Hail, Miss Columbia: Once a U.S. symbol, she's lost out to Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
During World War I, Miss Columbia appeared in a 1916 military recruiting poster.
You know your Uncle Sam, but do you recognize Miss Columbia?
This virtuous goddess in a flowing robe, symbol of liberty and star of political cartoons for a century, disappeared from America's editorial pages
in the mid-1950s.
True, we sang her praises in "Hail Columbia," our nation's unofficial anthem until "The Star-Spangled Banner" became official in 1931. Today,
"Hail, Columbia" is the vice president's entrance march. (Who, besides his handlers, even knew the Veep had entrance music?)
Miss Columbia emerged from the imagination of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1697, he wrote a poem suggesting that
America's Colonies be called Columbina, a feminization of Christopher Columbus' last name.
The name evolved more than 70 years later when, Phillis Wheatley, a former slave, wrote a far better ode invoking Miss Columbia in 1775 and sent it
off to Gen. George Washington. In his reply, he praised her "elegant lines" and "great poetical talents."
Miss Columbia is "a literary name for the United States," says Ellen Berg, a historian who researched the symbol's origins and popularity at the
Library of Congress during a fellowship last fall with the Swann Foundation.
She also wanted to know why it has faded from use.
At the height of the American Revolution, Miss Columbia, "came to represent the spirit of the country and American ideals," says Dr. Berg, an
affiliate assistant professor at the University of Maryland.
While Britain and the United States waged the War of 1812, Miss Columbia began appearing in political cartoons.
"By the mid-19th century, she is a very standard figure in political cartoons as well as in the literary realm."
Miss Columbia appeared regularly in satirical cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast, whose work was published in Harper's Weekly, as well as the drawings of
his contemporary, Joseph Keppler, founder of the colorful Puck magazine.
Mr. Nast often drew Miss Columbia with a tiara on her head; in other illustrations she wears the liberty cap.
"It is a soft kind of slouchy cap ... The liberty cap is a very old symbol. It was used by Roman priests to present to freed slaves. Americans used
liberty in many images," Dr. Berg says.
Cartoonists played a key role in establishing the conventions of Miss Columbia's portrayal.
"There are a number of cartoons where Columbia is a school teacher. That's how I came to my knowledge of the subject and my interest. She was
depicted often as welcoming to immigrants," says Dr. Berg, a scholar of immigration history.
By the 1890s, women dressed up as Miss Columbia for patriotic events.
"In 1900, a girl's ideal would be to be Miss Columbia in the Fourth of July Parade. Married women would do that, too."
In 1900, the San Francisco Call published a story illustrated with seven pictures that showed wanna-be Miss Columbias how to dress and behave.
Cartoonists sometimes drew Miss Columbia draped in the American flag. .
Women who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan used Miss Columbia in a "Pageant of Protestantism" held in Indianapolis during the 1920s, but that is one of
the rare, negative examples Dr. Berg found.
In various World War I posters "Columbia pleaded, beseeched, and implored viewers to save food, send their sons to war and buy bonds."
After the war, Columbia remained a beloved symbol but Americans' relationship with her had changed, Dr. Berg theorizes.
"Americans may have felt disenchanted about the demands that Columbia placed on them at such great cost," she says.
Advertisers used Miss Columbia to impart an air of high quality to products like Columbia Bicycles and Columbia Records. Columbia
[edit on 7-11-2008 by spacecowgirl]