/arts-days/march/13

March 13

Uncle Sam

The Uncle Sam poster, by artist James Montgomery Flagg, was used to recruit soldiers during World Wars I and II; just between 1917 and 1918, four million posters were printed.

Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-2736I

1852: Say Uncle
Uncle Sam makes his literary debut
Within the printed pages of the daily New York Lantern, a certain patriotic fellow made his debut on this day. You know the guy: wears a tall hat printed with stars, a pair of red-and-white striped pants, a white beard, a somber expression. Give up? We’re talking about Uncle Sam, who in editorial cartoons and advertisements over the years has come to be the personification of the United States. Here’s the back-story: A man named Frank Henry Temple Bellew was the first to draw Uncle Sam for the Lantern.

Bellew’s drawing was based on a real person named Samuel Wilson, who helped feed U.S. troops during the War of 1812 with meat packed in barrels bearing the initials “U.S.” It was meant to indicate government property, but the folks unloading the beef joked about “Uncle Sam’s” latest shipment. Later, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast conceived of the stars-and-stripes outfit in which we are most accustomed to seeing Uncle Sam today.
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