The earliest type of personification of the Americas, seen in European art from the 16th century onwards, reflected the tropical regions in South and Central America from which the earliest travellers reported back. These were most often used in sets of female personifications of the Four Continents. America was depicted as a woman who, like Africa, was only partly dressed, typically in bright feathers, which invariably formed her headress. She often held a parrot, was seated on a caiman or alligator, with a cornucopia. Sometimes a severed head was a further attribute, or in prints scenes of cannibalism were seen in the background.
Though versions of this depiction, tending as time went on to soften the rather savage image into an "Indian princess" type, and in churches emphasizing conversion to Christianity, served European artists well enough, by the 18th century they were becoming rejected by settlers in North America, who wanted figures representing themselves rather than the Native Americans they were often in conflict with.
Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall used the name Columbina (not Columbia) for the New World in 1697. The name Columbia for America first appeared in 1738 in the weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine. Publication of Parliamentary debates was technically illegal, so the debates were issued under the thin disguise of Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput and fictitious names were used for most individuals and placenames found in the record. Most of these were transparent anagrams or similar distortions of the real names and some few were taken directly from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels while a few others were classical or neoclassical in style. Such were Ierne for Ireland, Iberia for Spain, Noveborac for New York (from Eboracum, the Roman name for York) and Columbia for America—at the time used in the sense of "European colonies in the New World".
By the time of the Revolution, the name Columbia had lost the comic overtone of its Lilliputian origins and had become established as an alternative, or poetic name for America. While the name America is necessarily scanned with four syllables, according to 18th-century rules of English versification Columbia was normally scanned with three, which is often more metrically convenient. For instance, the name appears in a collection of complimentary poems written by Harvard graduates in 1761 on the occasion of the marriage and coronation of King George III.
The name Columbia rapidly came to be applied to a variety of items reflecting American identity. A ship built in Massachusetts in 1773 received the name Columbia Rediviva and it later became famous as an exploring ship and lent its name to new Columbias.
No serious consideration was given to using the name Columbia as an official name for the independent United States, but with independence the name became popular and was given to many counties, townships, and towns as well as other institutions.
In 1791, three commissioners appointed by President George Washington named the area destined for the seat of the United States government the Territory of Columbia. It was subsequently (1801) organized as the District of Columbia.
As a quasi-mythical figure, Columbia first appears in the poetry of African-American Phillis Wheatley starting in 1776 during the revolutionary war.
One century scarce perform'd its destined round, When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found; And so may you, whoever dares disgrace The land of freedom's heaven-defended race! Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Especially in the 19th century, Columbia was visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States and of liberty itself, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne, often seen in political cartoons of the 19th and early 20th century. This personification was sometimes called Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia. Such iconography usually personified America in the form of an Indian queen or Native American princess.
Columbia at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically-draped garments decorated with stars and stripes. A popular version gave her a red-and-white-striped dress and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash, spangled with white stars. Her headdress varied and sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress while other times it was a laurel wreath, but most often it was a cap of liberty.
Lady Columbia recognized World War I Doughboy soldier as having suffered injury due to his willingness to serve humanity
Early in World War I (1914–1918) the image of Columbia standing over a kneeling "Doughboy" was issued in lieu of the Purple Heart Medal. She gave "to her son the accolade of the new chivalry of humanity" for injuries sustained in "the" World War.
Columbia Calls – Enlist Now for U.S. Army, World War I recruitment poster by Vincent Aderente
In World War I, the name Liberty Bond for savings bonds was heavily publicized, often with images from the Statue of Liberty. The personification of Columbia fell out of use and she was largely replaced by the Statue of Liberty as a feminine symbol of the United States. When Columbia Pictures adopted Columbia as its logo in 1924, she appeared (and still appears) bearing a torch—similar to the Statue of Liberty and unlike 19th-century depictions of Columbia.
Statues of the personified Columbia may be found among others in the following places.
The element niobium was first called columbium, a name which some people still use today. The name columbium, coined by English chemist Charles Hatchett upon his discovery of the metal in 1801, reflected that the type specimen of the ore came from America.