Today on March 13, 1852, Uncle Sam makes his debut in the New York Lantern weekly magazine.
The iconic cartoon is a commonly used personification of the United States government and the manifestation of American patriotism. To this day, the origins of Uncle Sam remain elusive. Many believe he was first used as an army recruitment symbol during the War of 1812. According to legend, Uncle Sam represents a real man by the name of Samuel Wilson. As a well-known meatpacker in New York City, Wilson provided critical food supplies to soldiers during the war. The soldiers knew it was Samuel providing the food, and affectionately referred to the barrels as "Uncle Sam's."
But the first reference dates as far back as the American Revolution in 1775. The original version of Yankee Doodle mentions the term Uncle Sam, which was a common soldier's song during the revolutionary war. In 1816, the first written appearance of him was found in Frederick Fidfaddy's book—The Adventures of Uncle Sam, in Search After His Lost Honor.
But it was the famous American illustrator, Frank Bellew, that was credited by Time with creating the first cartoon representation. On March 13, 1852, Uncle Sam debuted on the cover of an issue for the New York Lantern magazine. Bellew's cartoon depicted an aloof man (representing the United States) in criticism of the government's trade policies regarding overseas mail delivery. Standing beside him was a man named John Bull—a popular representation of Britain). The cartoon depicted Britain's mail delivery fleet being faster than the American mail ships. In the following decade, the German-American editorial cartoonist, Thomas Nast, became first to popularize him. Throughout the 1860s, Uncle Sam was illustrated with a white beard wearing the iconic stars and stripes suit.
Uncle Sam continued to evolve during the early 1900s. Modern-day depictions were created during World War I by James Montgomery Flagg. This new version now showed him wearing a tall top hat, a blue jacket, and had his finger pointing at the viewer. Flagg copied a similar cartoon pose that was used in a British military recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener. To this date, Samuel Wilson's life is still commemorated at annual memorials in Troy, New York, and in Arlington, Massachusetts. In 1989, the United States Congress designated September 13 as Uncle Sam Day—Samuel Wilson's birthday. Historians continue to debate whether or not the cartoon is a metaphor for the United States or a real person.