Building the Statue of Liberty, 1875-1886
200,000 pounds of copper and some frantic fundraising
The right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty on display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
In the early 1870s, inspired by the abolition of slavery and the Union victory in the American Civil War, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi seized upon an idea. He would build a monumental gift for the United States, a gesture of friendship from a country that had helped secure its independence.
When Bartholdi visited the United States to gather support for the project, he identified Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor as the ideal site. It was right at the mouth of a major port, and was federally owned “land common to all the states.”
The neoclassical statue was designed in the image of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, raising a torch and bearing a tabula ansata, representing law. Bartholdi toyed with the idea of having the statue hold a broken chain, but feared such an explicit reference to slavery might be controversial. (The final statue does have a subtle chain at her feet.)
In 1875, the project was announced and fundraising began, led by French politician Édouard René de Laboulaye. Before the statue’s design had been finalized, Bartholdi built the head and torch-bearing right arm and put them on display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the Paris World’s Fair to drum up support for the project.
An elevation showing the statue’s iron framework, designed by Gustave Eiffel.
A diagram of the statue’s dimensions.
Image: Library of Congress
The Statue of Liberty’s head on display at the Paris World’s Fair.
Image: Léon et Lévy/Roger Viollet/Getty ImagesThe surfaces should be broad and simple, defined by a bold and clear design, accentuated in the important places. The enlargement of the details or their multiplicity is to be feared.FRÉDÉRIC AUGUSTE BARTHOLDI
An alternate view of the head on display at the Paris World’s Fair.
Image: FPG/Getty Images
Construction began in Paris in 1877. Bartholdi recruited renowned designer Gustave Eiffel to help with the structural engineering of the statue. Eiffel devised an innovative and flexible iron skeleton which would allow the statue to shift in the wind without cracking.
The statue was formally completed and presented to the American ambassador to France on July 4, 1884.
Meanwhile in New York, construction of the statue’s pedestal was sluggish due to a lack of funds. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, held a fundraising drive, promising to publish the names of everyone who donated. The fund ultimately raised $102,000, mostly from donations of less than a dollar.
In 1885, the statue was disassembled and shipped across the ocean to New York. Once the pedestal was completed in April 1886, the statue was reassembled by workers dangling from ropes. Surprisingly (given the safety standards of the time), not a single worker died.
The statue, formally called Liberty Enlightening the World, was ceremonially dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.
The monument’s signature green color, caused by the oxidization of the copper skin, did not emerge until after 1900.
Workers build the statue inside Bartholdi’s workshop in Paris
The workshop showing the carved arm of the statue. At the back (right) are smaller models of the arm and the head.
Image: Albert Fernique/Library of Congress
Bartholdi (left) supervises the crafting of the statue.
Image: Musee Bartholdi/Authenticated News/Getty Images
A view of the head outside the Parisian workshop as construction begins for the bequeathing ceremony. The assembled dignitaries are grouped around one of the statue’s feet.
The internal frame is assembled…
Image: Albert Fernique/New York Public Library
…clad by the skirts…
Image: Albert Fernique/New York Public Library
…and the upper body.
Image: Albert Fernique/New York Public LibraryLetters were written home. Word of mouth taught people that you would see this wonderful goddess in New York Harbor when you arrived in America to welcome you.Barry Moreno, Historian
The fully assembled statue towers over its workshop and the surrounding buildings.
July 4, 1884
The statue is formally unveiled to the United States ambassador to France before being shipped to New York.
Image: CorbisNo true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances.New York Times, c. 1880
A cartoon from Puck magazine suggests a solution to the statue’s funding difficulties.
The feet of the statue arrive in New York.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty ImagesWe will not forget that liberty here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.President Grover Cleveland
The statue is reassembled on Bedloe’s Island. The narrow pedestal restricted the use of scaffolding, forcing workers to dangle from ropes.
Image: Library of CongressThe wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.Emma Lazarus
Image: Alinari/Getty Images