The Statue of Liberty is probably one of the most recognizable structures in the entire world, a “new colossus,” as it was called when it was built, intended to be a shining beacon of welcome and promise for weary travelers entering New York Harbor. Thanks to the fact that there is no copyright on the statue’s image, her noble visage has also been used to peddle everything from tax preparation services to key chains. But while you might be familiar with the statue’s public persona, how much do you know about the history of Lady Liberty and the island she stands on? Read on to learn some of the statue’s secrets, and take a trip to the landmark and her famous neighbor with the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Tour.
Although it is not known for certain, many historians believe that sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi used his mother’s face as a model for Lady Liberty’s. The fabric-draped body, on the other hand, is said by some to have been fashioned with his wife’s figure in mind.
A thin-skinned lady
The copper skin of the statue is as thin as two pennies put together—3/32 of an inch—but it weighs 62,000 pounds. The stresses caused by that enormous weight is absorbed by the pedestal, which is made of concrete clad in granite quarried in Connecticut (solid granite was just too expensive).
Pennies for a pedestal
The statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, with a stipulation that the U.S. pay for a pedestal to put it on. Fundraising proved problematic on both sides of the Atlantic, and political and economic turmoil threatened the project at various points between the time it was conceived (most likely in 1870), and its completion in 1886. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer helped give a final push to the campaign to pay for the pedestal in 1885, when he offered to publish the names of anyone who contributed on the front page of his paper, the New York World, no matter how small the sum. The drive raised $102,000 ($2.3 million today’s dollars) in increments as small as a nickel.
Whose island is it, anyway?
Liberty Island, so-called officially only since 1956, was once known as Bedloe’s Island. It was part of a group of islands called the Oyster Islands for the huge oyster beds surrounding them, which were destroyed by landfills in the early 20th century. Back in the colonial period, the island was used as a smallpox quarantine station and “pesthouse” where people with contagious diseases of various sorts were isolated. It is federal land, surrounded by New Jersey waters, whose buildings and piers are under the jurisdiction of the state of New York—an unusually complicated constellation of governance.
Why you can’t get inside the torch
On July 30, 1916, German saboteurs destroyed a huge cache of explosives being stored for shipment to Allied forces in World War I at Black Tom Island, a piece of land lying off of Jersey City near Liberty Island (it has since been connected to the mainland with landfill). Shrapnel from the blast, which was felt as far away as Maryland, penetrated the Statue of Liberty’s skirt and torch. Repairs weren’t completed until the next decade. The arm and torch of the statue have been closed to visitors since that incident.
An arm and a head
The statue’s torch-bearing right arm and head were constructed before the rest of the statue, and were exhibited in both France and the United States in the 1870s in order to aid in fundraising. The completed statue, with its innovative iron-truss structure designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, was completely assembled in France, then disassembled and shipped to the U.S. for reassembly.
“The New Colossus,” the famed sonnet about the statue by poet Emma Lazarus, was originally written to aid in fundraising efforts in 1883. It wasn’t until 1903, 16 years after Lazarus’s death, that a plaque bearing its now-famous words—including “”Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”—was installed on a plaque inside the statue’s pedestal. Lazarus, whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors emigrated to America from Portugal in colonial times, would likely not be pleased that the plaque is missing a crucial comma: the line that reads “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” should be “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”
The statue’s green patina, a natural product of the oxidation of copper called verdigris, did not begin to emerge until 1900. At the time, people worried that it meant the statue was decaying, and a paint job was considered until the Army Corps of Engineers determined it was causing no structural damage.
Reaching new heights
At the time of its erection, the statue—which measures 305 feet and 1 inch from the base of the pedestal to the tip of the torch—was the tallest man-made structure in the United States, outstripping the Brooklyn Bridge by 29 feet.
In one early iteration of the design, Lady Liberty was holding a broken chain and shackles in her outstretched hand. The final version has her stepping over those shackles in sandaled feet. The cap under her crown resembles the Phrygian cap that Roman slaves got when they were freed. The tablet in her left arm, bearing the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is in the shape of a keystone. The Roman numerals used for the year 1776 symbolize her ties to the Roman goddess Libertas.
Carrying a torch (or three)
The torch has undergone three redesigns. Originally, it was supposed to function as a lighthouse, but it was too dim to be effective. A subsequent reworking left it leaky and unsafe. The most recent renovation is true to Bartholdi’s original design—the flame is gilded with 24k gold and the flame is illuminated with light from the terrace below.
Rumors persist to this day that the statue is in reality a thinly veiled show of strength by the Illuminati, a shadowy group of international conspirators based on the Freemason brotherhood, which has been a target of suspicion since its inception in Enlightenment-era Europe. People subscribing to this theory point to the fact that Frédéric Bartholdi was himself a Freemason, and that there are Freemason symbols on a plaque at the statue’s base. According to the conspiracy theorists, Lady Liberty actually is a representation of Lucifer.
Starting in 1933, the statue has been destroyed in more than 30 movies and even more video games, falling victim to aliens, tsunamis, earthquakes, and monsters. A still from the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, showing the statue getting smacked by an enormous wave, went viral during Superstorm Sandy, with many who shared it on social media believing that it was a real image.
Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York.