Hail, Columbia!
April 29, 2019 4:52 PM   Subscribe

When America Was Female: Uncle Sam's older, classier sister Columbia fell out of favor after women got the vote. Maybe it's time to bring her back. Columbia is the feminine historic personification of the United States of America, and was prevalent throughout America until the 1920s. The figure was recently portrayed by Laura Bell Bundy on American Gods.
... Uncle Sam had a much older and classier sister named Columbia, the feminine historic personification of the United States of America, who has since the 1920s largely fallen out of view. But she was as recognizable to Americans of yesteryear as the man in the top-hat and tails remains today, and when the suffragettes donned robes and armor, they garbed themselves in her rebel warrior's spirit. From the 18th century until the early decades of the 20th, Columbia was the gem of the ocean, a mythical and majestic personage whose corsets or breast-plates curved out of her striped or starred or swirling skirts with all the majesty of a shield. She was honored from the birth of the nation -- "Hail, Columbia!", whose score was first composed for the inauguration of President Washington, was an unofficial anthem until the "Star-Spangled Banner" displaced it as the official national one in 1931 -- to the birth of the recording and film industries, which is why we have had Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures. Yes, that lady with the torch at the start of the movies isn't just some period-costume-wearing chick -- she is a relic of this earlier personification of America, immortalized forever by the most American of industries.
posted by homunculus (44 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am so down for all of this except for the actual name, since it is originated from Christopher Columbus, a man who America should keep trying harder to get less inspiration from.
posted by Ouverture at 5:08 PM on April 29 [23 favorites]


A crazy rabbit hole on this topic: national personification (Wikipedia article) -- lots of majestic women, warrior goddesses, as well as mothers and maidens.

Interesting image: Uncle Sam and Britannia, after Columbia was replaced.

Two other male figures are cited in that Wikipedia article: Der Deutsche Michel ("Michael the German"), usually depicted wearing a nightcap and nightgown to imply a casual everyman, and John Bull, England's personification, usually found as a stout, middle-aged, country-dwelling, jolly and matter-of-fact man.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:13 PM on April 29 [5 favorites]


The problem with this is that it may make it seem like we're hailing Columbia University rather than Columbia, female personification of America, and as an alumnus of NYU twice over that's a big "fuck no" from me.
posted by saladin at 5:26 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Perhaps we should be moving away from single figures promoting nationalism? Like, if you have to use Sam or Columbia, the article makes a good argument for Columbia, but I'm not convinced we should be using either.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 5:27 PM on April 29 [11 favorites]


There's something ironic about a 2019 plea for Americans to choose a white lady over their traditional choice of an elderly white man.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:31 PM on April 29 [25 favorites]


Columbia?

Just this afternoon I was watching video of this antique carnival ride with boats named for Columbia and Brittania.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:48 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


may make it seem like we're hailing Columbia University
I'll be hailing the Columbia School of Broadcasting.
posted by sageleaf at 5:49 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


WNYC’s On The Media recently aired a piece on American imperialism and how Columbia was intertwined in that belief of America as an imperial power like European empires.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 5:51 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]


A long time ago, I read a reference to an abolitionist's account of an black woman who had been enslaved and who wanted to send a petition to the queen of America. She was under the impression that America had a queen and that the President reported to her. I wonder if this impression wasn't formed by images of Columbia.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:54 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


(found the source, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl -- although I must have read it somewhere else)
posted by Countess Elena at 5:56 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]


This is a very narrow minded Chicagoan's response: Oh, (forehead slap) that's (another reason) why it was called the Columbian exhibition of 1893... is that golden lady in Jackson Park Columbia?
nope, she's just The Republic.
But, in her less gilded heyday, she had a sister, with what was reputed to be the largest fountain on earth. Columbia at the Columbian exhibition:
The fountain shows Columbia sitting aloft of the Barge of State, heralded by Fame at the prow, oared by the Arts and Industries, guided by Time at the helm, and drawn by the sea-horses of Commerce. The prow of the barge is ornamented with an eagle’s beak; its sides are bordered with dolphins in relief; and horns of plenty pour their abundance over the gunwales.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 5:57 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


And before Uncle Sam there was Brother Jonathan.
posted by peeedro at 5:58 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Columbia atop the City and County building, SLC, Utah. They covered up her breast, tbough, after a remodel.
posted by Oyéah at 6:22 PM on April 29 [2 favorites]


It so much easier to invest in a symbol than live up to the symbolized virtues.
posted by kokaku at 6:27 PM on April 29 [8 favorites]


One of my favorite bits of trivia about the Columbian Exposition is that Elias Disney (father of Walt and Roy) worked construction on some of the buildings.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:47 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


I have been obsessed with Columbia for decades. Please bring back our goddess.
posted by Manic Pixie Hollow at 6:56 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]




Interesting image: Uncle Sam and Britannia,
... walking their eagle and lion, brandishing their rapier cutlass and trident, respectively. As you do.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:04 PM on April 29


> Columbia atop the City and County building, SLC, Utah. They covered up her breast, tbough, after a remodel.

There is no greater threat to America's liberty and life essence than a bare breast.
posted by homunculus at 7:16 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I have a pretty strong connection between Columbia and the concept of manifest destiny (primarily because of the painting American Progress, I think). It's not a particularly positive connection, although I guess Uncle Sam doesn't have the best reputation either.

Ultimately, I don't think we could have a single figure adequately represent the ideal heart of the diverse face of the United States.
posted by No One Ever Does at 7:29 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


> America was Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia

we're done here: if the article can't even get the countries right …
posted by scruss at 8:09 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Here's another article with more images: Before Uncle Sam, the Symbol of the United States was the Goddess Columbia
posted by homunculus at 8:39 PM on April 29


Germania, the personification of Germany was recently depicted by a woman in a music video, (TW: German History) Deutschland (Youtube) by Rammstein. They had a good idea put the personification of nationalism in a casket and send it into space far, far away from Earth.
posted by Julianna Mckannis at 8:46 PM on April 29


America has plenty of white symbols already; we don't need to reboot Columbia just so we can have another. Fortunately, superhero comics have demonstrated at least two good solutions to this problem. Option 1 is to make a new incarnation of Columbia, just like Miles Morales took up the mantle of Spider-Man from Peter Parker. Option 2, and the one I prefer, is to have a whole Justice League of national personifications. The United States is fundamentally a pluralist country, despite Trumpist protests to the contrary. What becomes this country more is not a goddess, but a pantheon.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:47 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


...but a pantheon.
John Henry and Rosie the Riveter, arm in arm, front and center.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:35 PM on April 29 [9 favorites]


Columbia's been too busy to represent us since, like a good capitalist American, she ditched her gov job for the private sector (that film studio). And I suspect she's also mad because we took her off our money. And her sister(?) Liberty has been doing a great job filling in the last century or so.

But if we want to bring her back, we've got to do it like France and Marianne. There's only one woman for the job. She's an immigrant, edgy, provocative, gives no f@#$ and takes no crap. Who is our new Columbia? Grace Jones.
posted by zaixfeep at 9:40 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]


I mean, I like the nostalgia of Columbia stuff ok, but ugh no. We don't need any more national personifications. They mostly get used in wartime, don't they? Or to personify political struggles between nations (if that)? Always associated with overdone anthems and extremely bad poetry and art. Crying eagles and so on.

Trying to make one human representation of a group of people means you will always leave out the people that don't resemble that symbol.

Leave them in the past. We might leave nation-states in the past, someday, if we make it that long.
posted by emjaybee at 9:40 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Columbia was featured on many, many, many, many, lovely, patriotic, pro-Union envelopes during the Civil War.

For more images, the Library of Congress has many (warning, racism abounds in 100 year-old editorial cartoons), some interesting ones:
  • Peace - A flotilla of warships
  • After many years - US / British reproachment
  • The Fit-Thrower - Columbia and Uncle Sam give handouts to business
  • In Danger - Warning against monopolies
  • Declined With Thanks - Columbia demonstrates America's anti-Catholic sentiment
  • The Mortar Of Assimilation - Our anti-Irish sentiment
  • A Trifle Embarrassed - US colonies and The White Man's Burden
  • Hurrah! The Country Is Saved Again! - Gives me a The Wonderful Wizard of Oz vibe
  • Wolcott's Instant Pain Annihilator - Trippy patent medicine advertisement

  • posted by peeedro at 9:54 PM on April 29 [6 favorites]


    > Columbia's been too busy to represent us since, like a good capitalist American, she ditched her gov job for the private sector (that film studio). And I suspect she's also mad because we took her off our money. And her sister(?) Liberty has been doing a great job filling in the last century or so.

    (Spoilers for American Gods S2E6)

    One of the ideas in that episode of that really tickled me was how the new gods (of the 1940s) recruited Columbia to help with the war, and so she became Rosie the Riveter and did her part for the war effort. I hope they bring the character back; Laura Bell Bundy did a great acting job, and I'm curious to see how they imagine her evolving further.
    posted by homunculus at 10:15 PM on April 29


    Stepping away from manifest destiny, it seems like a national icon should project dignity, respect and general gravitas.

    How about Grace Hopper, scowling at your poorly documented code?
    posted by b1tr0t at 10:57 PM on April 29 [6 favorites]


    > How about Grace Hopper, scowling at your poorly documented code?

    That actually works out well for me, since I am already ashamed to be an American.
    posted by seraphine at 11:09 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


    One of my favorite MST3K one-liners: I don't remember what the movie is, but the Columbia Pictures logo with the torch-holding lady comes up and one of the bots says, "Oh, she's in everything."
    posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:02 AM on April 30 [3 favorites]


    How about Grace Hopper, scowling at your poorly documented code?

    I'd back Grace in a nanosecond.

    That actually works out well for me, since I am already ashamed to be an American.
    posted by seraphine


    Hey now, relax - Justin Bieber is Canadian, he just lives here.
    posted by zaixfeep at 12:45 AM on April 30


    Columbia was featured on many, many, many, many, lovely, patriotic, pro-Union envelopes during the Civil War.

    Did the Confederacy have its own tutelary deity as an alternative?
    posted by Joe in Australia at 2:11 AM on April 30


    > America was Columbia in the same way that England was Britannia

    we're done here: if the article can't even get the countries right …


    Tell that to the Scots. Britannia has always been more of a symbol of England and English dominance in practice.
    posted by automatronic at 2:50 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]


    Crying eagles

    Wherein it suddenly occurs to me - are those images of a bald eagle with a tear forming in the corner of its eye at the idea of un-American things... Are those images derived from a naive misreading of the phrase "eagle's cry," or an intentional punning of it?
    posted by Rat Spatula at 5:25 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]


    What becomes this country more is not a goddess, but a pantheon

    A dysfunctional pantheon, one that's pretty much at war with itself. Including the ones nobody talks about any more like

    OK, so far we have
    Uncle Sam,
    Columbia,
    Liberty,
    Jonhny Reb (some sort of satanic figure?)
    Billy Yank (probably deceased)


    OK. Needs some more diversity. We need maybe a dozen more before we can start assigning domains to their clerics....
    posted by happyroach at 6:43 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]


    Are those images derived from a naive misreading of the phrase "eagle's cry," or an intentional punning of it?

    Neither? The cartoonists just don't care how actual eagles display their emotional states so they go with "sad things cry."
    posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:08 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]


    Despite the random characters listed as Canadian national personifications on that Wikipedia page, we don't have one. Probably a result of being under Britannia's foot for so many years.
    posted by fimbulvetr at 7:39 AM on April 30


    "sad things cry."

    Who'd want a sobbing national symbol? What are ya, emoland¹ or something?

    --
    ¹: always in lower case because it is sensitive
    posted by scruss at 8:40 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]


    Since we seem to have also expanded to include contemporary takes....

    The webtoon Scandinavia And The World started out with each of the main Scandinavian nations as men, but then quickly added a woman to each nations' roster/character list; each nation they do a cartoon about now has a brother/sister pairing, with each different personification often taking on a distinct personality.

    The author uses the "Sister USA" character most frequently, though, of the "sister" characters; I'm finding that she's given "Sister USA" the stereotypical "bleeding-heart liberal" character, while "Brother USA" gets the big-lummox tropes (for example, "Sister USA" will be the one to make accusations of exploiting cultural resources, while "Brother USA" would be the one to ask dumb questions about soccer). "Brother USA" used to be more like a Trump/MAGA dude, but the cartoonist then broke that away even further, with Trump and the MAGA perspective now represented expressly by a shapeless orange lump with hair.

    I thought that a pairing like that at least is a nod to the fact that a national character is often a land of contrasts.
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:02 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]


    Washington State was originally going to be named Columbia but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia.

    That’s right, they changed the name to “Washington” so it would not be confused with Washington, D.C.
    posted by mbrubeck at 1:50 PM on April 30 [11 favorites]




    Since "Columbus" comes from the same root as "dove," Columbia's association with the eagle feels a little jarring.
    posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:58 AM on May 7 [1 favorite]


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