Merriam-Webster defines Americana as “materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture; broadly: things typical of America.” The caveat “you know it, when you see it” applies here—in fact, some Americana is so widely accepted that it can be considered iconic.
Here’s a look at some touchstones of popular culture and how they came to be associated with America:
American Bald Eagle
The eagle flew into our consciousness in 1782 when it landed on The Great Seal of the United States. This was much to Benjamin Franklin’s chagrin, who considered the bald eagle “a bird of low moral character.” Secretary of Congress Charles Thomas proposed it to be the central holder on the seal. Learn more about the Bald Eagle.
We have no special claim to this worldwide fruit. In fact, the apple isn’t even exclusively American; it arrived here with 17th-century colonists. But apple pie, cooling on the windowsill, is more evocative of simpler times than any other American food. Close seconds: fried chicken and the hot dog.
Many believe that Uncle Sam was inspired by a New Hampshire native named Samuel Wilson. During the War of 1812, Wilson associated himself with Elbert Anderson, a government contractor. Together, they shipped large quantities of meat and other commodities to U.S. forces overseas. These shipments were marked “E.A.U.S.,” the initials of Anderson and the consignee, the United States government. The soldiers knew that the goods so marked were handled by Samuel Wilson, Uncle Sam, and jokingly referred to the meat as “Uncle Sam’s beef.” This expression was quickly adopted by their fellow soldiers, and was used to designate all property belonging to the United States government as “Uncle Sam’s.”
Also called buffalo, the American bison is our most iconic mammal and once roamed from the Rocky Mountains east. Between 1913–1938, the U.S. Mint stamped the “Buffalo nickel” (a buffalo on one side, a Native American on the other) in an attempt to beautify coinage with American themes. In much overdue recognition of the bison’s place in our history, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act on May 9, 2016, and it joined the bald eagle as one of two animals officially honored by Congress.
White Picket Fence
Dating from Colonial times, the simple picket fence was designed to keep children and chickens close by. It came to represent the middle-class American Dream—home ownership in a peaceful suburban neighborhood. White picket fences made their way into the American pop culture lexicon via Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
Which is your favorite U.S. symbol that evokes a feeling of nostalgia? Tell us in the comments below.
Like what you just read? Be sure to read the complete story, 11 Symbols That Immediately Evoke A Feeling of American Nostalgia, pages 100–105 in the 2018 Farmers’ Almanac.