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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Surprising History of Lady Liberty

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

She’s been called the Mother of Exiles, Lady of the Harbor, Lady Liberty, the Green Goddess, Mother of Freedom, The Statue of Liberty. Her official name is “Liberty Enlightening the World.” She is one of the most powerful icons of America and what America symbolizes to the world: a beacon of hope, a fortress of freedom, a protectress of dreams not possible in the rest of the world. And she has welcomed tens of millions of immigrants and refugees—OUR ANCESTORS unless you are Native American—to our shores. She has welcomed perhaps as many as 50 MILLION souls—“huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—to the “promised land.” It is the quintessential American story we grew up with and love.

(You can find out if your ancestors came through Ellis Island and passed The Statue of Liberty by going to the “passenger search” at: .)

Today—October 28th—marks the 133rd anniversary of the dedication of The Statue of Liberty in 1886. But, like liberty itself, the statue came to our shores with great effort, bravery, the support of allies, vision, serendipitous luck, and, yes, bloodshed. It was not an easy journey for her, but we are grateful she made it. It’s hard to imagine an America without her! But she almost didn’t end up in the United States.

A little-known fact: the monument was first imagined by a French abolitionist and President of the French Anti-Slavery Society, Édouard de Laboulaye. At the close of the American Civil War, Laboulaye organized a meeting of French abolitionists at his summer home in Versailles to discuss creating a monument to commemorate the liberation of American slaves. Laboulaye approached sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi about developing a model. Bartholdi’s earliest model, circa 1870, shows Lady Liberty with her right arm raised and illuminating the world with a torch in the victorious gesture with which we are all familiar. But in her left hand she held broken shackles as a symbol of the end of slavery. (A model of this first model still exists at the Museum of the City of New York.) Bartholdi designed the statue based on Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, but it is also believed he modeled certain features form this mother, as well. The French sculptor had already completed some commissions for the United States, including the statue of Revolutionary War French hero, Lafayette, in the New York’s Union Square.

The final model morphed into Lady Liberty holding a stone tablet inscribed with the numerals for July 4, 1776. Remnants of the original broken chains are still there, but at her feet. Support for the gargantuan structure was hard won however and Bartholdi had trouble finding a home. He first pitched the idea for the sculpture to Egypt for the Suez Canal. He was entranced by the massive Egyptian project to dig a channel between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And since the location was on the continent of Africa, where most slaves had originated, he felt it was a fitting place. At the Paris World’s Fair of 1867, he met the leader of Egypt, Khedive, and proposed creating a work as wondrous as the pyramids or sphinxes. His design was on a colossal woman wearing a loose-fitting tunic of a “fellah,” a slave, holding a lantern. She would stand as a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal. But the deal fell through.

Bartholdi turned next to the original proposed recipient, the United States as a possible home for his magnificent creation. But the United States was not enthusiastic. It took about 15 years for the statue to be completed in a neighborhood of Paris, and that long for a groundswell of support to grow in America. In the meantime, Bartholdi petitioned leaders in American and his own country of France to generate interest in the project. A leading French builder, Gustav Eiffel, helped him promote the project, and then Mark Twain got in the act. But, the final push came from newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, who promised to print the names of every donor who contributed even a penny to pay for the project. It turned out to be a genius marketing strategy not only for the Statue of Liberty, but his newspaper empire. Readers donated to the project, then bought a copy of the newspaper to see their name enshrined in print!

The statue’s torch was exhibited with great fanfare in 1876—the 100th birthday of the United States—in Philadelphia and fairgoers lined up in droves and paid admission to climb the stairs to the top of the torch. With the funds he raised in 1876, he had enough capital to complete Lady Liberty’s august head. Bartholdi was so grateful to Philadelphia, he considered installing his statue there. In 1882, in the midst of constructing the colossal head and crown at his workshop in Paris, fundraising efforts in New York were waning. Boston moved in and made a play for the statue to be installed there. But the New York Times rallied its citizens:

“[Boston] proposes to take our neglected statue of Liberty and warm it over for her own use and glory. Boston has probably again overestimated her powers. This statue is dear to us, though we have never looked upon it, and no third-rate town is going to step in and take it from us. Philadelphia tried to do that in 1876 and failed. Let Boston be warned . . . that she can’t have our Liberty … that great light-house statue will be smashed into … fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.”

Ultimately New York won out. When Bartholdi arrived in New York in 1871, he looked at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and also the newly constructed Central Park as possible locations for his colossus. But U.S. President Ulysses Grant got into the act and authorized what was called Bedloe Island (now Liberty Island) to be the home of the Statue of Liberty. He also specified that she should serve as a lighthouse. Giving the Lady a practical purpose, she would qualify for government funding! (Ironically, engineers could never successfully light her crown to fully serve as a lighthouse, but it gave the symbolic statue a “raison d’etre” for government purposes in the meantime.)

As plans progressed for her eventual installation, plans for the Statue of Liberty became even more grandiose. Originally, Bartholdi wanted to gild her. But the cost was prohibitive and fund-raising had already been challenging, he abandoned that idea. Thomas Edison, too, wanted to get into the act. When he introduced the phonograph in 1878, he announced that he wanted to design a “monster disc” for the Statue of Liberty to give her voice. She would then be able to deliver inspirational oratory to Manhattan Island, as well as the millions of immigrants she would ultimately welcome. Luckily, that idea never gained traction.

The construction of the Statue of Liberty began in Paris in 1875 and was completed in 1884, with crews working around the clock, seven days a week, for nine years. When it was finally completed in 1885, it was disassembled into 350 pieces. The total weight of the statue is 225 tons. Then shipped to New York City, where it took four months to reassemble. The cost of the project was roughly about $250,00 in U.S. dollars—about $7 million in today’s currency.

The Statue of Liberty was not only a magnificent artistic endeavor, its construction was an engineering marvel. Bartholdi worked with Gustav Eiffel to plan and execute the statue—Bartholdi concentrating on the exterior and Eiffel designing the internal, supporting structure. Bartholdi first designed a small model of plaster that was just under four feet tall. From this he divided the statue into 12 pieces and gradually began to enlarge the pieces, ensuring at every point that they fit perfectly throughout each iteration. As the pieces began to get quite large, he began to build wooden structures around which he would build plaster contours with mathematical points to correspond to the original models. Eiffel's infrastructure design was a very early example of curtain wall construction, in which the exterior of the structure is not load bearing but supported by an interior framework. Eiffel included two interior spiral staircases, to make it easier for visitors to reach the observation point in the crown.

In the meantime, American architect Morris Hunt was given the charge of designing and building a pedestal befitting the breathtaking monument. At first he designed a pedestal based on the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But it was not structurally strong enough or the base massive enough to support the 225 tons of weight of the statue. Morris Hunt turned to a neo-Classical design that he wanted to feel like a “fortress of liberty” at the base of the statue and dignified in its support of such a regal monument. The final height of the pedestal itself is 87 feet. The pedestal was built as a building that could house a museum and has 215 steps to the top of the base, as well as an elevator.

The statue atop the pedestal is 305 feet high and remains the tallest statue in the United States, except for the “Birth of the New World” statue in Puerto Rico completed in 2016 that is 360 feet tall. Lady Liberty’s inner framework is made of iron, with a copper exterior and bonded with lead and tin. The copper used for the exterior weighs 31 tons. Its thickness is about 3/32 of an inch thick—about the thickness of two pennies stacked. In fact, the copper used for the exterior could make about 30 million pennies. It took 30 years for the copper exterior to oxidize to the signature green hue we recognize today.

The magnitude of the statue’s dimensions are truly awe-inspiring. The seven rays of the statue’s crown are each nine feet long and weigh 150 pounds each. They symbolize the seven continents of the world, all from which immigrants have come to seek freedom in America. The length of her hand is 16 feet. Her index finger alone is eight feet. Her feet are 25 feet long, her tablet, 23’7’ high.

It is estimated that the Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed more than 25 million immigrants to the United States since her opening in 1886. The first day that Ellis Island opened as an immigration station was January 1, 1892. On that day, more than 700 immigrants were processed. The most immigrants ever processed in one day was April 17, 1907, when 11,747 foreign-born went through the gates. In fact, 1907 was the peak year, when more than 1.2 million immigrants came to the U.S.

Today the monument attracts 4.5 million visitors a year and is one of our nation’s dearest symbols of our national identity. In May of this year, a brand-new Statue of Liberty Museum opened on Liberty Island. The original 16-foot, 3,600-pound torch was removed and is now the centerpiece of the new museum. In 1985, Lady Liberty was given a gleaming new copper torch gilded in 24K gold! The torch is still brilliantly illuminated at night.

One of the most poignant aspects of The Statue of Liberty, which was itself an afterthought was a famous bronze plaque commemorating Lady Liberty: a now-famous poem by Emma Lazarus. She wrote it in 1883 to raise funds for the building of the pedestal on which the statue would be mounted. “The New Colossus,” the title of her poem, was publicly read in 1883 at a fundraising event and was later published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper and The New York Times. But then it was forgotten. Emma Lazarus died in 1887 without knowing that her words would be immortalized on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The plaque beginning with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free....” was installed in 1903. Like Emma Lazarus and like Lady Liberty herself, our efforts, our sacrifice, our legacy, continue to make a difference for millions around the world and for future generations beyond us.

PHOTOS: (1) The copper-clad, oxidized green Statue of Liberty, 305 feet high remains the tallest statue in the contiguous 48 United States. The copper used for the exterior weighs 31 tons. (2) U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant secured 14-acre Bedloe Island in upper New York Bay as the home for the Statue of Liberty. In the 1870s, the island was home to the crumbling Fort Wood, which had been constructed in 1809 and was used as a dilapidated prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. (3) An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887. An estimated 30 million immigrants have passed the Statue of Liberty on their way to America since the statue was installed in 1886 to the present. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. (4-10) The construction of the Statue of Liberty in Paris took nine years, from 1875-1884. It was installed on Bedloe Island, now Liberty Island, and dedicated on October 28, 1886. (4) The bust of the Statue of Liberty on display at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878 before it was shipped to the United States. (5) The statue towers over Paris rooftops in 1884 after that portion was completed. (6) The right arm of the statue on display in Philadelphia in 1876. Photo Associated Press. (7) The pedestal for the statue, designed by American Richard Morris Hunt, under construction in June 1885. (8) The Statue of Liberty under construction on Bedloe Island using massive scaffolding. (9) The unpacking of the face of the Statue of Liberty delivered to New York on June 17, 1885. (10) In 1985, the original 16-foot, 3,600-pound torch was removed to become the centerpiece of the new Statue of Liberty Museum. It was replaced with a new gleaming-gilt flame. The original torch had been damaged in 1916 by German spies who detonated on explosion in the nearby Black Tom munitions depot, which resulted in seven deaths and the permanent closing of the torch to tourists.

© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted October 28, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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