We all know Uncle Sam, or at least we think we do. The phrase Uncle Sam even has a definition in the dictionary. He even has his own dedicated day on September 13. But did you ever stop to wonder, who is this person behind the "I Want You" poster? Was there ever a real Uncle Sam? Was he part of the US army in any way? If you're still not intrigued, what would you say if we told you that Uncle Sam and Santa Claus are related? Let's go down the historic trail to the origins of the famous American Uncle...
Uncle Sam may have been a real person
Uncle Sam's definition by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows: "the U.S. government"; "the American nation or people." Simply put, it is an "expansion of U.S., abbreviation of United States." It is important to note that there isn't fully-solid historical evidence connecting the illustrated character to an actual historical figure.
That said, every trail you follow in search of Uncle Sam will lead you to one Samuel Wilson who lived in Troy, New York, and sold beef barrels to the US army during the War of 1812. The letters U.S. were printed on the barrels, which stood for "the United States." People misinterpreted it as an abbreviation of Uncle Sam, as that was his nickname in the town of Troy. Wilson died in 1854, long before the poster came out. So how is he related to it?
The creator of Uncle Sam
Thomas Nast was the political illustrator who invented the character of Uncle Sam. He drew some of the most popular Uncle Sam cartoons back in the 1970s. These were various political cartoons that depicted the character in different situations, but the iconic I Want You poster still hadn't existed at the time. Nast is the same man who created the image of Santa Claus as we know him today in 1881. That cartoon is named Merry Old Santa Claus. You can see an original copy of it from Harper's Weekly journal in the picture above.
The Brit's part in "I Want You"
While Nast was the one to create the illustrated character of Uncle Sam (that may or may not have been based on Samuel Wilson), another illustrator by the name of James Montgomery Flagg was the one to place Uncle Sam in the iconic I Want You poster. This was based on a British poster made by Alfred Leete in 1914, of Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener calling the Brits to war.
The birth of an icon
Uncle Sam pointing his finger at you first appeared on the cover of Leslie's Weekly magazine on July 6, 1916. The poster's initial title was "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" This was before the US officially declared war on Germany, but the signals of what's to come were clear to everyone. The poster's title was later changed to "I Want YOU for U.S. Army," when it became a recruitment poster. During the years 1917-1918, while the US was involved in WWI, 4 million copies of the poster were printed.