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Before Lady Liberty Reigned, Columbia was America’s Patriotic Female Personification

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By Tom Konecny

You’ve heard of Columbia University, District of Columbia, Columbia River and Columbia Pictures. They’re all named after Columbia – the popular national personification of the United States during the 1800s.

Originating during the 18th century, Columbia is the poetic term for the national personification of the United States. It came from the name of explorer Christopher Columbus and the ending -ia, common in Latin names of countries. Columbia’s use as the female personification of the United States began to disappear when the Statue of Liberty came into greater prominence in the 1890s and beyond.

Early beginnings

The name Columbia for America first appeared in print in 1738, thought to have been coined by Samuel Johnson. This was done so regularly in a weekly magazine that included debates of the British Parliament, which was illegal to do at the time. By the time the Revolution started in the 1760s, Columbia had become an alternative or poetic name for America. It also was consistently used for items reflecting American identity, such as ship names. It never received consideration as an official name for the newly independent United States, but the name did gain in popularity and was used for many towns, points of interest and learning institutions. At least 20 cities in the United States share the name Columbia.

Columbia the synonym

Though it never became official, the adjective Columbian gained meaning as being “of or from the United States of America.” Some really viewed it as an alternative word for America. An 1893 world’s fair held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival was called the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The look

Columbia’s look never became standardized in the way we view Uncle Sam. Usually she was seen as a young or middle-aged woman with draping gowns ornamented in stars and stripes. Her headdress sometimes included feathers or a wreath, but most often was a cap of liberty. Early on, Columbia was portrayed as a goddess-like female, sometimes called Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia. It was not uncommon to see her depicted as an Indian queen or Native American princess. Columbia Pictures began using her as its logo in 1924, appearing with a torch, much like the Statue of Liberty.

There’s a Columbia song

The largely forgotten, yet ever-patriotic “Hail, Columbia,” serves as the Vice President’s ceremonial entrance march. The song was previously considered, along with several others, as one of the unofficial national anthems of the United States. It even served as the President’s anthem for a short period of time. The song would be used as a de facto national anthem for most of the 19th century. Although it was once a candidate to become our official anthem, it fell out of favor after World War I, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was named as such in 1931. You can occasionally find “Hail, Columbia” appearances in movies set during 19th century America.

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