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Thursday, 30 June 2011

“Here at our Sea-Washed, Sunset Gates Shall Stand a Mighty Woman with a Torch…” Or: The Birth of the Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty in New York is something that I’m certain almost everyone reading this will have seen in pictures, films and books, and some of you will have seen it with your very eyes in ‘real life’ too. I’ve never seen it with my very eyes, but was thinking about the statue the other day and wondering when it was built. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, the thought had never crossed my mind, and before I checked, I made an educated(?) guess as to when it appeared in New York, and my guess was between 1905 and 1910.

I was wrong.

If she were a real woman, I’m sure she would have been flattered at my guess, because I misjudged her age in her favour by around a quarter of a century. I’m not sure why, but I still struggle to see America in the context of the nineteenth century, I have some kind of mental block that tells me nothing happened there other than prospectors and the wild west, they didn’t do anything, Victorian means Europe. Although I know that is far from the case and I continue to try and change my blinkered perspective.
To remedy my bizarre blindness to America in the nineteenth century I have written a few posts related to the USA, or American people, which, if you wish, you can see by clicking on the ‘label’ marked ‘America’ in the right hand column of this blog, toward the bottom. (or, click here)
Anyway, I was delighted to note that the great Statue of Liberty IS a Victorian, and so I set my fingers about finding out more.

Frederic Bartholdi
Her origins go even further back that the 1880’s, with the first idea for her creation thought to have been mooted by liberal French politician Edouard Laboulaye in 1865 during an after-dinner conversation at his home. Laboulaye supposedly said; "If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort – a common work of both our nations."
This comment did not fall upon stony ground, but rather the fertile imagination of young sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, who was within earshot of the remark made by his host. 

The young sculptor discussed the possibility of building a monument for America, but the somewhat stifling regime of Napoleon III made things difficult, and Bartholdi soon realized that building any such memorial for America would not be possible.
Instead, with the kernel of an idea in his mind that he was desperate to cultivate, he presented an idea to the Egyptians, in which he proposed to build a large lighthouse at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869.

Bartholdi did not intend this to be any ordinary lighthouse, but rather, it was to be shaped like a female Egyptian peasant holding up a torch, based loosely on the statue ancient Greek statue ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ which was built in around 290 – 280 B.C, and stood at the entrance to a harbour holding aloft a light to guide boats. The Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 B.C, but the picture on the left gives an impression of what it looked like.

Although Bartholdi made sketches and models for his Egyptian peasant lighthouse, it was never built.

In 1870, the economically disastrous Franco-Prussian war broke out, during which Napoleon III was captured in the Battle of Sedan, surrendered and was duly removed from power. France also lost its place as the major power in continental Europe to Germany, but on the positive side for the French, a more liberal republic (The French Third Republic, which lasted until the start of World War 2) was installed. Bartholdi and Laboulaye resumed discussions regarding a statue in America, and, in June 1871, Bartholdi, with letters of introduction from Laboulaye in his pocket, set sail for New York in order to discuss his proposals with the United States.

When he arrived in New York, Bartholdi noted that he sailed past an island in the harbour. All boats arriving in New York had to pass it, and he decided that this would be the perfect place for the American ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, holding its light aloft for travelers arriving in New York and coming into the harbour. Bartholdi asked to whom the island belonged. The island in question was Bedloe Island, named after Issack Bedloo, a Dutch businessman who claimed the island as his after the struggle for American land between England and the Netherlands in the 1660’s. The Dutchman’s name stuck to the island, 9although he himself named it Love Island) and Americans referred to it as Bedloe Island. (It did not become Liberty Island until very recently in this context – 1960)

After being informed that Bedloe was American soil, belonging to the United States Government, Bartholdi declared it the perfect home for his statue.U.S President Ulysses S. Grant gave the all-clear for the island to be declared the site of the structure, and Bartholdi returned to France to begin work on ideas and sketches for the statue.

In 1875, with France recovering well economically after the Franco-Prussian war, Laboulaye decided that the forthcoming Centennial Exhibition, which was to be held in America to celebrate one hundred years since the declaration of their independence, would be the ideal reason to present the United States with the gift of a statue, and informed Bartholdi that he may begin construction.

Prior to its manufacture, the project needed funding, and so when the project was announced, Laboulaye declared that the Franco-American Union would act as a fundraising organization to gather money for the project. It was decided between the two countries that France would pay for the statue, and America would pay for, and build, the pedestal upon which it would stand. The announcement also gave the name of the statue for the first time. Laboulaye declared that the monument would be named;

Liberty Enlightening the World.

With the project in motion, Laboulaye set about raising money. He organized a series of events that would attract rich and influential people from all over France, including a special Opera by Charles Gounod entitled ‘La Liberté éclairant le monde’, or, in English; ‘Liberty Enlightening the World.’ This was, of course, named after the statue in a bid to drum up interest.

Laboulaye’s fundraising schemes were extremely successful, not only with the rich, but all manner of people from all aspects of society came together to donate the money needed. Even the copper required to manufacture the skin of the statue was donated by copper merchants Japy Frères, saving huge costs, with the copper thought to be worth 64,000 Francs. (Over £200,000 or $300,000 in today’s money)

At the workshops of Gaget, Gauthier & Co, Bartholdi began work on the head of the statue, and also the right arm that would bear the torch, hoping to have the latter ready to exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition.
In 1876, when the American Centennial Exhibition opened in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, a French Delegation which included Bartholdi visited. Once there, they planned to exhibit a huge painting of what the finished statue would look like, with the actual finished right arm to follow them to and be displayed at the exhibition.
The Arm on Display at the Centennial Exhibition

The arm was a popular exhibit with Americans after it arrived, and upon the closing of the exhibition, was transported to Madison Square Gardens, where it was put on display for a few years before returning to Paris to be added to the rest of the statue.

In 1877, Bartholdi returned to France to complete the head of the statue, which was to be displayed at the Paris World’s Fair of 1878, whilst in America, the Franco-American Union was forming committees in New York, Boston and Philadelphia to begin raising money to fund the building of the statue’s pedestal. Donations were initially slow and reluctant, but enthusiasm picked up after the exhibiting of the arm. Journalist Joseph Pulitzer was doing all he could to raise more interest in the project. Pulitzer, of the New York committee of the Franco-American Union, was helped in his cash raising efforts by a young man only nineteen years of age named Theodore Roosevelt, who would go on to become president of the United States in 1901.

With one arm built and the head underway in France, President Grant ensured the statue would come to America by signing an agreement on his last day in office with the incoming president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes agreed to accept the statue from France, to continue building the pedestal, and to agree to the use of Bedloe Island as its home.

In France, further funds were being raised by selling tickets to the workshops of Gaget, Gauthier & Co to the public so that they could watch the statue being built. Models of the statue were also sold, and silver plate and terracotta models of the statue were listed as prizes in a government authorized lottery. Ticket sales from this lottery, along with tickets sold to watch the building process and money raised from sales of models raised somewhere in the region of 250,000 Francs, (around £800,000, or £1.3 million in today’s money)

In 1879, with everything going well, the project hit its first snag; Viollet-le-Duc, who had been instrumental in building the head and arm in France, fell ill, and very soon died. With le-Duc gone, nobody knew quite how he had planned to fix all of the parts of the statue together.

This caused chaos and panic until 1880, when Bartholdi turned to the man who had built the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Eiffel brought his structural engineer to the project, Maurice Koechlin, and together they decided that the best strategy would be to build an iron frame with the copper skin fixed to the outside, so that the outside of the statue was completely non load-bearing, but all the weight was supported by the iron framing inside – almost the same principal as building a tent.
How the Framework Looks

They also decided to attach each different piece of the statue together using a metal mesh rather than rivet the parts directly together. This would allow some movement in the statue, which would invariably move a little in the winds of the harbour, and also allow for the metal expanding in heat. The mesh would move with the elements, and prevent any part of the statue cracking under stress.

With the problems they faced conquered, the constituent parts of the statue were built, and by 1882 it was completed from the feet up to the waist. This joy, though, was followed by sadness when in 1883, the man who had been so instrumental in the birth of the statue, Edouard Laboulaye, died. He would never see the statue that had been born out of a remark made at his dinner table completed. Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, took Laboulaye’s place as chairman of the French committee, and the project continued.

The statue was finally completed in Paris in 1884, nineteen years after the germ of an idea had been planted in Bartholdi’s head by a comment made by Laboulaye at the latter’s dinner party. It was formally presented to Ambassador Morton at a ceremony in Paris on 4th 1884, and then remained in Paris whilst America completed the pedestal.
Being Built in Paris

In order to ship the statue to America, it had to be completely dismantled into three hundred and fifty separate pieces, packed into two hundred and nineteen large crates and packed onto the French ship, Isere, which carried the disassembled statue to America in 1885.

By that year, the Americans had, after much difficulty, completed the pedestal upon which the statue was to sit. Richard Morris Hunt had designed it after being appointed by the New York Committee as architect. He had originally proposed a pedestal 114 feet tall, but due to financial difficulties caused by the Panic of 1873, which had led to an economic depression in America, the committee was forced to reduce the height (and therefore the cost) to 89 feet. The original plans also stated that it was to be made of granite, but, again, due to cost constraints, these plans were changed and concrete used.

Despite the statue project receiving enthusiasm after the Centennial Exhibition, the Panic of 1873 had dampened the spirits of Americans and caused them to resent the project. They were particularly aggrieved with France for insisting that they build, and pay for, the pedestal. After all, was this not supposed to be a gift from the French? Fund raising for the project was tough, and even when the finished statue arrived in New York Harbour on board the Isere in June 1885, the pedestal still was unfinished due to a lack of funding.

Pulitzer, still desperately trying to raise money for the pedestal project, came up with an ingenious idea that captured the imagination of the American public; he promised that the name of every person who donated money – no matter how much or how little – would be printed in the newspaper he had purchased two years previously, the ‘New York World’. Some of the contributors, such as "A young girl alone in the world" who donated "60 cents, the result of self denial” and the statement that a group of children sent a dollar, which was "the money we saved to go to the circus with” appear to have made the public take a look at themselves, and dig deep into their pockets. Pulitzer’s scheme worked, and went on to raise $100,000 ($2.3 million in today’s money, or £1.4 million)

As the donations flooded in, the committee resumed work on the pedestal, and when the statue arrived in June 1885, the fresh enthusiasm for the project amongst the American people led two hundred thousand of them to New York Harbour to watch the Isere arrive with the statue.

Re-assembly of the statue could not take place until the pedestal was complete, however, and by April 1886 all work on it had finished and the building could take place. The iron framework was anchored to the concrete pedestal, and the various sections of the skin attached to the iron frame one by one. The pedestal was fairly narrow, and so the workers were unable to put up any scaffolding around the frame, and so had to hang from it by ropes whilst they attached each part. Although this sounds extremely dangerous, nobody died during the re-construction.

The statue was to be officially dedicated to America by France in a special ceremony in Bedloe Park, and Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed Central Park in New York, was charged with supervising a tidying up operation of Bedloe, which had previously been an all-but-abandoned piece of land, and then become a building site whilst the pedestal and then the statue were being built. Along with Olmstead’s cleanup, a power plant was built on the island to provide light to the torch of the statue.

The dedication ceremony took place on 28th October 1886 with the day beginning with parades in New York, and a marching band that played from Madison Square to Battery Park, with up to a million people in attendance to watch the proceedings.
When the dedication began, the first speech was made by chairman of the French Committee de Lesseps, and his speech was followed by one from his opposite number, chairman of the American Committee, Senator William Evarts. Evarts’s speech, though, was interrupted by an all-too-eager Bartholdi, who, holding a French flag over the face of the statue, mistook a pause in Evart’s speech as the end, and dropped the flag, unveiling the statue whilst Evart was mid-speech. The crowd cheered and only stopped when President Cleveland stood to speak. He said;

“[The statue’s] stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world

During the fundraising process, poet Emma Lazarus had been asked to write a poem about the statue so that it could be auctioned off to raise money. She had refused on the grounds that she could not, for some reason, write a poem about a statue. At the time she was working with refugees who had arrived in New York, fleeing Anti-Semitic violence in Europe. After some thought about the statue’s location and what it was to symbolize, she changed her mind, and wrote a poem in sympathy of the refugees entitled ‘The New Colossus’ which she read out at the dedication ceremony. The poem she wrote is as follows;

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Stirring words indeed. The poem is inscribed on a plaque and held in a museum in the base of the statue.

Thus ends my fifth blog post on Victorian America, and I have another in the pipeline soon helping me to dispel the myth in my own mind about nineteenth century America being all Clint Eastwood in a poncho and gold mines. It must be remembered by people like me that Dickens visited America twice and was received as a celebrity – certainly the first time, and from the way he spoke and wrote of the place it sounds not entirely different from Victorian England. 


  1. Dear Amateur Casual, I confess, I'm an Anglophile, and look to your shores for much inspiration, but I'm also pleased you're taking a gander across the pond in my direction. It is true our young country does not have the breath of history Europe holds, however, we were quite alive and kicking during our beloved Victorian times. Long live, Lady Liberty.
    Your fellow chrononaut, "thevictoriantimes.blogspot"

  2. Thanks Rosa, I do keep meaning to finish an article I've started on Abraham Lincoln. On a different subject, its a coincidence that you've commented today, as I encouraged people on Twitter to visit your blog just a few hours ago,

    An excellent read!

    Thanks for commenting, it means a lot to get an approving nod from an American after writing an article about an American icon!

  3. I look forward to your take on "The Great Emancipator". There are so many interesting facets of Abe's character, and thus angles from which to attack the subject.

    One of his quotes hearkens to the preparations involved in writing our blogs.

    "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

    Thanks for the "tweet"

  4. So good post
    and I hope to visit my Blog Ancient Egyptian Good and Goddess and see Anubis God thanks again Admin

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