I began this essay on the Statue of Liberty October 28, 2012—which, coincidentally, happened to be the statue’s 126th birthday. It was also the day the statue was scheduled to reopen after renovations. Days later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and two images were often seen on the Net. They aren’t authentic images, in fact, but they poetically capture a greater truth—the image of endurance in the face of tremendous challenge.
Endurance in the face of challenge was what it took to create the statue, in fact. It’s a fascinating and inspiring history, demonstrating how a few persistent individuals can effect great change.
How does the Statue of Liberty survive a storm?
Although the storm did damage Liberty and Ellis Islands, there was no damage to the statue. How did Lady Liberty survive? The key is in how she was designed—by Monsieur Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
My fascination with Lady Liberty began in Paris, when my husband and I went to the Musée des arts et métiers. The museum is a wonderful display of the history of innovation, mostly from the 18th century. One thing that particularly struck me were the mock-ups of the work site of the Statue of Liberty being built.
(The face of the Statue of Liberty is touchingly modelled on that of the sculptor’s mother.)
The statue began as most great projects do: as a bright light of an idea in one person’s mind. Frédéric Bartholdi, a French sculptor, thought it would be a wonderful way to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Happy Birthday, U.S.A.*
A wonderful idea, but a problematic gift
The project proceeded in an equally typical fashion: with great frustration and wrangling. Did America even want such a gift? Where would they put it? And more to the point, who would pay for it?
It was eventually agreed that the U.S. would build the pedestal, and France the statue. A huge sum of money was required, and on both sides of the ocean fees, fund-raisers, auctions, and lotteries were used to try to raise the needed funds.
Little by little, things were set in motion. Frédéric was commissioned, and wisely chose Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower, to design the support structure. Eiffel opted not to use a rigid structure, but instead loosely connected the support structure to the skin. It’s this flexibility what allows the statue to endure high winds.
Fund-raising for the pedestal lagged in America, however, and work was suspended. Other American cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, offered to pay in return for relocating it. Joseph Pulitzer (founder of the Pulitzer Prize), publisher of a New York newspaper, announced a drive to raise $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today) by pledging to print the name of every contributor in the paper, no matter how small the amount, along with the touching notes he received:
“A young girl alone in the world” donated “60 cents, the result of self denial.”
“Five cents as a poor office boy’s mite toward the Pedestal Fund.”
A group of children sent a dollar as “the money we saved to go to the circus with.”
A dollar given by a “lonely and very aged woman.”
A kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed the World a gift of $1.35.
Donations flooded in and work on the pedestal was resumed.
The Statue of Liberty crosses the ocean
Once the pedestal was completed in America, Lady Liberty’s 350 pieces were packed into 214 crates and loaded onto the frigate “Isere.” It took four months to assemble her, and on October 28, 1886, she was officially “born” in a ceremony in front of thousands.
On the morning of the dedication, a parade was held in New York City. As the parade passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders threw ticker tape from the windows—the first ticker-tape parade.
At the unveiling ceremony, creator Frédéric was called upon to speak, but refused. Was he too moved? It had taken over two decades of his persistent effort, and his dream had finally become a reality.
It’s such a wonderful story. After visiting that museum, I began to take notes for a possible children’s book on Lady Liberty’s amazing voyage.