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Who Is America’s Uncle Sam?

Most of the Uncle Sam origin stories tell of Samuel Wilson, a contractor who supplied the Army with meat during the War of 1812. Wilson shipped his beef and pork to army outposts in large wooden barrels stamped with US, indicating they were for the United States Army. Soldiers knew Sam to be a friendly fellow and took to saying the U.S. actually stood for Uncle Sam, whose initials* were on the meatpacker’s barrels. This creation story is disputed by scholars who found earlier references to Uncle Sam.

World War I

One of America’s best-known posters shows a grave and deadly-serious Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer above a huge caption that shouts I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY.

Uncle Sam had been a symbol of national patriotism for 100 years. When the army needed millions of troops for World War One, it printed four million Uncle Sam recruiting posters and two million Americans joined the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to fight the Hun in Europe.

The idea of a direct, personal appeal made by a national symbol had been used earlier

The inspiration for the famous I WANT YOU recruitment poster was the design that appeared three years earlier, when the U.K. entered the war against Germany.

Lord Kitchener, renowned British military leader, posed in uniform, pointing directly at viewers, wanting YOU TO JOIN YOUR COUNTRY’S ARMY! The image of a national symbol with the call to action combined to make a powerful appeal, and so was chosen as the design by James Flagg, the illustrator who created the Uncle Sam of the recruitment poster.

Flagg claims he was the model for Sam. Walter Botts says he was the model. Below are photos of Flagg and Botts for you to decide. 

Columbia, Gem of the Ocean

This song shares its tune with Britannia, Gem of the Ocean. Both claim the other is the copycat and zealots are always ready to argue their side of the story.

Columbia was widely recognized as the historical female personification of the identity of the United States

Derived from the Latin for “The lands of Columbus,” Columbia was often associated with ships and places. Columbia, Gem of the Ocean was America’s unofficial national anthem during the 17th and 18th centuries until The Star Spangled Banner took over; another old British tune with new words.

Yankee Doodle took over from Columbia, Gem of the Ocean as a musical hit

In 1931, the Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle were finalist candidates for the nation’s anthem. Americans know the winner was The Star Spangled Banner. The words to America’s national anthem were written by Francis Scott Key in poem form that was set to the tune of the British song, To Anacreon in Heaven.

Who was Anacreon?

The Anacreontic Society was a London gentlemen’s club dedicated to Anacreon, the Greek poet well-known for his drinking songs. The Society wrote their own words, set to a tune called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith in 1775. The Society called it To Anacreon in Heaven, and it became a popular bawdy English drinking song.

Redcoats vs. Minutemen

The finely-dressed British soldiers mocked the shabbily-dressed American Minutemen by singing the song Yankee Doodle. When the American soldiers began to rout the British army, they turned the insult around by defiantly commandeering the song for themselves.

Making sense of Yankee Doodle’s meaning

  • Yankee was used by Brits as a disparaging word that described all Americans.
  • Doodle was a Dutch nonsense word for nincompoop.
  • Dandy was the name the British gave to the idle rich who wore outrageous clothing to draw attention to themselves.
  • Macaroni was the name first applied to the enormous wigs favored by elites, then to epicene fashionistas in general.
  • Stuck a feather in his cap referred to the naïveté of those who thought putting a feather in their cap would fool others into thinking they were noblemen.
  • and called it macaroni to pretend they were fashionable when they were anything but.

People who study these things say the song Yankee Doodle Dandy was a way for the British to insult American colonists as being lower class and effeminate.  

Yankee Doodle Dandy 

This is the 1942 musical that tells the life of composer, playwright, and theatrical producer George M. Cohan. James Cagney won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Cohan, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter who wrote and published more than 300 original songs. Cohan’s Over There became the most popular World War I song for its optimism, courage, and comittment. The Yanks are coming and we won’t come back ’til it’s over over there.

Avian Corner

Back when macaronis were the height of fashion, this eudyptes chrysolophus (Greek for golden good diver) penguin got its common name from British sailors because of its flamboyant crest and its habit of hopping around.

Bonus

James Boswell, Scottish biographer, and Dr. Samuel Johnson, man of letters, were traveling on horseback through Scotland. Johnson was such an awkward and inept horseman that Boswell couldn’t resist poking fun at him by calling him a macaroni, implying effeminacy and possible homosexuality.

“There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion.” – James Boswell, 1770.

*An initialism backronym. If you’re not familiar with these terms, check out the January 3rd, 2024 issue of LetsTakeACloserLook.com.

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