It is thought that Uncle Sam originated in 1812 out of Troy, New York. Little is known and very much less is certain. But the popular theory is that Uncle Sam was named after Samuel Wilson (this is also what’s on the Congressional books).
During the War of 1812, Wilson was apparently in the business of providing large meat shipments to the US Army. He shipped them in barrels marked “U.S.”
The story makes a mythical stretch here and supposes someone suggested that the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson, and this then led—through the vague and untraceable path that word-of-mouth always walks—to the idea that Uncle Sam symbolized the federal government.
Brother Jonathan brand chewing tobacco.
Political cartoon of Uncle Sam by Thomas Nast, circa 1860.
That was the birth of the idea. Now, the image. Uncle Sam wasn’t modeled after his progenitor, Wilson, but has ties to a couple of other early American icons: Brother Jonathan and Yankee Doodle.
Though cartoons appeared as early as 1838, the star-spangled image of Uncle Sam was popularized in the 1860s by the renowned political cartoonist Thomas Nast—who also has the distinction of having created the image of Santa Clause as we familiarly know him today.
Drawings of Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan were almost identical—wearing the same top hat and striped pants—except B.J. often had a feather in his hat and favored a clean shave. Though U.S. sometimes appeared without his trademark goatee as well.
These two early drawings show the similarities between the two characters, which both symbolized the United States as a nation.
And, in 1917, his image was even more deeply “branded” when he dropped his cartoon congeniality for the famous “I WANT YOU” painting used in Army recruitment posters—looking out from under a pinched brow with the stern stare of a hemorrhoidal drill sergeant.
Big wheels turn slowly, and the U.S. government has got some of the biggest wheels around. It took about 138 years from his conception before he was officially adopted by the very government of the nation he had already been broadly symbolizing for almost a century.
And you thought legislation was slow!
The Great Seal of the United States.
Shake your pockets. If you hear any change or bills rattling or rustling around, you’re probably carrying one of America’s first and most famous slogans. E Pluribus Unum.
The Latin phrase ‘E pluribus unum’ means “one from many” and was adopted by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as the motto for the Second Continental Congress. Later it was chosen to grace the Great Seal of the newly formed United States.
The motto’s source? A poem entitled “Moretum,” an early work by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC). The poem’s subject? A recipe for salad.
America is often referred to as a melting pot. Might it not better be referred to as a salad bowl?
Duck and Cover
Not really an ad, but…
The famous Civil Defense film, “Duck and Cover,” in which Bert the Turtle shows children just what to do in case of atomic attack, offers a look at what must have been either the utter naivete of the ’50s American populace or the callous dishonesty of its government. Or both.
From the intro jingle: There was a turtle by the name of Bert. And Bert the Turtle was very alert. When danger threatened him he never got hurt. He knew just what to do. He’d duck—and cover. Duck and cover.
But, people often forget that the absurdity of this campaign pales in comparison to the basic argument of atomic weaponry and warfare: that in order to protect mankind from itself, it must posses the ability to annihilate itself completely!