Facial Hair Friday: Uncle Sam, the Bearded Man

Today’s post comes from Paige Weaver and Danielle Sklarew, summer interns in the National Archives History Office.

World War I poster,"Uncle Sam's Birthday. 1776- July 4th 1918. 142 Years Young and Going Strong," 1918. (National Archives Identifier 512445)
World War I poster,”Uncle Sam’s Birthday. 1776- July 4th 1918. 142 Years Young and Going Strong,” 1918. (National Archives Identifier 512445) This post is currently in display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

One hundred years after the production of this poster, everyone’s favorite uncle, Uncle Sam, turned 242 years old this July 4. Sporting an outfit adorned with stars and stripes, he runs toward battle, undeterred by the red, white, and blue explosions that detonate in the background.

In 1918, the United States was involved in World War I. After attempting to stay neutral at the beginning of the war, the United States entered the global conflict in 1917 and attempted to get the American people behind the war effort.

That’s where Uncle Sam came in!

This poster does not directly ask Americans to enlist in the military or even support the war in general, but it encourages patriotism and national pride. What better way to do this than to link the 4th of July, Uncle Sam’s birthday, with the war effort?

Still Pictures Identifier: 44-PA-71Rediscovery Identifier: 13229
One of the most recognizable images of Uncle Sam was created by American artist James Montgomery Flagg during World War I. Here is his World War II version of the famous recruitment poster from 1942. (National Archives Identifier 513533)

Uncle Sam has been around since the early 19th century, but he did not always boast his familiar white beard. Through the mid-19th century, the male personification of the United States was clean-shaven and whisker-free. After the Civil War, however, Uncle Sam grew a distinctive pointed white beard, courtesy of political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

brother-jonathan (1)
A bearded depiction of Johnny Reb holding weapons on the left, versus a clean shaven representation of Brother Jonathan on the right, a character used to personify the United States who originated during the Revolutionary War and eventually transitioned into the more recognizable Uncle Sam figure, Harper’s Weekly, December 13, 1862.

While there is no historical documentation that reveals why Nast put a beard on Uncle Sam, his artistic choice, conscious or coincidental, literally became the bearded face of the nation.

This July 4, as you celebrate Independence Day and see people dressed up as the icon that we all know as Uncle Sam, you’ll likely notice that the long and pointed white beard has become an indispensable part of the costume attire—a fashion statement for which we can thank Thomas Nast and history.

Want to learn more about our nation’s birthday? Visit the July 4th special topics page on the National Archives website.

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