containers, toothbrush holders, beer steins, and mechanical toys. Since all these items appeal to cross collectors in multiple categories, they, too, tend to cost more.

Collectors of late 19th- and early 2Oth-century lithography toy drums, watering cans, and sand pails will find some superb Uncle Sam graphics available.

Doll collectors have an assortment of Uncle Sam dolls to choose from, including examples in bisque, composition, celluloid, rubber and even wax for the early ones along with the more modern plastic versions. The Vogue Company issued a two-doll set of Uncle Sam and Miss America, each three inches tall, made of composition with moveable limbs, and patriotically dressed, selling for around $600 for the pair. However, there are lots of newer plastic dolls at garage sales and flea markets.

The list of Uncle Sam collectibles goes on and on. Examples of early pillows, quilts, table or kitchen linens, scarves, and embroidered or printed linens and silks all come with images of Uncle Sam. Companies produced most of these pieces during times of great patriotic feeling like world’s fairs, expositions, early presidential campaigns, and when the U.S. was at war. Unfortunately, not too many of these items come on the market, so can be expensive.

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