Lady Liberty today stands tall as the States’ grande dame, but she wasn’t the first. Far from it. By tracing her rise, we get a better understanding of both American history and how branding works, and why it must evolve with the zeitgeist.
The original personification of America was the “Indian Queen.” She was one of the “four continents” known to Europeans, and all of which were personified as women. Male European explorers wanted to seize, control, and pillage the land, and their long-ingrained anxieties about sexuality wouldn’t let them do so to something male. Thus, these men created feminine personifications for the continents they knew, including Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Similar to brand identities today, these personifications included intrinsic and extrinsic values. For example, Africa was dark-skinned – extrinsic - and often depicted with a lion by her side, a prejudicial intrinsic based on the racist idea that African women could control animals. And the Indian Queen was equally biased in appearance and portrayal.
First appearing around 1570, the Indian Queen carried objects like spears, bows, or sometimes severed heads, and was scantily clad — all of which spoke to an “exotic savagery,” while her favored accessory, a cornucopia, represented the New World’s bounty. Foreign and corpulent, beguiling and robust, the Indian Queen stood as the promise and danger of the New World, a land where fortune and adventure could be found, or be lost. And so she remained for years — over 150 of them, actually. But then the Indian Queen suffered an indignity known to too many women in too many times and places: she was replaced by a younger version, an Indian princess.
The Indian Princess’ matricide was something of a brand refresh. The American colonies no longer saw themselves as part of a continental mass. They saw themselves as distinct from not just the continent, but from the rest of the English colonies. They were more than the New World; they were the new way, the epicenter for global growth and progress. An old Indian Queen wasn’t exactly “on brand,” and one can almost hear a colonial era creative director yelling, “It’s supposed to be a new world — keep it fresh!” And so, as the cultural forces shifted, the Indian Princess emerged around 1755, and was clearly a new entity: Though she still wore her successor’s familiar feathered headdress, this America version 2.0 was less exotic and more approachable than previous iterations. She was also suppler, thinner, and notably lighter-skinned than her more matronly, maternal foremother. She was indeed the vision of a New World, and it seemed she would be there for years to come.
But, alas, the Indian Princess’ reign was short-lived. The zeitgeist was changing too fast, and by 1760, as the march toward independence became inevitable, her dominance was threatened by another woman: Columbia.
Again, the Princess’ ouster was all about sociopolitical market forces — and a bit of racism, too. The American Revolution was still nearly two decades away, but it was already clear England wasn’t going to let America chart its own destiny, and it was clear Americans weren’t going to take it. Nor were they going to take the Indian Princess. Just as brand identities reflect the brand’s self-perception and refract how it wants to be received, so too do national brand identities.
Thus, Americans of this rebellious era sought out a female personification that was both distinct from England and that reflected their philosophical and aesthetic ideals, i.e. she defended natural rights and was white, not “savage” Indian. Columbia was the perfect candidate for the job.
Columbia had been on the scene around since 1696, when Judge Samuel Sewall suggested the American colonies be called “Columbina,” a feminized version of Columbus that preceded the more refined “Columbia” that arose as shorthand for the colonies in 1730 or so. While she remained a bit player in those years, but as revolution fomented, Columbia gained more share of the collective imagination. Then, in 1761, her first big break: an unsigned poem that included this passing reference: “Behold, Britannia! in thy favour'd Isle/At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince.”
It wasn’t much, but this usage did two things: First, it elevated Columbia to the same level as Britannia, a character akin to France’s Marianne and Germany’s Germania, making clear the colonies weren’t about to be lumped with the continent at large; and, two, it contrasted Columbia against that old, stodgy stand-in. And that poem was one of many that followed, including seminal American poet Philip Freneu’s 1775 words — “What madness, Heaven, has made Britannia frown? /Who plans or schemes to pull Columbia down?” — and a 1776 piece a former enslaved woman named Phillis Wheatley; it was called “To His Excellency, George Washington”:
“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.”
In other words, “Don’t mess with Columbia, aka: America.”
The colonies-cum-nation were now defining their own brand, and Columbia was their mascot, and she was everywhere: New York City’s King’s College became Columbia College – later university - in 1794; South Carolina debuted its new capital, Columbia, two years later; our nation’s capital was deemed the “Territory of Columbia” in 1791; and the patriotic song “Hail Columbia” debut in 1798. Columbia had become an institution.
While the Indian princess remained in the mix — artists depicted her as a folk hero well through the 19th century, and Columbia at times bore a feathered headdress, as sort of collateral branding — there was no doubt Columbia was America’s queen bee. And it was also clear that she was more well-rounded than her predecessors. Unlike the Indian Queen or Princess, who represented the land and its offerings, Columbia represented American values — liberty, equality, natural rights — and it showed in her depictions: modeled after the Roman goddess of liberty, Columbia wore a white robe and often carried a wand.
But whereas the Roman version came with a cat and broken shackles, Columbia bore a shield or a flag, and was often joined by a trusty Bald Eagle. She was a wise, ageless warrior for truth, justice, and American ideals, a fact made clear in the decades-worth of political cartoons in which she cheers for democratic inclusion and jeers racist hate, often alongside Uncle Sam, the predictably male personification of the U.S. government.
Columbia’s run as the nation’s HBIC went into the 20th century, and was particularly pronounced during World War One, when Columbia starred in patriotic propaganda.
But things changed after the war. The United States went from being simply powerful to being a superpower. Having beat back their Axis nemeses, and having more than doubled our manufacturing capabilities, the States were on top of the world; they had become the long-dreamed of City Upon a Hill — more popular than ever, richer than ever, and with more influence than ever, and in need of a rebranding to match. It was finally Lady Liberty’s time to shine.
Liberty had been around for years. In fact, she and Columbia were often interchangeable: Freneu’s aforementioned poem was called “American Liberty;” the character “Liberty” appeared in post-Revolution paintings, as in Samuel Jenning’s popular 1792 painting, “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences;” and “Liberty” coins debuted in 1796, the model for which was an influencer of the era, Anne Willing Bingham.
But, again, Liberty was one of Columbia’s virtues. This early Liberty was an aspect of Columbia, rather than her own woman – kind of like when Beyoncé created Sasha Fierce: it’s as if Columbia was playing Liberty, complete with unique costuming. While Columbia proper typically wore her robes, “Liberty” had more leeway and could be seen in the fashions of the times. She wore high-waisted gowns in the late 18th century; she adopted Victorian fashions in the mid-19th; and she bore corsets in the late.
Yet despite Liberty’s prevalence, she didn’t come into her own until the 1870s, after French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi debuted the larger-than-life Statue of Liberty.
Definitely not as popular as perceived rival Columbia — many illustrators portrayed the controversial statue as an old hag, while Frederick Opper in 1885 depicted it as a glorified billboard — it took time for Liberty to gain market share, but her reputation finally took off after the war, when she became a beacon of hope for not just immigrants, but the whole democratic world. The American brand had expanded, and it needed an icon who could carry the weight.
Liberty was by now so influential, that Columbia Pictures, founded in 1924, gave their icon a Liberty-esque torch, something the classic Columbia would never bear. The times were clearly changing, and so was the American brand: we were #1 — or so we believed.
Yes, Columbia still makes appearances from time to time — she was front-and-center in WWII posters — but she never quite regained her footing as Liberty took her iconographic slot, standing up for the values Columbia once defended.
It’s been well over a century since Americans embraced Liberty as we know her. A lot has changed since then – civil rights, LGBTQ rights, a broadening of who can and cannot be American — and one can’t help but wonder if Liberty’s not due for another redesign. Considering national icons are meant to reflect ideals and reality alike, perhaps it’s time we debut a new version of Liberty – one that vies a more accurate and inclusive view of America. Perhaps the next personification of America doesn’t even need a gender.
Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?