Everyone has heard about Troy’s claim to fame. Yes, “Uncle” Sam Wilson was a real person (lived 1766-1854, buried in Oakwood Cemetery in north Troy). And yes, unfortunately, this footnote to history overshadows the rest of Troy’s significant contributions.
During the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson, affectionately known as Uncle Sam, was a local meat packer who sold to the federal government.Barrels of salted pork stamped “U.S.” were jokingly said to refer to his nickname. Realize back then, use of our country’s initials was still relatively new. During the Revolutionary War, individual states purchased supplies, as did the Continental Congress, but not the “U.S.”
The joke spread quickly, and Uncle Sam appeared as a character in an 1816 book. However, during the early 1800’s, cartoonists had been featuring a person called “Brother Jonathan” as the national icon. It wasn’t until 1861 that an Uncle Sam appeared. Cartoonists had no photographs of Wilson (nor would it really have mattered), so they were free to imagine.
Uncle Sam was portrayed a gangly Yankee, a contrast to the portly English “John Bull.” By the 1870s, famed cartoonist Thomas Nast—who gave us the donkey and elephant for our political parties, and our “modern” image of Santa Claus—began to include features of Abraham Lincoln, including a beard, stove-pipe hat, and swallowtail coat. (The real Samuel Wilson likely was no dandy. In 1812, he probably wore the old-fashion tri-corner hat and knee breeches of the last century.)
So, how did “top hat and tails” become the height of Victorian fashion?
It all started with the poor of France, who contemptuously became known as the “sans-culottes,” literally, “without knickers,” prior to the French Revolution. Knee breeches and powdered wigs as a fashion statement were cut off by the guillotine—literally!
After the Reign of Terror, the French adopted British sporting clothes. And the main sport of the British upper class? Fox hunting! Their costume was designed for tearing around the countryside on horseback with a bunch of baying hounds chasing one terrified little fox. Pants were cut long, designed to fit inside the boots. The pant legs had a strip of material at the bottom to fit under the instep which kept the pants from riding up as the person was bounced around.
The coat was cut short around the waist, while the long back was split in two to fit over the horse’s back. And wait until you hear this—the stiff cylinder of the top hat was designed to act as a sort of crash helmet in case of a spill. The analogy would be future fancy wedding attire based on motorcycle wear, with studded black leather and a helmet. By the way, Wilson lived just off Eighth Street by Congress. During the 1970’s urban renewal, despite all their hoopla about the claim to being the “Home of Uncle Sam,” Troy tore down the actual home of Uncle Sam.