Rick Stattler’s Specialist Picks: Two Unique Items from the April 7, 2022, Americana Auction

The material that passes through Swann on a daily basis ranges in value and interest, sometimes we see an item crop up at auction consistently—a popular print, a highly sought after publication, etc.—but more likely than not we see new and intriguing material that leave our specialists eager to begin their research. Often this is the case for our Printed & Manuscript Americana auctions; which consistently feature rare and exciting items that help illuminate different moments in American history.

Swann director of books and manuscripts, and specialist for our Printed & Manuscript Americana sales, Rick Stattler, shares two lots from the April 7 auction that help answer questions like “Where did the phrase ‘Uncle Sam’ come from?” and “What was it like on a Robert Peary Arctic expedition?”

The Earliest Reference to “Uncle Sam”

Do you know when the phrase “Uncle Sam” started to be used as a synonym for the United States government?  The standard story places the origin with a military provisioner named Sam Wilson during the War of 1812. A few years ago, though, an 1810 diary turned up in which a navy midshipman named Isaac Mayo used the term. Now at Swann Galleries, we are pleased to move the timeline all the way back to 1803.  

Lot 240: Robert Orr, letter about an arms inspection for Eli Whitney—with the earliest known reference to Uncle Sam, 1803. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.

The discovery is a letter from a rifle manufacturer named Robert Orr dated June 7, 1803.  Writing from his home in Springfield, MA, he tells his son of his plans to inspect rifles being made by Eli Whitney in Connecticut: “I expect to go to New Haven next week to inspect armes made by Ely Whitney for Unkel Sam 500.”  

You are probably asking yourself: maybe Robert Orr actually had an Uncle Sam?  No, he did not! We spent an inordinate amount of time tracing the genealogy, but really, it should be clear from the context. This Uncle Sam is buying 500 rifles. You may have an uncle who is a gun enthusiast, but he probably does not have several hundred of them in his backroom—and he did not buy all of them at once.  

Records from Eli Whitney’s famous armory show that Robert Orr did indeed inspect batches of rifles for the United States Army—in batches of 500—on a regular basis during this period. Whitney rifles with his “US–ORR” inspection stamp are still found in collections.  

Orr’s casual usage of the term in this letter suggests that it was already in common use by 1803. Uncle Sam, sharing the same initials as the United States, is such a perfect bit of slang that it probably caught on very quickly in conversational use once it sprung from somebody’s imagination, and then it was just a matter of time before it started popping up in letters, diaries, and newspapers.  We would wager Robert Orr wasn’t the inventor of the term, but at least for now, he is the earliest known user.  

Photo Album from the 1899 Peary Relief Expedition — Featuring Famed Explorer Matthew Henson

Lot 28: Photograph album from the 1899 Peary Relief Expedition, 175 silver prints, 1898-99. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Read more from Rick Stattler, here.