Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Uncle Sam

Location:   Troy, New York
Year:   1812

Samuel Wilson (1766-1854) was a native of Massachusetts, who fought in the Revolutionary War. After being mustered out, he and his brother Ebeneezer, relocated to the growing town of Troy, New York, where they opened a meat-packing plant. 

Troy was (and is) conveniently located near the Hudson River, making the shipping of its products an easy matter, and along with Troy, the Wilson brothers thrived. 

Samuel became particularly popular, known for his kindly, generous, and gregarious nature, and was elected to several municipal offices in Troy throughout the years. To the townsfolk he was known affectionately as "Uncle Sam."

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, large numbers of young men from Troy joined the army. Many of them found themselves stationed along the then-hostile Canadian border.

Samuel Wilson's meat-packing plant was one of the chief suppliers of beef and pork to the United States Army, particularly units stationed in New York State. The meat was transported in large packing crates, and when one of these packing crates (stencilled "U.S." and with the shipper's address) reached a unit with Troy men, one of them is reported to have exclaimed, "Hey boys, dinner is on Uncle Sam!" 

The Troy men, of course, got the in-joke, but most of the rest simply thought it was a clever remark, and soon anything marked "U.S." was associated with  "Uncle Sam." 

After the War of 1812, Uncle Sam Wilson became a minor national celebrity, and, in later life, enjoyed posing in daguerrotypes with people who had come to meet the Uncle Sam.    

In the 19th Century, Uncle Sam had competition as a national symbol from Brother Jonathan, a top-hatted dandy, and from Columbia. a female figure with sword, helmet, and shield. And although Columbia is still seen from time to time, Brother Jonathan fell out of favor after the Civil War since his foppish image was associated with the Southern "Johnny Reb."    

Uncle Sam did not attain his recognizable star-spangled appearance until 1917, when James Montgomery Flagg created the famous "I Want You" World War I recruitment poster (which was based on an earlier British poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose).  Flagg modeled Uncle Sam's appearance on himself rather than Sam Wilson. 

In 1961, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate unanimously passed a law which proclaimed that Sam Wilson was the progenitor of Uncle Sam, and that Troy is the official home of Uncle Sam. The bill was signed by President Kennedy. In 1989, Congress declared Samuel Wilson's birthday, September 13, as a national day of observance, "Uncle Sam Day."

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