Uncle Sam is the culmination of a tradition of representative male icons in America which can be traced well back into colonial times. The actual figure of Uncle Sam, however, dates from the War of 1812. Previous icons had been geographically specific, centering most often on the New England area. The War of 1812 sparked a renewed interest in national identity which had faded since the revolutionary war.
The story goes as one Samuel Wilson settled in the town of Troy, New York was known locally as “Uncle” Sam. He later began the firm of E. & S. Wilson. It was through this firm, and the war contracts they acquired in 1812, that Sam gained his notoriety. One such contract was for the supply of meats to the Army. Wilson stamped the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but 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. federal government. In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast 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 are associated with the character today. By the early twentieth century, there was little physical resemblance left between Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam. As a symbol of an ever-changing nation, Uncle Sam had gone through many incarnations.
Perhaps the most famous image of Uncle Sam was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg. In Flagg’s version, Uncle Sam wears a tall top hat and blue jacket and is pointing straight ahead at the viewer. During World War I, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. The image, which became immensely popular, was first used on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions. Troy, New York, the town where Wilson lived, calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”