Cartoon Uncle Sam Debuts March 13, 1852

It has come down through the history books that Uncle Sam,
a term applied to the U.S.A. since The War of 1812,
first appeared as a cartoon image in the United States
in the New York Lantern dated March 13, 1952 (below).


From Sarah Ames’ research:

In New York City today, a political cartoon appeared in a weekly newspaper, The New York Lantern. The subject of the cartoon had to do with a request before Congress to augment funding for overseas mail delivery.  Two shipping lines, one American, one British, were competing for the mail trade. The American Collins Line, which was losing money, was subsidized by the U.S. Post Office; the British Cunard Line was also assisted by its own government and was way ahead; its faster, larger fleet was eating into the American market.

In the cartoon, figures representing the two lines faced off over toy ships in a tub. Cunard is represented by John Bull helping a small boy work a bellows. The Collins Line is represented by a small boy, cheeks puffed, blowing at the water by himself. Behind him stands an aloof, apparently disinterested “Uncle Sam.”

Today was Uncle Sam’s first appearance as an illustration. He had existed in name since about 1810, but on this day, a young cartoonist named Frank Bellew turned Uncle Sam into a recognizable American icon. Bellew, whose parents were English, worked his trade as an illustrator and cartoonist in New York City for publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, but eventually resettled in New Orleans. Charles Dickens knew his work and admired it: “Frank Bellew’s pencil is extraordinary. He probably originated more, of a purely comic nature, than all the rest of the artistic brethren put together.”


Closer to the emergence of the cartoon Uncle Sam is a 1910 article by Mary Swing Ricker describing the efforts of Mrs. D. Harry Hammer in the late 19th century to collect every cartoon, in North America and Europe, of Uncle Sam that had been created.


There’s the rub – how to pinpoint when Brother Jonathan transmogrified into Uncle Sam.
Mrs. Hammer seems to be the instigator behind the March 13, 1852 date.


The occasionally star-spangled vest and goatee would become de rigueur after the civil war.



Mary’s 1910 article details the more famous cartoons and cartoonists that caricatured the U.S., though it came seven years too soon to include the most famous image of Uncle Sam.


Happy 170th birthday to cartoon Uncle Sam.

postscript – about the subjects of that first cartoon Sarah Ames writes:

Uncle Sam lives today, thanks to Frank Bellew. The Cunard Line is alive and well, too, now owned by The Carnival Corporation. The Collins Line, however, ever faltering, failed to survive the Financial Panic of 1857 and went bankrupt the following year.