June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

America’s Columbia (A Female Personification)

3 min read
Lady Columbia

Lady Columbia

district-of-columbia Did you ever wonder where the name “District of Columbia” came from? There are several mentions of “Columbia” in the United States. Of course you have heard of the District of Columbia, Columbia University, and the entrance march of the Vice President, “Hail, Columbia.” There is a lengthy list of Columbias, and it goes on and on. In breaking down the literal meaning of the Latin word Columbia, the stem Columb- refers to Christopher Columbus and the ending -ia is a common Latin ending in country’s names.  So Columbia’s actual meaning is “Land of Columbus.” (This of course is a stab in the back to the Native Americans, but what is new?)

In 1738, Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine was the first to use Columbia in print. The magazine published debates from the British Parliament, which was illegal; therefore, these debates were published under the fictitious Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput. Fictitious names were given to the people and places mentioned, and the “European colonies of the New World” received the name Columbia. Near the American Revolution, the majority of Parliament debates directly affected the colonies. This being the case, America became very familiar with the name Columbia, and the name stuck.

Many people today are not aware that Columbia was once a female personification of the new America. It is important to understand that before there was an Uncle Sam, there was Columbia. Yes, beautiful and brave Columbia started to appear, especially in poetry.  Below is a poem from Phillis Wheatly (1776).

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.

Columbia, also known as Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia, also played a large role in political cartoons. Again, Uncle Sam did not become our country’s main form of war propaganda until after his creation in 1812. Before he became the official war recruiter (closer to WW II), he shared the spotlight with Columbia.

Let’s face it. She’s wrapped in an American Flag, with matching cap…who isn’t going to fight to protect her?

So what happened to her? Why did she disappear? She was replaced. Like all “things”, Americans want the newer and flashier models. We replaced Female Personification 1.0 with the shinier 2.0 model. If you haven’t guessed already, the 2.0 version was the Statue of Liberty. While Lady Columbia has deep roots in America’s history, Lady Liberty has since taken over.

There is a film production company, Columbia Pictures, that was founded in 1919. Below is a picture that is on every movie they produce. Of course with logos and image re-branding, it has changed over time. This picture is the current Columbia Pictures logo, which was created in 1993. I would be willing to bet that if you took a poll of people in the theaters when this appeared, they would say, “That is the Statue of Liberty.” Maybe I don’t give our society enough credit, but that is my hypothesis.

Columbia Pictures Logo (1993)
Columbia Pictures Logo (1993)

5 thoughts on “America’s Columbia (A Female Personification)

  1. This is the first decent piece on the reality of our Columbia that I have been able to find online. I don’t understand why this is not in basic American (US) history books…. And, yet still, this is the first decent information I’ve found on it. Would you be willing to give me your resources? I’d appreciate it.

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