Columbia: First in Peace, First in War


In Columbia, South Carolina, on 10 November 1860, the state general assembly called for a convention to consider seceding from the Union. Just days before, Republican Abraham Lincoln claimed victory with a platform that, at the very least, opposed expanding slavery into new states. Indeed, two years before, Lincoln predicted that with its current condition untenable, the nation would soon be either all-slave or all-free.

Gathering in Columbia weeks later, on 17 December the assembly voted to secede. With smallpox spreading in Columbia, the assembly reconvened in the state’s port city of Charleston. Secession was ratified on 20 December 1860. Charleston, of course, heard the first gunshots of the War Between the States the following spring.

South Carolina’s capital was the very first place in the world ever called Columbia. In a richly symbolic turn, it was in a place named for the United States that the nation’s tenuous unity met its most organized challenge.

As you may remember from a previous post, secession complicated the South’s relationship to Columbia-as-symbol; South Carolinians banned songs referring to it, but other states maintained their attachment.

I eagerly look forward to visiting Columbia, South Carolina. It’s the most populous political entity bearing the name in question, with a long and fascinating history. Here are two images of it: one depicting the ruins of war, and the other showing the thriving metropolis of today.

The Columbian Press: the Apple Computer of its day?


I like the word adventure, especially in its older sense: that which “happens by chance, fortune, or luck”. Today we’d typically call this serendipity. Adventure’s meaning grew to include taking a risk, “a trial of one’s chances”. The word adventure implies much greater agency or intent than serendipity. Going toward risk makes things happen.

When I set out in the morning seeking America By Another Name, I never know what I’ll find. One trip to the New York Public Library supplied my first knowledge of a patented creation called the Columbian Press. Many months later, I had a mere five hours to explore the northeast corner of Columbia County, New York. To my immense delight, there I met a man who actually owns a Columbian Press.

The man is Don Carpentier, founder and owner of Eastfield, a school for historic preservation in Rensselaer County. Amidst the buildings on this beautiful museum-of-American-architecture compound, Don has a print shop featuring the Columbian Press. The building itself came from Columbia County, just a few miles to the south. You can just make out the letters “Columbia Co. Agency” below the eave facing the lane.

The Columbian Press provided excellent pressure to the paper with little exertion by the pressman. It seems only five were sold in its namesake country; with the East Coast market already supplied with presses and the frontier market demanding portability, the Columbian Press made its mark in Europe. As an early and great American technological export, it was produced in the markets that it supplied.

The Columbian Press I photographed was purchased by Mr. Carpentier in England, place of its manufacture. As a device for communication marked by ease of use and unforgettable aesthetics, I suggest, with some irony, that it was the Apple Computer of its day.

Here are photos of the press and of Eastfield from that rainy October day last week. My first time excursion into Rensselaer County also had personal significance: the Van Rensselaer family are among my early American ancestors. I am particularly proud of Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, the patrooness at Rensselaerswyck. Of all the women in the Dutch Colony of New Netherlands, perhaps more is known of her than any other.