There are so many powerful symbols in American history and these symbols of national pride hold a wealth of information about how people in the past viewed our country’s struggles, aspirations, and trajectory. Nothing exemplifies this more than Columbia. Many of us may not be familiar with the personification of our country, Columbia, but we are well versed in the things that bear her name: Columbia University, the District of Columbia, British Columbia, Columbia Records, and Columbia Pictures.  While these references have meaning today, the historic underpinnings of the name may not. 

In the early history of our country, America’s allegorical image was conceived in the European mind as an indigenous woman, falling in line with the custom to bestow female figures to countries, continents, and to other concepts like Lady Liberty and Justice.

Examples of individual countries in female forms would be France’s Marianne or Britain’s Britannia:

Left: Statue of Marianne in Paris, Picture by Author; Right: Statue of Britannia, courtesy Wikipedia

Britannia is usually shown wearing a white gown and helmet and carrying a shield and trident. Her dress and accoutrements look more Roman than Gaelic owing to the fact that she first came into being during the Roman rule of England sometime after 43 AD. Britannia, who represents the British Empire, saw a resurgence in popularity during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

The Four Continents from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1603), pages 333-338.

The above images show how continents were often imagined.  Europe was commonly depicted wearing a crown with an imperial purple robe surrounded by classical architecture, objects of the arts and sciences, Christianity, and often times a bull. Asia was almost always clothed in the richest of fabrics and seen with a burning urn of incense. Africa’s female form, frequently clad in something revealing, was surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals and would be either a Black female from central or southern Africa or a Moorish woman from northern Africa.

These European artistic depictions of continents and individual countries had a strong agenda: to show the greatness of Europe by contrasting European civility and education against the so-called “underdeveloped” and/or “barbarous,” unchristian lands. Thus, the female form used to personify the continent of America or the New World was always shown as the most “primitive” of the continents since the Europeans had recently learned of its existence and erroneously deemed it to be in an uncorrupted and idyllic state. An example of this is seen in this engraving found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld, of, Beschryving van America en ‘t zuid-land (1671):[i]

“America” Engraved image found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book entitled, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld.

Here America is a young Native woman wearing an elaborate feather crown and skirt. Rather than being surrounded by the European symbols of the arts, she is surrounded by signs of agricultural and mineral wealth. The presence of spears hint at conflict, but she appears as an Amazonian princess, held aloft on a cornucopia reminiscent of Botticelli’s famed painting, The Birth of Venus. This is a Venus for the New World, manufactured to excite the European mind into pondering all possible things assumed freely available to them in North, Central, and South America.[i]

As the years passed the New World became the newest prize for global powers to fight over and the London political cartoons began using the Native American woman to represent British America rather than the entire New World[ii]. Later, as tensions grew between the 13 colonies and Britain, British Americans began to desire different iconography from what the Europeans had created for them originally. Perhaps it was the closer proximity to, and conflict between, the colonists and the various Native American groups that made the Colonists begin to search for a different allegorical image[iii]. Or perhaps the Colonists rejected the idea of seeing themselves depicted as a Native personage which, in the 17th and 18th century, implied subjection to the Mother Country’s superiority and cultural dominance[iv]. The new republic needed a symbol that put the United States on an equal footing with the more established global powers.

Columbia 

Once independent from European powers, the United States began to craft its own non-indigenous secular iconography dominated by two allegorical females: Liberty (representing our national principle) and then later, Columbia (representing our physical place on the globe)[v]. In 1792, Congress officially decided that Lady Liberty was to be the embodiment of the national consciousness and decreed that almost all currency carry her visage, not that of the elected president[vi]. The practice of coins showing an idealized image of Liberty continued throughout the 19th century.

But liberty is a principle and the allegorical image of Liberty was not America’s alone. What was needed was a symbol that represented the country that was uniquely ours: Columbia. The corporeal reality of place, the American goddess Columbia derived her name from a Latinized version of Christopher Columbus meaning “Land of Columbus.”[vii] Who came up with the moniker is up for debate: was it Chief Justice Samuel Sewell of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who wrote a poem in 1697 calling the collective colonies Columbina?[i] Was it Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1738 describing the Colonies in the British publication Gentleman’s Magazine?[ii]

Regardless of her origin, Columbia becomes a stand-in for the American Colonies both at home and overseas. She is mentioned in the 1775 poem “To His Excellency General Washington” by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), the first published African-American poet in U.S. history.[i] In fact, the song, “Hail, Columbia!”, composed for George Washington’s inauguration, was the unofficial anthem for the new country until the “Star-Spangled Banner” replaced it officially in 1931[ii]. It is still used today as the vice president’s official entrance music[iii].

Now that they had a name they needed a personification as well. The elaborate feathers and exotic animals previously seen when America was visualized as a Native America woman gave way to a figure that was distinctly European and reminiscent of Classical Greece. Columbia is shown frequently as a young White woman wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes, often carrying an American flag and wearing a soft Phrygian[i] cap:

Columbia, courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Columbia carrying a flag, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Modern audiences will recognize a version of Columbia as the torch-carrying, robed lady featured in the opening credits for Columbia Pictures’ movies or the floating robed woman facing West carrying a book and telegraph lines in John Gast’s 1872 famous painting, American Progress:

Images of Columbia were featured extensively in political cartoons during the American Civil War both at home and abroad. Famed cartoonist and illustrator, Thomas Nast, supportive of the Union effort, frequently depicted Columbia in his political drawings about the conflict between the states:

Left: Nast’s Columbia weeps after the 1864 Democratic National Convention; Right: Nast’s Columbia looks victorious at the end of the Civil War.

During the latter part of the 19th century, John Tenniel, the famous English illustrator who would later create the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, drew his own version of Columbia:

“Mrs. Britannia. “Ah, my dear Columbia, it’s all very well; But I’m afraid you’ll find it difficult to join that neatly.”

Here, a matronly Britannia, looking maddeningly smug, gives the girlish Columbia instruction as the later gloomily holds a torn map representing the divided States of America[i]. There is a strong Mother-Daughter feeling in the drawing hinting at the past Mother Country-Colony relationship the two countries once had.

One of the most striking images from the Civil War era is Christopher Kimmel’s lithograph featuring the allegorical figures of Columbia, Liberty, and Justice coming together to celebrate the end of the Civil War[i]:

Columbia, Liberty, and Justice celebrate the end of the American Civil War.

“The artist depicts in symbolic terms the downfall of the Confederacy. Columbia, crowned with stars, and Liberty, wearing a Phrygian cap and holding an American flag, stand on a pedestal in the center. On the pedestal are carved the likenesses of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In front of the pedestal Justice, armed with sword and scales, leads a charge of Union troops toward the right[ii]

A word from Uncle Sam

Today, most of us consider “Uncle Sam” as the personification of our country but he figuratively represents the federal government and has since the War of 1812[iii]. Again, the famous illustrator Thomas Nast in the 1870s would create the visual image we are most familiar with: a White male with whiskers wearing a top hat and red and white striped pants.


“The Lightning Speed of Honesty.” Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in the 24 November 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly

One has to consider the role of gender in how and when Columbia and Uncle Sam are used. World War I recruiting posters used the personification of the male government to get men to enlist to do the traditionally male activities of engaging in war and defending one’s country. Columbia, Lady Liberty, and the Goddess of Justice are all female, implying vulnerability and fragility, and in need of protection.  Uncle Sam is stern, reminding men of their duty to protect the constant, pure, and nurturing Columbia.

Columbia today

So why isn’t Columbia as widely known today? Perhaps men and women stopped viewing women as “helpless” after they won the right to vote in 1920[i]. Or perhaps, she was supplanted by the rise of Lady Liberty once more after the United States received “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” as a gift from France in 1886[ii].

However popular Lady Liberty is to us today, a new, modern version of Columbia was seen during the 2017 Women’s March: 

Shepard Fairey’s poster found in the Sutro Library’s 2017 Women’s March collection, M000014, box 11, item 275.

Los Angeles based artist Shepard Fairey created a poster for the March inspired by a decade old photograph by Ridwan Adhami of Munira Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American.[i]  Just like in Adhami’s photograph, Fairey’s poster featured a woman wearing a hijab patterned with America’s stars and stripes, reminiscent of the stars and stripes on Columbia’s clothes.[ii]

Even England’s Britannia is getting an updated look. Recently, The Royal Mint, the British maker tasked with producing all of the UK’s coinage, released a coin depicting Britannia as a woman of color for the first time in her 1,900 year history[iii].

The changes to both Columbia and Britannia show society’s growing awareness of the need for these national icons to speak more directly to all members of their respective societies. These updated symbols underscore the idea that the mythical face of the nation can be as culturally diverse as the society it represents. Clare Maclennan, The Royal Mint’s director of commemorative coins, said “Britannia is an enduring symbol of the people, and as the nation evolves it is right that her image should evolve too.”[i]

Future artistic renderings of Columbia and other American symbols will continue to expand and build upon our shared understanding of America’s identity and values.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.


[i] Ibid.


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/23/womens-march-poster-munira-ahmed-shepard-fairey-interview

[ii] https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2017/01/20/obama-hope-artist-returns-with-people-posters/4f3Fp8gRgDXCd5Xtreq2QN/story.html

[iii] https://www.cnn.com/style/article/royal-mint-britannia-2021/index.html



[i] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/when-america-was-female/273672/

[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library


[i] https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004665369/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://www.history.com/news/was-there-a-real-uncle-sam



[i] Punch, or the London Charivari, October 1, 1864, Sutro Library.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrygian_cap


[i] https://www.commonlit.org/texts/to-his-excellency-general-washington

[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail,_Columbia


[i] http://www.inheritage.org/almanack/american-goddess-female-depictions-of-liberty/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Johnson


 [TM1]http://www.inheritage.org/almanack/american-goddess-female-depictions-of-liberty/


[i] Page 81, Hart, J. L. (2003). Columbus, Shakespeare, and the interpretation of the New World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Page 52, Higham, J. (1990). Indian princess and Roman goddess: The first female symbols of America. Worcester [Mass.: American Antiquarian Society.

[iii] P. 55, Ibid.

[iv] P. 57, Ibid.

[v] P. 63, Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] P. 39, Daughters of the American Revolution. (2001). American spirit. Washington, DC: National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library


 [LD1]Add an image or two in this section to break up the text


[i] MISC00091, Sutro Library

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