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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam is a cartoon symbol for the United States, the U.S. government, or the American people.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Social Studies, Storytelling, U.S. History

Image

Uncle Sam Magazine Cover

Uncle Sam has been a long standing symbol of American patriotism. His image has been used by the United States government in a number of different ways, from stamps and military recruiting posters to magazines and newspaper cartoons.

Photograph by Nawrock/Classic Stock

The image of Uncle Sam is based on a combination of two earlier American characters: Yankee Doodle and Brother Jonathan. Yankee Doodle was a derogatory term the British used for colonial Americans during the Revolutionary War. Brother Jonathan was a heroic character often featured in American folk tales and cartoons.

Though the origins of the name Uncle Sam are subject to some dispute, most historians believe that the name came from a New York merchant named Sam Wilson, known by his friends as “Uncle Sam.” Wilson supplied beef to American troops during the War of 1812. The barrels were stamped with the initials U.S., for United States, but many associated the initials with “Uncle Sam” Wilson. Over time, Uncle Sam became a synonym for United States.

Illustrations of Uncle Sam, typically with long, white hair and a white beard, dressed in top hat and a tail coat, began appearing shortly after the War of 1812. British cartoonists from Punch magazine were the first to fully develop the image of Uncle Sam as a tall, bearded, thin figure. American cartoonist Thomas Nast cemented the image of Uncle Sam in his own drawings during the 1870s.

By the early 1900s, Uncle Sam had become known worldwide as a symbol for the United States. One of the most famous depictions of Uncle Sam during this period was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg for a U.S. Army recruiting poster during World War I. The U.S. government printed millions of these posters during World War I and used the image again during World War II. The symbol of Uncle Sam is still in widespread use both in the United States and around the world. Most depictions today closely resemble Flagg’s famous illustration.

Media Credits

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Specialist, Content Production
Clint Parks,
Producer
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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