The Statue of Liberty, which towers 305 feet, six inches over New York Harbor, is one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of America. It has inspired countless souvenir replicas and been referenced in everything from posters for war bonds to the final scene of the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes,” in which an astronaut who returns to Earth in the distant future discovers it partially buried in sand.

But the statue that’s known across the planet went through an odd, serendipitous journey to iconic status. It was conceived by a French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who had never even been to the United States before arriving in 1871 in hopes of convincing Americans to support his dream of building a monumental statue.

His design for the Statue of Liberty borrowed from an earlier idea he’d had for a colossal woman bearing a lantern at the entrance of the Suez Canal. The proposed figure he called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” was a woman wearing a crown of rays and holding a torch aloft in one hand and a tablet in the other. He originally scouted Central Park as a possible location, before settling upon what was then Bedloe’s Island.

Bartholdi traveled across the United States from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles to promote his idea, but when he wasn’t able to secure government support, he went back to France and started working with his friend Edouard de Laboulaye, who for years had wanted to build a French-American monument.

“Laboulaye was a very great admirer of the United States,” American University historian Alan Kraut says in a podcast, “Raising the Torch,” created for the Statue of Liberty Museum. “He was particularly excited about the outcome of the America Civil War, the emancipation of 4 million slaves, and also the long relationship the United States had had with France.”

In 1875, Laboulaye formed the Franco-American Union to raise $250,000 to finance Bartholdi’s creation of the statue. The idea was that Americans, in turn, would raise money for the statue’s base.

But it wasn’t that easy to get people in the United States—particularly in New York City, where it was to be located—excited about putting up money for the project. In 1876, to drum up more enthusiasm, Bartholdi exhibited the statue’s hand and torch at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. When skeptics in New York questioned why he wasn’t showing more of the body, Bartholdi dropped hints that he might just put the finished statue in Philadelphia instead. New Yorkers, not wanting to be shown up, quickly agreed to exhibit the hand and torch in Madison Square to advertise the project and stimulate more contributions, according to the New York Public Library.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/The New York Public Library
The colossal hand and torch of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition, 1876.

In the 1880s, the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty raised money for the construction of the statue’s pedestal by selling small souvenir models of the planned statue, which ranged from $1 for a six-inch replica to $5 for a foot-high version, which were marketed through a nationwide campaign. The effort led to the spread of miniature Statues of Liberty throughout the United States and the world and helped establish the statue in the public imagination as a symbol of America.

A variety of other fundraising efforts were staged, ranging from theatrical galas to prizefights, according to Christine Garnaut’s and Donald Langmead’s Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats. Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, “The New Colossus,” which was read at a fundraising art exhibition in 1883. (Two decades later, it was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal.) Lazarus’ stirring plea to "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” helped to make the statue more than just a celebration of American democracy, by linking it with the waves of immigrants arriving in America in the late 1800s, and their aspirations for a better life.

“Laboulaye uses America as a symbol of good things. He sees Bartholdi as the tool by which he can achieve his aim of giving a gift,” Barry Moreno, historian and curator for the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, says in the “Raising the Torch” podcast.

Men in a workshop hammering sheets of copper for the construction of the Statue of Liberty, circa 1883.
The New York Public Library
Men in a workshop hammering sheets of copper for the construction of the Statue of Liberty, circa 1883.

When even those heroic fundraising efforts weren’t enough, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the tabloid New York World, came to the project’s rescue. Pulitzer ran a March 1885 article in his newspaper, which prodded readers into contributing more money for the base by pointing out that the statue itself had been paid for by “the masses of the French people—by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans—by all, irrespective of class or condition.” Americans had to do their part as well, Pulitzer exhorted, and it worked. The newspaper was able to raise $100,000 to complete the project, most of it in donations of $1 or less.

But while the campaign to finish the pedestal—in some ways, an early version of today’s GoFundMe campaigns—required hustle, it ultimately helped Americans to feel a sense of ownership and connection to the statue, even though it had been created on the other side of the Atlantic.

As Magnuson-Cannady, supervising ranger for the National Park Service tells the “Raising the Torch” podcast, “The Statue of Liberty was really of the people in that the people of the United States and the people of France...not the super wealthy, not the super powerful—it was everyday folks contributing to the fundraising efforts and paying for the Statue of Liberty and the pedestal.”

Construction of the Statue of Liberty
Photo 12/UIG/Getty Images
The construction of the Statue of Liberty on the front page of Scientific American, circa 1886.

In 1885, the statue arrived—in 350 pieces—in New York, where it took a year to be assembled because the pedestal hadn’t yet been completed. Finally, in October 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated at a ceremony during which the crowd was interrupted by a full 15 minutes of applause before President Grover Cleveland could begin a brief speech in which he proclaimed that “she holds aloft the light which illumines the way to man’s enfranchisement.”

The massive statue’s magnificence instantly made it into a tourist magnet. As Barry Moreno explains in his 2017 pictorial history of the Statue of Liberty, Congress’s passage of the Private Card Mailing Act of 1898, which authorized private companies to produce postcards as long as they adhered to certain size and quality standards, also helped boost its profile, because people who visited bought inexpensive color postcards and sent them to friends and neighbors.

The market for Statue of Liberty postcards, in fact, became so lucrative that 11 years later, American printers convinced Congress to ban the importation of foreign-made postcards that depicted the statue and other quintessential “American scenes.”

The statue became an even more prominent American symbol during World War I, when it became one of the sights that U.S. soldiers gazed upon as they sailed off to fight in Europe, as well as one of the first things they glimpsed when they finally returned home.

The opening of a new $100 million museum on Liberty Island in 2019, paid for by private donations, further reinforces the Statue of Liberty as a monument cherished by people around the world. Timed to the May 2019 opening of the museum, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation created an app featuring Apple’s augmented reality software, along with the “Raising the Torch” podcast to enhance the museum experience. Also featured in the new museum are a series of eight short films by HISTORY that outline fundraising and construction efforts behind the Statue of Liberty, how it became a symbol of home and democracy during wartime and its global significance as an icon representing equality and immigration.

“The statue is a kind of malleable or plastic figure,” Kraut says. “It can come to embody the kinds of definitions that one lends to the notion of freedom, itself.”

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