It was 135 years ago today. The ships from France arrived in the Upper New York Bay carrying 214 wooden crates and 350 monstrous individual pieces of iron, steel, and copper.
Everyone was talking about it, from Mark Twain to Thomas Edison.
The first guy to propose the statue was Édouard de Laboulaye, a French anti-slavery activist. His idea was that since the Civil War was over, it was a perfect time to honor human freedom.
Artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was immediately excited about the idea. He agreed to design it. He asked for help from his friend, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the same man responsible for the Eiffel Tower.
Bartholdi and Eiffel got together one night—they probably had a few beers—and brainstormed about a statue Bartholdi had been thinking about for years.
At least, it seemed like beer was involved because they ended up designing a 450,000-pound structure, gilded in pure gold, with a mind-blowing framework of iron pylons and support beams, that would double as a lighthouse.
It would take years of work to get the idea off the ground.
For one thing, they had to get some actual Americans onboard. Which wasn’t easy because Americans were about as interested in public art as they were in fat-free mayonnaise.
So Bartholdi had to promote the tar out of this thing. He proposed building it in New York. Then, he did a lot of public relations footwork in the U.S., like demonstrating the statue’s torch at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. And even though a lot of people thought it was neat idea, most Americans were still leaning toward the fat-free mayo.
Boston said in 1882 that they wanted the statue built in their harbor. You have to watch out for Boston.
This changed everything. Up until that moment, New York hadn’t been too concerned with the statue. But now that Beantown was in the picture, it was a different ballgame.
Even the “New York Times” got hacked off when they heard Boston was trying to horn in on their statue. They published a statement that went like this:
“…That great light-house statue will be smashed into … fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.”
And that got the ball rolling.
But enough about that. Let’s get back to the money thing. The French government didn’t really care for the idea of the statue because, for starters, they were the French government. But the working-class French citizens felt very differently about it, and they took matters into their own hands.
And here’s where the story gets interesting. The French hamlets and rural townships loved the idea of an American statue so much, they started funding it themselves. Donations came in from remote regions of France by the boatload.
Nearly 180 villages sent in tens of thousands of francs. Schoolchildren mailed in pocket change. Elderly Frenchmen who still remembered when their fathers fought in the American Revolution sent in donations.
After lots of fundraising, Bartholdi had enough money, and construction began.
Step one was to build the statue in France. Step two was to disassemble the colossus, then ship it to America. And anyone who has ever assembled IKEA furniture with one’s wife knows that (a) this was a major undertaking, and (b) IKEA furniture is the leading cause of divorce in this country.
But there were more problems on the horizon. Namely, the issue of the statue’s pedestal. You don’t just build a 111-foot statue in your backyard and put it next to your above-ground pool. You need a foundation, and foundations cost.
America tried raising the money for the pedestal with fundraising projects, but not much happened because many Americans were still sitting on their proverbial thumbs.
So Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher, got involved. He was very jazzed up about this statue and announced to his readers that he would print anyone’s name who donated to the statue. Even if that person only donated one penny.
That was all it took.
Millions of cash donations came flooding in. The best part is, they came mostly from average Americans in little towns across the U.S.
Children all over were raiding piggy banks and sending their nickels to New York. A kindergarten class in Iowa sent in $1.35. A rural school in Kansas sent in $2. A young German woman sent in an envelope containing eight pennies.
In six months, the newspapers raised $102,000, which is about 2.7 million in today’s dollars.
After it was built, the dedication parade in Manhattan was ridiculous. There were brass bands, reporters, magnates, barkeepers, mill workers, baseball players, homeless children, street sweeps, housewives, mothers, babies, immigrants, priests, landlords, and politicians.
The parade route went from Midtown Manhattan, past Fifth Avenue, and Broadway. The crowds grew bigger with each block. People rushed out of storefronts and taverns to join the fanfare.
When the procession passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders got so excited that they began throwing ticker tape from the windows until it looked like it was snowing. It became history’s first “ticker-tape parade.”
Throngs huddled around the Upper New York Bay, waiting for the ceremony. The colossal statue’s face was covered in a giant flag. And when the statue was unveiled, the roar of a crowd almost ruptured the pedestal. A pedestal which bore a sonnet inscribed on a bronze plaque:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
In the statue’s lifetime, over 12 million hopeful immigrants would look upon her when entering this gloriously imperfect nation. She stood proud, tarnished from corrosion and salt air, and greeted my ancestors. Maybe she greeted yours, too.
One Greek immigrant recalls standing on the main deck of a steamship, seeing Liberty for the first time. The statue stood tall in the distance, like a giant copper myth, blanketed in morning fog. The young immigrant’s English was broken, but his eyes were soaked when he said:
“I saw the Statue of Liberty, and I say’a to myself, ‘Lady, you’re such a’beautiful. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to be someone in America.’”
May all God’s children have that chance.