Uncle Sam: Birth of An Icon
Updated: May 7
From Cheeky Dandy to Scrappy Brother to Stern Uncle
Most Americans know Uncle Sam as a tall, upstanding, elderly man, stern-faced, gritty, with a white beard and mutton chops, wearing a top hat and a suit of stars and stripes. And many have heard of Yankee Doodle, a cheeky dandy, be-plumed and “handy with the ladies.” But few know of Brother Jonathan, a scrappy, ill-bred, ill-spoken, ill-mannered and trickster icon who liked to mock the powerful, especially the ruling British of the Colonial Colonies. In the newly independent America, Brother Jonathan was the crass cousin of Uncle Sam. Brother Jonathan was the personification of the common man, the hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-fighting American—a hayseed and proud of it.
In the first 100 years of American settlement, colonists and colonial newspapers had experimented with cartoon characters that captured the essence of the American settler and their growing desire for independence. There was Lady Liberty and Columbia, also a woman, and Yankee Doodle, who was actually a British invention and one of derision.
British soldiers sung the mocking lyrics to a popular British drinking song during the Revolutionary War: “Yankee Doodle went to London riding on a pony, Stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” which meant Yankees were naïve, inexperienced and crude. “Macaroni” was slang for the fancy, curled powdered wigs of the British upper class. And “Doodle” was a repurposed word from the German “dudel” or “dodel,” meaning a foolish person or simpleton! Since many German mercenary soldiers were paid by the British empire to fight in the Revolutionary War, German influence crept into the language. (The lyrics were sung to a British drinking song called “Lucy’s Locket,” who was one of the mistresses of King Charles II.) But, as the tide of the Revolutionary War turned and the colonists began to get the upper hand, American soldiers adopted the song as their own and sang it loudly enough so British soldiers could hear it across the lines!
After the war, Yankee Doodle was sidelined for a more serious icon—but still scrappy: Brother Jonathan. Like Yankee Doodle, Jonathan was also a Yankee, usually depicted as a seaman, peddler, or trader. His origins are hazy. Historians have two theories: one, that he was based on the longtime Connecticut governor, Jonathan Trumbull, who was the only Colonial governor to side with the patriots during the Revolutionary War and, as legend goes, was called “Brother Jonathan” by George Washington. Another likely origin was that “Jonathan” was a derogatory term the British had for Puritans and others who sects who opposed the crown and dates back to the English civil War of 1642.
Brother Jonathan was often shown as plucky, plain-spoken, and tough, duking it out the English icon, John Bull, who was old, high-cultured, well-educated and elegantly dressed in a powdered wig. But, over several decades, Brother Jonathan lost his humor and took on the more hard-edged qualities of racism and xenophobia. He became the mascot by the 1850’s American Party (formerly The Whig Party) that was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and anti-African American and opposed expanded voting rights for people of color. The Civil War brought the waning of Brother Jonathan.
In 1852, the first drawn version of Uncle Sam appeared in the New York Lantern as an older, wiser, less pugnacious “uncle”--tall, lanky, steely, and ever a champion of the young nation. By some accounts, Uncle Sam had been morphing from Brother Jonathan since the War of 1812, when U.S. troops were again fighting the British but near the Canadian border. A meat-packer name Samuel Wilson cut a deal with the American military to supply beef packed in barrels to the troops. Wilson was liked and very appreciated by the soldiers and came to be known as “Uncle Sam.” His barrels of beef even bore his initials—U.S.—the soldiers joked. In fact, the early depictions of Uncle Sam bore a striking resemblance to Samuel Wilson: his stern eyebrows, chiseled features, strong jaw, and white hair.
During the Civil War, American and British cartoonists began drawing Uncle Sam with his signature striped pants, starred top hat (which were immensely popular at the time and standard head ware for American gentlemen) and a blue blazer. Commercialism quickly co-opted the patriotic icon for its own too. The last half of the 1800s saw a burgeoning of Uncle Sam brands: coffee, firecrackers (but still made in China!), cereal, loan companies, furniture oils, even an iron parlor stove!
Two female figures also personified American patriotism: Columbia and Lady Liberty. Both were based roughly on the Roman goddess of liberty, Libertas, and were shown robed in the Roman style, tall, strong and imperious. Columbia’s name, however, was inspired from Christopher Columbus and was regarded as much as a symbol of expansion of the young nation, as for liberty. (SEE MORE ABOUT LADY LIBERTY AND COLUMBIA IN A LATER POST.) The 1876 gift of The Statue of Liberty by France to America for the nation’s 100th birthday secured Lady Liberty’s place at the pinnacle of American symbolism, along with Uncle Sam.
The American military used both figures in their World War I recruiting posters. However, the World War II recruiting poster of Uncle Sam became his most iconic depiction.
PHOTOS: (1) An early cartoon of America’s scrappy Brother Jonathan bloodying John Bull, the mascot of British power, before and during the Revolutionary War. (2) Yankee Doodle was also an American icon but originated with British soldiers as a derogatory figure. (3, 4, 5 & 6) American liberty and growth were personified by two female figures in the 1800s: Columbia and Lady Liberty. Both were inspired by the Roman goddess of liberty, Libertas, and were shown robed in the Roman style. (5) Sculptor Thomas Crawford’s 1854-1857 Statue of Freedom that crowns the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. She wears the Roman-style gown of Libertas, holds a sheathed sword, laurel wreath of victory, and a Native-American style fringed blanket. Her helmet bears an eagle’s head and a crest of feathers. (6) The iconic bronze Statue of Liberty, gifted to the United States by France in 1876. She stands on Liberty Island and welcomed millions of immigrants to America. (7) A New York meatpacker named Samuel Wilson, who became known by American troops in the War of 1812 as Uncle Sam for his barrels of beef, initialed “U.S.” for the front lines of the war. (8 & 9) The last half of the 1800s saw numerous Uncle Sam products from coffee to cereal, firecrackers to iron stoves! (9 & 10) Two posters printed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Both depict Uncle Sam. In the Berry Brothers poster, Uncle Sam is distributing their Uncle Sam Hard Oil Furniture Finish to many nationalities of customers, welcoming them to the World’s Fair. The poster on right shows both Uncle Sam and Columbia together, welcoming the multitudes from around the world. (11) An 1896 William McKinley Presidential Campaign poster depicts a rugged frontier-esque Uncle Sam. (12) Uncle Sam was widely depicted on World War I recruitment posts. (13) A WPA (Works Progress Administration) poster in the late 1930s ramping up to World War II war effort. (14) Uncle Sam at his most iconic: the famous World War II recruitment posters.
You may enjoy these related posts:
-The Surprising History of Lady Liberty
"Uncle Sam" originally posted on Facebook on July 2, 2019
88,476 reached / 1,232 likes / 462 shares
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER