Hail, Miss Columbia: Once a U.S. symbol, she's lost out to Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty



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 Broadcasting Co. was named in 1924.

"Immediately, they were using the figure of a lady with the torch. They have had various updates. I would argue that that image is the carryover of the older symbol of Columbia in most people's minds," she says. "By 1950, the image was much diluted and probably seen as antiquated."

Edward J. Lordan, author of "Politics, Ink: How American Editorial Cartoonists Skewer Politicians, From King George III to George Dubya," has a different theory about the symbol's demise.

He believes Miss Columbia was better suited for the young American Colonies.

"Each symbol represents some aspect of America. When you have a new, fledgling, virginal country, then having a Miss Columbia would make sense," says Dr. Lordan, a professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania,

Columbia is virtuous and protective. As an example, he said there's a famous cartoon of her saying to Abraham Lincoln, "Give me back my boys."

At the end of World War II, America emerged as a super power. That's why Uncle Sam remains popular as a symbol, Dr. Lordan said, because it matches our vision of the country.

"When we become the toughest guy out there, then we would go with somebody like Uncle Sam," he says. "Uncle Sam is rolling up his sleeves. He's going to go pound on somebody. All of these images only work if they resonate with the audience."

V. C. Rogers, cartoonist for The Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C., disagrees with Dr. Lordan's theory.

The beginning of the end to Miss Columbia's image may have occurred when the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886, he believes. Resembling Miss Columbia in her draped gown and holding a torch, the statue was presented to the United States by France in recognition of the friendship established during the American Revolution.

But over the years, it also came to represent a beacon of freedom and democracy, particularly to the thousands of immigrants who landed in America at nearby Ellis Island.

"One of the reasons Miss Columbia has declined is that the Statue of Liberty has arisen," Mr. Rogers says.

A case in point: Signe Wilkinson, a cartoonist at the Philadelphia Daily News, today often pairs the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam together in her drawings to represent the United States.


Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com . First Published March 18, 2008 4:00 AM


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