uncle sam history

Who Was Uncle Sam? History + Best 16 Uncle Sam Propaganda Posters

When it comes to taxes, you probably think of paying them to Uncle Sam. So, who exactly is Uncle Sam, and what’s his history? The iconic figure of Uncle Sam has a long, interesting history, dating all the way back to the War of 1812. Since then he’s been a symbol of the U.S. government, taxes, and army recruitment. Here’s a little history of Uncle Sam:

First, a Brief History of Uncle Sam

During the war of 1812, a meatpacker from Troy, NY named Samuel Wilson supplied the U.S. Army with barrels of beef. In doing so, he stamped the barrels with large, “U.S.” initials, and soldiers began to refer to the food as, “Uncle Sam.”

Soon, the name, “Uncle Sam,” stuck, and by the 1820’s, “Uncle Sam,” had gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. government.

Later, in the late 1860s, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast began popularizing the now familiar image of Uncle Sam as a combination of Revolutionary War figures Brother Johnathan and Yankee Doodle.

Brother Johnathan + Yankee Doodle = Uncle Sam?

*Fun fact: Did you know that Thomas Nast is also credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus?!

However, the most famous image of the stern, pointing Uncle Sam would be created by James Montgomery Flagg years later. Flagg designed it as a recruiting poster for WWI, seemingly based on the similar British recruitment posters that featured Lord Kitchener.

lord kitchener poster britain

However, Flagg swapped out Lord Kitchener and instead created a new version of Uncle Sam that he painted from a self-portrait.

Standing before a mirror, Flagg reportedly donned a fake goatee and the star-spangled hat, and painted his own reflection to create this updated, and now most-famous version of Uncle Sam!

Flagg was apparently a bit conceited, and was especially proud of his prominent eyebrows, which helped to achieve Uncle Sam’s accusatory expression:

The completed portrait was first printed on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916, asking readers, “What are YOU doing for preparedness?”

leslies uncle sam magazine cover

Within months America would join the First World War, and the image would be adopted as a recruitment poster for the U.S. Army, along with the I Want YOU for U.S. Army caption. In 1917 and 1918, a staggering 4 million copies of the famous Uncle Sam propaganda poster would be printed!


Uncle Sam Propaganda Posters

To this day “Uncle Sam” remains a nickname for the U.S. Government, and a symbol of tax collection in America. Our stern and patriotic Uncle Sam reminds us to roll up our sleeves and do our part for America; whether that be buying war bonds, or paying our taxes.

Here are the best U.S. propaganda posters featuring every American’s favorite grumpy Uncle, Sam. (click any poster to view larger)


Uncle Sam: Born In Troy, NY

Uncle Sam is one of the most interesting and popular American icons and whose origin lies in a meatpacking plant in Troy New York in 1812. To this day Troy, NY is celebrated as, “The Birthplace of Uncle Sam.”

*Related: History of the Death and Taxes Quote

About kevin

Hi, I'm Kevin McCormick. I graduated from Rutgers U., and now live in Philadelphia with my wife, three kids, and a dog. I enjoy blogging in my free time, especially about finance and the history of taxation. Thanks for stopping by Mighty Taxes!