Almost every American, and many of the people in the rest of the world, have long been familiar with Uncle Sam. He’s been around “representing” the United States of America since the early 1800s, although his most famous gig was as a poster boy in 1917:
Sam is what is known as a “national personification.”
A national personification is an anthropomorphism [attributing real human characteristics to something non-human such as an animal or a cartoon] of a nation or its people; it can appear in both editorial cartoons and propaganda. Some early personifications in the Western world tended to be national manifestations of the majestic wisdom and war goddess Minerva/Athena, and often took the Latin name of the ancient Roman province. Examples of this type include Britannia, Germania, Hibernia [Ireland], Helvetia [Switzerland] and Polonia [Poland].
Sam himself is not one of those “majestic” personifications of a Roman god, of course. He’s a down-to-earth guy, usually shown with messy hair, a scruffy goatee, and tacky striped pants.
But he’s long been quite the ladies’ man! And there were plenty of majestic ladies to court. Here are “Marianne” (personification of France),“Mother Russia,” and Brittania from a 1914 Russian poster.
Here’s Sam, steppin’ out with Britannia.
And here he is, being tempted by a thoroughly Modern Marianne of the 1930s with a bottle of wine hidden up her sleeve! (This is an advertisement from a French magazine for the popular BYRRH wine of the time.)
However, although Sam has had flirtations with other national-goddess babes, his main squeeze since childhood has been “The All-American Girl Next Door,” Columbia.
Columbia is a historical and poetic name used for the United States of America and is also the name of its female personification. It has inspired the names of many persons, places, objects, institutions, and companies; i.e., Columbia University, the District of Columbia (the national capital), and the Columbia River. Columbia was largely displaced as the female symbol of the U.S. by the Statue of Liberty circa 1920. [Wiki: Columbia (name)]
As mentioned above, Columbia disappeared from most “pop culture” settings such as Fourth of July posters and parades, replaced by Sam and the Statue of Liberty by the time of my childhood in the 1950s. But if we would have grown up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we would have seen her image all over the place, including on posters during the WW1 era just like Sam.
She always wore the goddess-y like flowing robes, but with that awkward-looking funny cap. It’s called a “Phrygian cap.”
The Phrygian cap is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward, associated in antiquity with the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central Anatolia [part of the area of modern Turkey]. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty, perhaps through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of manumitted (emancipated) slaves of ancient Rome. Accordingly, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap; in artistic representations it signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty.
The first time I noticed the cap on the head of Columbia in paintings and such, I thought it very odd. I think I know why now.
Yes, the Smufs all wear Phrygian caps!
Sam and Columbia were long used, together and separately, as poignant symbols to tug at the heartstrings of Americans regarding issues of Patriotism, American cultural values, and American customs.
And they were also frequently portrayed in political cartoons, to emphasize partisan political points of view. Such as in this 1881 cartoon.
Or this one from 1918.
Although these two mythical characters are somewhat fluid in how they are portrayed in metaphor, in general Sam tends to represent the government of the United States, and Columbia the “nation” of people.
Sam and Columbia have thus often been used to perpetuate some of the mythperceptions of American history.
Columbia is THE original “MythAmerica.” We will be running across her and her boyfriend Sam often in coming blog entries on this Meet MythAmerica blog.
Continue on to the next in this series: