The most popular theory concerns Samuel Wilson, a New York meatpacker who provided food to U.S. forces during the War of 1812. As the story goes, Wilson and Elbert Anderson, the contractor he supplied, stamped all their beef and pork barrels with the initials “E.A.-U.S.” The “U.S.” was shorthand for United States, but workers began joking that it stood for “Uncle Sam,” as Wilson was locally known. Before long, soldiers had helped bring the term into common use as a nickname for the United States.
The Sam Wilson story was first popularized in an 1830 article in the New York Gazette. It was later made a matter of public record in 1961, when Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Wilson as the “progenitor of America’s national symbol of ‘Uncle Sam.’” Nevertheless, many modern researchers doubt the tale’s veracity. Historian Donald R. Hickey has uncovered a reference to Uncle Sam in a U.S. Navy midshipman’s diary from 1810, which suggests that the term predated the War of 1812. In 1813, meanwhile, Wilson’s hometown newspaper wrote an article that referenced the term, but made no mention of his role in inspiring it. Instead, the story stated that the name was simply a playful take on the “U.S.” that was often emblazoned on military wagons and supplies.
Whatever its origins, the nickname “Uncle Sam” became entrenched in the American vernacular in the years after the War of 1812. The first drawings of Uncle Sam followed in the 1830s, but his trademark look wasn’t popularized until the 1870s, when Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast began drawing him with a whiskered face, top hat and red-and-white striped pants. The final step in the character’s transition into a national icon came courtesy of artist James Montgomery Flagg. In 1916, he used his own face as a model for an Uncle Sam cartoon in a periodical called Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. The image, which shows a goateed Uncle Sam pointing straight at the viewer, later appeared in a now-famous World War I recruitment poster featuring the tagline “I Want You For U.S. Army.”
J. M. Flagg's 1917 poster, based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier, was used to recruit soldiers for both World War Iand World War II. Flagg used a modified version of his own face for Uncle Sam, and veteran Walter Botts provided the pose.