Cowan’s Corner: Uncle Sam

1917 Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster by James Montgomery Flagg (American, 1877-1960), sold for $3500 on June 21, 2008, by Cowan's Auctions Inc. Image courtesy Cowan's Auctions and Archive.

1917 Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster by James Montgomery Flagg (American, 1877-1960), sold for $3500 on June 21, 2008, by Cowan’s Auctions Inc. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions and Archive.

As American as apple pie, Uncle Sam is the anthropomorphic symbol of the United States of America. Just as John Bull is for Great Britain, America’s Uncle Sam is an iconic figure. Often depicted as a serious man with a white goatee, Uncle Sam is typically dressed in red, white and blue, often with stars and top hat.

The first known illustration of our American icon dates back to 1852, though the term “Uncle Sam” was coined much earlier, around the time of the War of 1812. At that time soldiers in upstate New York would receive barrels of meat stamped U.S. from the supplier, Samuel Wilson. The soldiers began to jokingly refer to their supplier as Uncle Sam, and the name caught on. On September 15, 1961 the United States Congress adopted a resolution saluting Sam Wilson, a meat supplier of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of the symbol of Uncle Sam.

The most famous illustration of Uncle Sam was done by James Montgomery Flagg on a WWI recruiting poster. The text of the poster read “I Want You For The U.S. Army.” While Uncle Sam’s face was modeled after Flagg’s own, the poster was based on a 1914 British army recruiting poster featuring Secretary of State for War Horatio H. (Lord) Kitchener.

The Flagg poster also was produced in a smaller size for the Navy. While much more rare than the army poster, the Navy version is more reasonably priced at auction. Recruiting posters that bring the most money are those from WWI, which sell in the range of $2000-$3000.

This national symbol has been used on everything from children’s toy wagons to Civil War illustrated letter envelopes. Uncle Sam has been extensively used in advertising, like Oshkosh B’Gosh Overall’s enameled steel sign.

Uncle Sam has been a popular item on political campaign buttons. Cigar boxes and tobacco tins carrying Uncle Sam’s image range in price from $25 to $500. This symbol of American patriotism has endured for nearly 200 years and is unlikely to lose its popularity in the near future.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An expert on historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. Wes holds a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Kentucky, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. He is a frequently requested speaker at antiques events around the country.