Over the years, women have been used to symbolize regions, countries, states, and more. This came from Greek and Roman culture. In those cultures, everything was deified into a God or a Goddess. When they conquered a new place, the Greeks and Romans usually set up a deity to represent that place. This idea embedded itself into culture and these deities stopped being deities and started becoming just symbols.
During the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, there was this major interest in Greek and Roman culture and so it was only natural that these personifications would arise. In the 1600’s, there was an early savage female native American personification of the Americas and throughout the century, this image would become more civilized. As time went on, settlers wanted symbols that represented them and their values rather than the Native Americans.
In 1697, Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall used the name Columbina for the new world as homage to Christopher Columbus. Finally, Columbia would get her actual name in Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1738. This magazine was technically illegal because it was a publication of parliamentary debates in Britain and so alternate names were used for people and places to make it more fictional. Lerne for Ireland, Noveborac for New York, and Colubmia for the American colonies. This made Columbia a familiar name for America over the years and it promoted the idea that the colonists had their own distinct identity.
European countries were using Latin names to represent their counties in poetic ways, and this often led to these European countries being personified as these female symbols. “Britain as Britannia” Germany as Germania and the Americans well...they caught onto this.
With Independence on the horizon, the American’s embraced their own symbols even more so to create a distinction between them and their British counterparts. They were striving to be their own nation. In 1776, Phillis Wheatley Peters, a former slave and the first African-American author of a published book of poetry, wrote the first poem with Columbia as a symbolic figure...
"One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails."
The Columbian name exploded with this poem and after the American’s won their independence, towns, colleges, ships, and more started using the name Columbia. Even the song “Hail Columbia” was the unofficial anthem of the United States for over a century. Columbia was promoted even more so with the Founders' interest with Roman culture. Using the eagle as the national bird, using the term Senate to describe the upper house of Congress, and now using Columbia to describe the United States and its new capital Washington D. C or The District of Columbia. This was partially due to the rising Neoclassicism within the United States.
Neoclassicism is the "trend or movement prevailing in the architecture of Europe, America, and various European colonies at various periods during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by the introduction and widespread use of Greek orders and decorative moteefs, the subordination of detail to simple, strongly geometric overall compositions, the presence of light colors or shades, frequent shallowness of relief in ornamental treatment of fasaades, and the absence of textural effects."
Columbia would finally be visualized in the 1800’s as a goddess-like female representing liberty and the United States as a whole with statutes, drawings, and cartoons. She was often called Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia and this image varied but it was always a patriotic beautiful woman. She was often shown either wearing white for purity or red, white and blue to represent the flag. In these depictions, she represented the people of the United States and their liberty. That’s why she was drawn separately from Uncle Sam, or the U.S. Government.
Columbia started to fade as a national symbol in the 20th century due to companies using her to represent themselves like Columbia Pictures and other symbols taking her place like Uncle Sam and the new feminine symbol Lady Liberty, which is the Roman Goddess Libertas. We can see a shift in values with the shift of symbols. After WW1, American’s saw themselves as a powerful nation who could be a major player on the World Stage. This idea expanded during WW2 and Miss Columbia, who loved liberty, was being replaced by a growing government or Uncle Sam.
Even though Columbia as a symbol has faded, her presence is felt all over the United States. Her statues still stand, her name is everywhere, and the ideals she represented are still with us. It’s important that we understand these symbols, where they came from, and why they faded but what do you guy’s think?