The Historical Meaning Behind The Statue of Liberty’s Design

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The Statue of Liberty in New York City stands upon a poem. Written by American poet Emma Lazarus in the late 19th century, it reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

That poem has been a rallying cry for generations of immigrants who left their home countries with a desire for a better life in the United States. Although most people are familiar with the outward appearance of Lady Liberty – the defiant arm strongly holding a torch – not as many are aware of what was going on behind the scenes. The Statue of Liberty is riddled with historical secrets and interesting design features, including some strange details about her feet. Let’s examine this iconic statue more closely!

The Symbolic Stance of Lady Liberty

The 151-foot tall Statue of Liberty stands proudly on Liberty Island in New York Bay. Her hand is held up high – far over her crowned head – to hold onto a symbolic flame.

The flame is meant to symbolize the proverbial light at the end of a long tunnel of misery and hardship. It’s quite the patriotic sentiment, and plenty of citizens and non-citizens are inspired by it. Nearly 4 million people make a visit to Lady Liberty each year. Many are unaware of important details.

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A Lot to See

The statue is enormous in its own right, and there’s a lot for visitors to take in – from the untouchable torch at the top to the ground level is over 305 feet. Within that frame stands an engraved poem and a riveting statue.

Although the statue is deeply tied to American identity and pride, it wasn’t an American who designed it. Rather, it was a Frenchman who first envisioned Lady Liberty and pushed forward with his ideas to unleash her to the world.

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The Original Idea Came from France

In 1865, the French scholar and poet Édouard de Laboulaye was thinking about a way to celebrate the fact that it had been 100 years since the United States won independence from Britain.

He wanted something that captured that spirit of liberty. However, since he was a scholar rather than a designer, the best he could do was write down some ideas. Luckily, however, his ideas caught the attention of a famous sculptor. Together, they could bring them to fruition.

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Sculpting the Idea into Reality

The inspirational ideas of Édouard de Laboulaye caught the ear of French artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. He immediately knew that it was something he had to work on – so he began sketching and sculpting. 

However, the project was a massive undertaking. This led to the realization that it had to be a team project if it was to be a reality. The central problem was figuring out how to make such a massive copper statue stable enough. For that, he required assistance. 

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Calling in the Big Names

What kind of assistance did he get? A local artisan looking for an apprenticeship to kickstart his career? No. Instead, he attracted the attention of one of the most famous engineering talents of the time: Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.

In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the civil engineer behind the world-famous Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. On top of that, he built bridges for the French railways – including the magnificent Garabit viaduct. Eiffel and Bartholdi worked together on the symbolism. 

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Symbolic Importance

Both the sculptor Bartholdi and the engineer Eiffel were interested (and well-versed) in the power of symbols to affect people’s minds in positive ways. They used this knowledge in the creation of the Statue of Liberty (aka Liberty Enlightening the World). 

One of the most noteworthy examples is the famous spiked crown that rests on her head. The seven-spiked crown is meant to represent the seven oceans and continents. In her left hand, however, is something more close to home. 

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The Declaration of Independence

Any visitor to Lady Liberty can see that she proudly holds a torch in her right hand. However, what is she carrying in her left hand? Although it’s hard to see from the ground level, it turns out the left hand is clutching a tablet. 

On that tablet are some Roman Numerals – JULY IV MDCCLXXVI. Translated into English, it reads “July 4, 1776” – the date that the Declaration of Independence was ratified. Although it was important symbolism to include on the statue, it was symbolism that went there a bit late. 

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Sculpting Takes Longer than Planned

The French sculptor Bartholdi was an ambitious and hopeful man. In 1875, he started work on the Statue of Liberty. He planned to finish everything by July of 1876 to unveil it at the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 

Well, that didn’t go according to plan. The work was far more involved than he initially thought. It wouldn’t be until 1884 – nearly eight years after the original date – that work on the Statue of Liberty was finally complete.

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Site of Controversies

Many Americans were aware of the sculpture as it was being built. Although it was a massive gift from the French to the United States, many Americans were skeptical about its message and symbolism. 

Activists and suffragettes working toward getting women the right to vote were understandably annoyed by the statue. It showed a female figure of liberty being placed on a land that didn’t allow women to vote. The symbolic torch was meant to acknowledge and counteract the skepticism that many felt.

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An Enlightened Light for Everyone

The torch is vital to the entire monument because it’s one of its most recognizable features. That wasn’t by chance, it was by choice. Eiffel, Bartholdi, and Laboulaye were keenly aware of giving symbolic power to this statue. 

The torch is meant to represent enlightenment, a light that guides people toward freedom and liberty. True as that may be, it was also a pain to move. The problem of how to get it across the Atlantic Ocean was a big one. 

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Shipping Lady Liberty Across the Atlantic

Although the logistics were difficult, that didn’t stop Eiffel and his team from trying their best to solve it. They landed on a three-part solution: complete the assembly in Paris, disassemble it into parts that can be shipped across the Atlantic, and reassemble it in New York City. 

Their bold plan worked. The disassembled bits of Lady Liberty were shipped across the ocean and arrived in New York City on June 17, 1885. Soon after, the re-assembly process began in earnest.

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Immigrants Come to the US

Although you might think the reassembly of the Statue of Liberty would only take a few days, that would be wrong – it ended up taking over a year! Once it was all rebuilt, the statue was set up to greet a large influx of immigrants coming off boats from the Old World.

Many left Europe and other places to create the kind of life that the Statue of Liberty promised – one of freedom and liberty. The early immigrants even got an experience with Lady Liberty that few have had since.

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The Torch Explodes

The early visitors to the Statue of Liberty were often immigrants who left their home countries to try and create something new in the United States. When they visited the statue, they were able to walk all the way up to the torch itself. 

However, this all changed in 1916. During World War I, German spies damaged Lady Liberty by causing a huge explosion that permanently closed the torch area. The statue would play a role in future wars as well. 

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Protests at Lady Liberty

Liberty Island was the site of multiple protests during the 1970s. The first came in 1970 when women’s rights activists protested the unequal laws that held them back. Shortly thereafter, another protest took place –- this time against the Vietnam War. 

The Liberty Island location was chosen because of its symbolic value. Lady Liberty held the torch of enlightenment in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other – yet these protesters felt that the government wasn’t living up to the ideal. 

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The Foot is Raised

The spiked crown, torch, and tablet are clearly the most visible and symbolically powerful design features of the Statue of Liberty. Most people know and recognize them. However, they aren’t the only meaningful aspects.

The statue’s right foot is very symbolic as well. Rather than go for an easy flat foot stance, the designers (Eiffel, Bartholdi, and Laboulaye) chose to have her foot slightly raised off the ground. We know they were obsessed with symbolism, so why did they design the foot this way?

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Breaking the Shackles

The mystery gets solved by taking a look at the other foot, the left foot. As you can see clearly from below, there is a chain attached to it. Or, rather, there was a chain attached to it –- before it was broken.

That broken chain was a powerful source of meaning for the French scholar Laboulaye who initially thought up the idea. It represented the Statue of Liberty boldly freeing herself from the shackles of tyranny that sought to keep her down. 

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A Message of Hope

The French scholar Laboulaye had a variety of motivations behind his desire to design and gift a Statue of Liberty to the United States. One motivation was, undoubtedly, his huge admiration for the US. Another was his ardent belief in ending slavery. 

Laboulaye was an ardent abolitionist who was co-founder and president of France’s Anti-Slavery Society. Although at the time, slavery was abolished in France and the US, the society believed it should be banished from every country on Earth.

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An Enduring Monument

As we have seen from above, the Statue of Liberty is a monument filled with symbolism. Alongside the torch of enlightenment lighting the path to freedom and liberty, we have the strong anti-slavery message that Laboulaye fit into its design.

In many ways, they go hand-in-hand. How can you have freedom and liberty while, at the same time, having slavery? It just doesn’t make sense. Alongside those pieces of meaning, there is also one more vital part to the statue.

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The Poem at the Base

In 1883, money was needed to help finish the massive Statue of Liberty undertaking. Part of that fundraising was inspired by a poem written by Emma Lazarus. Titled “The New Colossus,” it speaks of America as a sort of promised land, a sanctuary where those who are down on their luck can build themselves back up again. 

It was (and is) a powerful poem that was engraved on a plaque beneath Lady Liberty’s feet. It stayed there for nearly 116 years before it caused some controversy.

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An Attempt to Modify the Poem

In 2019, a top immigration official said in an interview that he wanted to rewrite some of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem. For example, he would do away with Lazarus’s line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

Instead, he suggested replacing it with, “Give me your tired, your poor, who can stand on two feet and won’t become a public charge.” Although it caused controversy in the news, the poem ultimately wasn’t rewritten.

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Continued Source of Inspiration

Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem, “The New Colossus” has a certain timeless quality about it that inspired millions of people when they first set foot on American shores. When it was cast in bronze in 1903, the poem and Lady Liberty were forever linked in their campaign to welcome those who want to escape persecution.

Over the 118 years or so since that poem and statue have been together, millions more continue to be inspired and emboldened by the power of symbolism of the two.

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Statue of Liberty’s Legacy

The story of the Statue of Liberty’s creation is nearly as impressive as the statue itself. From the mind of scholar Laboulaye, it moved to the designs of Bartholdi and the engineering feats of Eiffel. It was created in Paris, sailed across the ocean, and rebuilt in New York. 

It connected the “old world” to the new and inspired millions of immigrants who left that old world lifestyle for a new beginning. The statue is filled with secrets – some we have seen above, others we will find out below.

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Lighthouse Liberty

After the Statue of Liberty was finally rebuilt and installed on Liberty Island in 1886, the bright torch was working double duty. It was so bright that it was used by captains at sea as a lighthouse – for nearly 20 years!

Sailors in the Atlantic Ocean who were up to 24 miles away from the island could see the powerful light emanating from the Statue of Liberty. To generate that power, a power plant was constructed on Liberty Island to serve the iconic torch. 

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The Statue’s Many Names

Being such an iconic image of the United States of America and its cultural values of freedom and liberty, the Statue of Liberty has taken on quite a few names over the years. The full formal title is not the Statue of Liberty – it’s the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. 

Since that’s too long a name for most folks, people have shortened it to Statue of Liberty. Other informal nicknames include Mother of Freedom, Green Goddess, Lady Liberty, and Lady of the Harbor.

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A Gift to Paris

When Eiffel, Bartholdi, and their team finished assembling the full Statue of Liberty in Paris during the 1880s, they were so taken by the significance of the sculpture that they kept behind a (much smaller) nine-foot version of Lady Liberty. 

Although compared to the 151-foot statue sent to the US, it wasn’t much, it still captivated the imagination of Americans living abroad in Paris. In 1889, they banded together to create a quarter-size replica and gave it to the city of Paris. 

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Taller Back in the Day

To better appreciate the size of the Statue of Liberty, it’s best to imagine what New York City was like back in the 1880s. This was a few decades before skyscrapers began dotting the skyline. Back then, the 151-foot Statue of Liberty stood out from its surroundings. 

Partly because that 151-foot statue stood on top of a pedestal that measured around 154 feet tall. So, in total, from ground to torch, the Statue of Liberty stood 305 feet tall – the size of a 21-story building!

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Comparing a Human and the Statue

On top of her impressive height, the Statue of Liberty – or, if you want to be formal, the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World – has other impressive features. Any size human standing next to the statue would soon feel themselves to be incredibly small.

For example, the statue’s index fingers stretch out to eight feet in length. If you put your feet next to hers, her feet would dwarf yours – the sandals are nearly 25 feet long! In human shoe sizes, she officially wears size 879.

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A Panoramic View

If you are a visitor to the Statue of Liberty nowadays, you’ll find that you don’t have to stay outside to admire the exterior – you can also explore the interior of the statue! In fact, visitors can follow a special spiral staircase that leads all the way to Lady Liberty’s crown.

Once there, you’ll have quite the view. As you can see from the picture above, there are plenty of windows – 25 in total – that allow a panoramic view of New York Harbor.

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A New Golden Torch

The torch held by the Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable features of the statue. It has been proudly displayed since it was first installed way back in 1886. Well, not exactly.

It turns out the original lamp was upgraded nearly 100 years after installation. In 1986, workers upgraded the lamp during a renovation project. They fixed her up with a new copper torch – and coated the outside with 24k gold! The original was set aside in the Statue of Liberty museum. 

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Virtual Views

During the early days of Lady Liberty’s life, brave visitors could climb all the way up to the actual torch. At 305 feet high, it wasn’t for the faint of heart. 

That was ended, however, due to a bombing in 1916. German spies blew up a munitions factory nearby and the shrapnel damaged the statue. The stairs to the torch were deemed unsafe for the public, so it was closed. Nowadays, there is now a virtual TorchCam that gives you views from the safety of your home. 

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Filled with Meaningful Symbols

As we’ve seen from above, the design for The Statue of Liberty was meticulously plotted out – which is partly why it took so long to build. On top of all the engineering challenges, there was the conceptual challenge of deciding on the right symbolism.

Eventually, it was solved and the result is what visitors see today. Lady Liberty’s spiked crown uses seven points to represent the seven seas and seven continents. Also, she looks out to the southeast where most arriving ships come from. She truly is a guiding structure.

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Changing Color

Although for most of us, the color green and the Statue of Liberty go hand in hand, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when she was first installed in the late 19th century, she was the color of a new penny.

That’s because the statue is mostly made up of copper. However, after only 20 years of copper brown life, the natural elements in New York Harbor oxidized the copper and changed it into the green we see now. 

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Lightning Strikes

As we all know from high school science class, lightning tends to strike tall things. Unfortunately for the Statue of Liberty, she’s the tallest point in New York Harbor –- so she gets struck. A lot. 

Lady Liberty experiences lightning strikes so often that the National Park Service, who manages the statue, often loses count. However, estimates tend to hover around 600 times per year. Ouch! Luckily for the statue, the concrete and granite material ends up grounding the electricity without causing much damage.

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Happy Birthday Renovations

The Statue of Liberty was initially meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Although their timing was off, the sentiment stuck. So when it came time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lady Liberty, preparations were made well in advance. 

In the mid-1980s, millions of dollars were spent on renovating both the inside and outside of the statue. Alongside upgrading the torch with a 24k gold covering, this also included interior renovations that allowed visitors to better appreciate the inside framework. 

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Statue of Liberty Gets Closed

The September 11th terrorist attacks had a massive effect on both the US and the world. Alongside the death and destruction, there was the closing of Liberty Island for 100 days.

Those 100 days stretched into much longer. The base of the statue was closed to the public until 2004. Once it reopened, visitors started to come back. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that visitors could once again climb the stairs to the crown and look out over New York Harbor.

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Statue of Liberty Museum

Although visits to the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island have always been a mix of recreational and educational, they’ve become even more educational since 2019. That’s because the National Park Service, which manages the statue, officially opened a new museum.

This museum is located on the opposite end of Liberty Island and is meant to better inform visitors of the significance of the statue. Alongside a theater, gallery spaces, and the original torch, it houses immigration artifacts from nearby Ellis Island.

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People Keep Visiting

The number of visitors drawn to the Statue of Liberty has steadily grown over the past few years. Nowadays, nearly 4.5 million people catch a ferry to Liberty Island to visit the iconic statue.

Tourists and visitors love to check out the Statue of Liberty for a variety of reasons. One is the fact that it’s an affordable tourist activity. Another is to get a deeper understanding of the role Lady Liberty has played in American history. A third, of course, is to climb up to the crown. Have you had the pleasure to see this iconic and symbolic structure up close?

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