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Q: Was “Uncle Sam” based on a real person?

R.K.

Answer: The exact origins of Uncle Sam are unclear, but the most iconic image of him is based on an artist who used himself as the model.

Uncle Sam as a symbol of the American government dates to the early 1800s. No one is sure who came up with the fictitious Uncle Sam. One story is that someone came up with the name Uncle Sam from the initials “U.S.” stamped on items produced for the government.

In 1961, Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as Uncle Sam’s namesake. Wilson was a meatpacker who supplied the Army during the War of 1812. Wilson was given this honorary designation because of his honesty and devotion to his country, according to the Library of Congress Web site.

The first illustrations of an Uncle Sam appeared in the 1800s. Thomas Nast and other political cartoonists of the 1800s satirized the paternalistic nature of the government with illustrations of an Uncle Sam. He appeared as a tall, older man with a gray goatee, nattily dressed in a suit of red, white and blue.

Perhaps the most well-known illustration of Uncle Sam is from the military-recruitment posters in which he is pointing at the viewer. The gentleman with the slightly cantankerous expression was a self-portrait of the artist, James Montgomery Flagg.

Flagg was born June 18, 1877. He was a commercial illustrator in the 1910s and 1920s. Flagg created illustrations for clothing advertisements and was nationally known as the illustrator of P.G. Wodehouse stories in Collier’s magazine, according to “Advertising in America: The First 200 Years” by Charles Goodrun and Helen Dalrymple. Flagg’s Uncle Sam first appeared as the cover for Leslie’s Weekly magazine in July 1916.

Q: What does the “doodle” mean in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and why is he calling a feather in his hat “macaroni” in the first place?

D.D.

Answer: To understand the song, you first must know that it didn’t start out as a positive depiction of an American; according to the Library of Congress, it was originally a song that ridiculed Americans as “backwoods yokels.”

The song “told the story of a poorly dressed Yankee simpleton, or ‘doodle’,” according to the site, and “was so popular with British troops that they played it as they marched to battle on the first day of the Revolutionary War.

The rebels quickly claimed the song as their own, though, and created dozens of new verses that mocked the British, praised the new Continental Army, and hailed its commander, George Washington.”

The word “macaroni” in the song doesn’t refer to pasta, but is derived from slang used in England to describe young men of the late 18th century who were fixated on being fashionable.

One interpretation of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ song, therefore, is that it mocks an American rube who thinks that sticking a feather in his hat would make him appear trendy.”

“By 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown,” according to the Library of Congress, “being called a ‘Yankee Doodle’ had gone from being an insult to a point of pride, and the song had become the new republic’s unofficial national anthem.”

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