Uncle Sam is not only one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States, but also one of the most long-lived. He’s been around for more than two centuries, and has taken on different roles, different outfits, and even different faces throughout his existence.
A few years ago, we published a blog post, written by the Library’s Danna Bell, that provides some key points in the history of the man in the hat, along with ideas for exploring his iconic status with students. (This blog post is also an American classic; it’s been viewed more times than any other Teaching with the Library of Congress post.)
For a closer look at a formative moment in Uncle Sam’s biography, we recommend this video by Katherine Blood, Curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, which examines the creation of perhaps the best-known version of Uncle Sam–James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You” recruiting poster from World War I.
For more World War I resources, download the Teaching World War I with Primary Sources Idea Book for Educators from HISTORY.
Uncle Sam: American Symbol, American Icon
The United States has many symbols, including the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell. However, there is one that has been featured in a recruiting poster, served as a symbol of patriotism, and is a personification of the government of the United States of America. This symbol is Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam was supposedly based on a real person, Sam Wilson, a businessman during the War of 1812. Though the image of Uncle Sam was made popular by Thomas Nast and the cartoonists of Puck Magazine, the portrait of Uncle Sam created by James Montgomery Flagg for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly soon led to Uncle Sam’s iconic status. The image was used to encourage men to enlist in the military and to encourage civilian support for the entry of the U.S. into World War I. Uncle Sam was officially adopted as a national symbol of the United States of America in 1950.
The Library’s Teachers Page has a primary source set that features the symbols of the United States of America.
Here are some other activities you might try with your students:
- Encourage your students to look at the different images of Uncle Sam provided in this post. Based on their analysis of the images, what characteristics do they think Uncle Sam represents?
- Ask your students why they think Uncle Sam became a national symbol. Do they think he would be an effective symbol now?
- Challenge your students to design a costume for a person that symbolizes the United States of America. What would he or she look like?