America is often represented in illustrations and political cartoons by symbolic characters. The fierce-looking bald eagle is a familiar one. The most widely-known human symbol of the United States is Uncle Sam. He's an old, gray-bearded fellow with stars on his top hat who has been around since the War of 1812. You still see him — sometimes on stilts — walking down Main Street in Independence Day parades.
But a softer and more nurturing figure was once America's favorite icon. She was Miss Columbia, a goddess of freedom whose regal bearing projected America's positive ideals and poetic nature.
Though she usually wore a Roman-style metal bonnet and was draped in the stars and stripes of the American flag, kind-hearted Columbia reached out to immigrants and the poor. She and Uncle Sam often appeared together, Sam wagging his finger in warning while Columbia offered a warm embrace.
In 1886, sculptor Frederic Bartholdi's monumental Statue of Liberty rose in New York Harbor — a gift of the French people. The copper Lady Liberty looked a lot like Columbia, though she wore a spiked crown and held high a torch of welcome. She fired Americans' imagination, and pretty soon she had elbowed Miss Columbia out of most illustrations. One of Columbia's final, though most enduring, appearances came in 1924, as the logo of the Columbia Pictures movie studio, though this Columbia borrowed Lady Liberty's torch.
Library of Congress researcher Ellen Berg notes that wholesome — almost feminine — American idealism retreated as the nation embarked on imperialist adventures at the dawn of the twentieth century. Uncle Sam grew even more scolding, and to this day his likeness turns up in scathing political cartoons that attack a U.S. government policy or its critics. If you want to see the kinder, gentler America figure that Miss Columbia represented, you'll have to catch a movie!
Slideshow: Images of Miss Columbia