National Personifications

This article is the eighteenth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

It is probably true that if you, as a history educator or an adult interested in the past, were asked to say how your country was represented in imagery you would be able to answer. There are certain
very well-known images that are internationally known too; think of ‘Uncle Sam’ for the USA, or the Russian bear, or the German eagle. Students in schools are young and often they do not have this cultural image vocabulary. They do not understand this symbolism. We need to help them identify common representations of nations and people so that they can understand image sources from the past. For example, many history school exams expect students to be able to work with political cartoons or propaganda posters from the 20 th century. These are often full of caricatures, images and personifications. Students are not going to be able to even start to work out what a cartoon or poster means if they cannot identify the people, places and events being represented. Therefore, we need to explicitly teach students about such images. This is particularly true for students who, due to their background, may not be able to learn about images and symbolism from their home background. If teachers do not teach this topic, then some students will remain excluded from the imagery familiar to the dominant culture of the place where they live. This blogpost is focused on one particular group of images – the personification of nations. That is, nations being represented as imaginary people. The contextual information provided with each of the images in the source collection provides specific information about images from a range of countries.

Source: Bust of Athena Pallas from Villa Albani, Rome; Unknown author,
1832, Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation via Europeana, 44164.

Ideas to consider when exploring national personifications
This might be a topic that you have not thought about very explicitly before. To help you think about teaching using national personifications, there are some ideas to consider:

  • The tradition of national personification goes back to the far past and became very popular from the 18 th century onward, especially with the rise of mass production of images.
  • This idea of representing a whole group of people, often a nation, as a person is controversial. Societies are always diverse and representation a whole society with just one image of a person is an over-simplification. It deliberately ignores diversity.
  • One national group may have competing images across time and/or within one period of time. An example of this would be in later 19 th century Ireland, where nationalists used a female image needing the support of young Irish men to free her from British control, while unionists at the same time used a female image of Ireland needing the protection of her older sister, representing the UK government.
  • Personifications might link the national group to the ancient world. For example, Britannia for the UK and Germania for Germany. These personifications are often dressed in classical costume and presented with classical images.
  • National Personifications might also be deliberately presented to represent the ‘common man’. That is, to be a figure lots of people can identify with as similar to them. An example of this would be Uncle Sam from the USA.
  • An advantage for the student of history is that the most common and historically effective personifications tend to have identifiable features that we can teach students to spot. When they are studying political satire or propaganda. Again, think about Uncle Sam with his top hat and his stars and stripes costume.

    We can teach students not only to identify these substantive national personifications, but also to understand this cultural phenomenon as something chosen and constructed. We can use them a source material for evidence of the perceptions of the people who created them, for evidence of their values and for evidence of how they thought about their nation and how others should think about their nation. As such they are an introduction to the cultural history or a place, or people, or period
Uncle Sam from the USA
Source: Thank you Uncle Sam, Joke Broekema, 1944, Museon via
Europeana, 71618.

Teaching about national personification using the e-learning activity
The e-learning activity is designed to introduce students to the concept of national personification, to identify some commonly used personifications and to use some of the them as sources of evidence about the past. After a short introductory text about what they are and the purpose of thinking about them, they are then asked to sort a selection of images into male and female. This is a way to get students to look at a range of national personifications. Students then follow a link to a short piece about why so many personifications are of women and to a link to a short piece explaining the ‘Uncle Sam’ figure, as one example of a well-known personification. They then focus on two images and identify similarities and differences between them. These two personifications, one of Denmark and one of Finland, give an overall impression. Students are reminded that these are stereotypes and that, of course, it is important to remember that each country is in reality much more complex and that the millions of people who live in them are not all the same; they do not have the same thoughts, hopes and dreams.

At the same time, students learn that these personifications can give us insights into how people in power, or supporters of a country, or a country’s critics, thought of themselves at the time the image was produced. They also learn that these images can also give us clues about qualities that some people value. The images are therefore useful as sources of evidence for the past. They are small windows into the past that give us a glimpse of what it might have been like. We can then use them to build our ideas and opinions about the past. To extend the learning students are asked to read the contexts to each source in the collection and challenged to find out more about the personifications that are used by their community. Hopefully, after completely this activity, students will understand the concept of national personification, be able to identify them and understand how they can be used by historians to learn about the past.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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