Happy Veteran’s Day y’all! Thank you to all of the soldiers who have served this country from the Revolution to now. Whether the government was right to declare war our not, no amount of irresponsible political ploy can diminish the nobility of the sacrifice you all gave for this country. And I want to give a special shout out to my dear friend in Afghanistan right now. He’ll be home in ten days but honestly it cannot be soon enough. He is in my thoughts and prayers and I know that many, myself included, cannot wait to have him back in the States. And all the veterans, soldiers, and their families have my sincere thanks.
This country was founded on the efforts of solders fighting wars that often they did fully understand or perhaps even support. This post will be far too brief to cover the enormity of political and cultural intricacies of war and its implications on art, but art— broadly and specifically, bodily and subtly— has been used to support and condemn war efforts the world over. Artists have always responded to acts of war with visual dialogue. Some responded in support of the cause and used art to boost the moral of soldiers and citizens at home, while others used their talent to declare their anti-war sympathies. One of the most popular and oldest images to respond to war is the iconic Uncle Sam, the embodiment of American patriotism.
The term Uncle Sam is older than the image, reputedly inspired by a meat packer from Troy, NY named Samuel Wilson. WIlson supplied rations for the soldiers during the War of 1812. There was a requirement at the time for contractors to stamp the food they were sending with their name and where the rations came from. Wilson’s packages were labeled “E.A – US.” When someone asked what that stood for, a coworker jokingly replied with “Elbert Anderson (the contractor) and Uncle Sam,” referring to Sam Wilson, though “US” actually stood for United States.
The earliest known personification of the United States was “Columbia” first appearing in 1738 as an early Lady Liberty figure. Seventy-eight years later the first use of Uncle Sam in literature appeared in the 1816 allegorical book “The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor” by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy. Also, a Revolutionary war song from 1775, probably the original “Yankee Doodle,” mentions an Uncle Sam in its lyrics, though it is not clear whether or not this reference is to Uncle Sam as a metaphor for the United States. With the American Revolution, a second personification came about, the “Brother Jonathan” allegory that competed with the Uncle Sam symbol that finally surfaced during the War of 1812.
Originally, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam stood for different things: Brother Jonathan was the country itself while Uncle Sam was the power of the government. But by the 1850s the two names were used interchangeably for the other. Similarly, the appearance of both personifications were interchangable went through a variety of revisions. For example, a print of Uncle Sam modeled after Benjamin Franklin appears in an issue of Harper’s Weekly from June, 3 1865, while an issue of the magazine from 1862 shows Brother Jonathan looking more like our modern expectation of Uncle Sam, only without that goatee.
By the end of the Civil War Brother Jonathan began to diminish in popularity and Uncle Sam became the favored face of America. But Uncle Sam did not have a standardized representation until James Montgomery Flagg created and published the image of Uncle Sam we all know for the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Lesley’s Weekly. Flagg needed to create an image to bolster recruitment for the WWI military. He was inspired by a British recruitment poster of Lord Kitchner and modeled Uncle Sam’s pose to match. Under the print appeared the caption “What are you doing for Preparedness?” Between 1917 and 1918 more than four million copies of the image and been printed and distributed. During WWI, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.
Eventually, the image of Uncle Sam would be reused as political satire by political cartoonists. Tomas Nast is one of the earlier t and most famous political cartoonists to appropriate Uncle Sam and ironically his satires also contributed to the image’s popularity. Nast was not the last to use Uncle Sam’s image as satire. Today you can hundreds of appropriations of the icon. Often the act of appropriating Uncle Sam is to criticize and undermine the authority of the US government. By altering what was once an image of camaraderie and support for the “American cause” the artist can challenge the government’s reliability through allegory, symbolism, context, and satire. Below I have added some of my favorite Uncle Sam appropriations and I invite you all to add your own or comment on the ones listed.
Oh, and I guess I should mention that in September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Wilson died at age 88 in 1854, 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.”