“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the iconic poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. For generations, the gift from France to the United States has served as a beacon of hope for those in desperate need of a better life. Everyone’s familiar with the magnificent statue’s torch and her commanding spiked crown, but there’s a whole lot more going on with Lady Liberty’s design than people realize.
Look at Lady Liberty gazing out over the New York Bay, holding her flame up high to signify hopeful light at the end of the long tunnel of life. A lot of people visit every year to bask in her patriotic glory — over 4 million per year. And yet most of them miss some key details.
Granted, there’s a lot of the monument to take in, both inside and outside, from her head to her feet. While Lady Liberty is quintessentially American, it was a Frenchman who first envisioned her, and he had big plans for what this statue could represent to the broader world.
Scholar and poet Édouard de Laboulaye first came up with the idea in 1865 to celebrate the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the United States’ independence. Being a man of the written word, he lacked the design experience the project would need, but luckily a famous sculptor stepped in.
French artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi caught wind of Laboulaye’s idea, and he loved it so much he dedicated his time to making it a reality. However, even he needed assistance figuring out how to make the 300-foot copper statue stable.
So, none other than Alexander Gustaf Eiffel stepped up to the plate to offer his engineering talents. Name sound familiar? Yep, he was the brains behind the Eiffel Tower. He helped the French sculptor implement some very meaningful symbolism.
For example, the spiked crown that’s resting atop Lady Liberty’s head signifies light beaming out across the entirety of Earth. Of course, another important part of the monument was nestled in her left hand.
Though it’s hard to see, the large tablet the statue holds has Roman numerals marking the date of the Declaration of Independence — a reference to the founding of the United States. However, the plan to honor the Declarations anniversary didn’t go exactly as planned.
Bartholdi began building Lady Liberty in France in 1875, hoping to have her finished by July 1876 in time for the hundredth anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence. However, he severely underestimated it; the statue wasn’t completed until 1884. Better late than never?
In fact, during the decade-long delay of the statue’s construction, the American people were on the fence about the new monument. Suffragettes protested her unveiling — she was a woman representing liberty, while American women didn’t have the right to vote. Luckily, their mission was acknowledged in the symbology of the torch.
Some might argue that the torch is the most important part of the whole monument. It stands for enlightenment, lighting the way to freedom and illuminating the path to liberty. While all these pieces were laden with meaning, Eiffel faced the challenge of actually building and transporting them across the Atlantic.
The logistical challenges didn’t stop them. Once the structure was completely assembled in Paris, it was then disassembled and shipped in pieces on a frigate to New York. It arrived June 17, 1885, and the new construction then began in America.
Once the statue was finally rebuilt more than a year later, it soon welcomed large groups of immigrants who poured in off of ships from overseas, seeking the exact life of freedom the monument symbolized. However, visitors back then had an experience with the Statue of Liberty that few have had since.
Up until 1916, visitors could ascend all the way up into the torch. However, a massive explosion caused by German spies during World War I permanently closed the area. This wasn’t the last time the monument had a role in a war, either.
In 1970, a group of women’s rights activists held protests on Liberty Island, and one year later it yet again garnered attention for protests against the Vietnam War. But, through all this admiration of the statue’s symbols, there’s one few know even exist.
Why would anyone pay too much attention to the statue’s feet when clearly the most important symbols are the torch, crown, and tablet, right? Well, notice how her right foot is slightly lifted off the ground. This was very deliberate.
Take a look at her other foot now. See that broken chain? It’s supposed to show Lady Liberty freeing herself from shackles, and this lesser-known symbol was all due to deeply held beliefs Laboulaye carried with him.
Not only did the Frenchman respect and admire America, but he was also an abolitionist who was president and co-founder of France’s Anti-Slavery Society. Although slavery was outlawed in France at the time, the group believed there was no place for it anywhere.
While the Statue of Liberty is a clear symbol of freedom it also delivers a more pointed message about banishing slavery and spreading enlightenment to the world. And it doesn’t end there, there’s still one more vital piece to the monument no one can ignore.
A poem titled “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by poet Emma Lazarus to help raise money for the statue’s massive installation project, was meant to paint America out as a safe sanctuary. But, in 2019, it fell into some controversy.
Opponents of immigration suggested the famous line, “Give me your tired, your poor…” should be amended to end with, “who can stand on two feet and won’t become a public charge.” The addition wasn’t taken seriously, but it did spark a bigger conversation.
The Lazarus poem still reads the same as it has for generations, and Lady Liberty still stands for a welcome escape from persecution for all. Long has she stood, emboldening all those who look to admire her copper strength.
Her entire story from start to finish is a magnificent journey, and it’s one that has tons more tidbits of information only a few really know. From secret inspirations to changes over time, Lady Liberty is chock full of secrets.
For about 20 years after her installation in 1886, the Lady’s torch was bright enough to be used as an actual lighthouse for incoming ships. It could be seen 24 miles away, and there was a power plant on Liberty Island specifically to generate power for the lamp.
Surprisingly, the Statue of Liberty has an even more formal title. It’s The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. With a mouthful like that, no wonder we’ve given her so many nicknames — like Mother of Freedom, Lady of the Harbor, and even Green Goddess.
When Paris gave us the hundred-plus-foot-tall version of the statue, they kept a few smaller nine-foot versions for themselves. Paris-dwelling Americans also gifted a replica, a quarter of the size of the original, to the city in 1889.
Although Lady Liberty looks small next to many of New York City’s massive skyscrapers, she wasn’t small in the 1880s. Standing at 111 feet tall, and 305 feet including pedestal and torch, she’s still taller than any 21-story office building.
If you were to go up to the statue and try to compare hand or foot sizes, you’d be considerably outmatched. Stretched out straight, her index fingers alone would be 8 feet long…and with sandals 25 feet long, she officially wears a size 879.
When the statue’s interior is open to visitors, you can climb a spiral staircase all the way up to her crown. On the way up, you can see the interior framework; at the top, enjoy a panoramic view of New York’s harbor out of any one of 25 windows.
Did you know Lady Liberty’s current torch isn’t the original? She got an upgraded lamp, plated with 24k gold, when she was renovated in 1986. The original lamp still exists, and can be seen at the Statue of Liberty Museum.
A hundred years ago, visitors could climb into the actual torch, but after an explosive attack near the statue in 1916, the torch stairway was closed to the public for safety. However, you can still see those grand views from the virtual TorchCam online.
The Statue of Liberty is full of hidden symbolism. The seven points of her crown represent the seven continents and seas, and she faces southeast, the direction of most arriving ships. The tablet in her grasp bears a Roman-numeral translation of July 4th, 1776, and the broken cuffs on her ankles represent freedom.
It’s hard to imagine Lady Liberty in any other color than her classic gorgeous green — but when she was new, she was the color of a new penny. After about 30 years of her copper being exposed to the elements, she gained a natural oxidized patina.
Lightning strikes high points, and Lady Liberty is the tallest thing in New York’s harbor, so she gets struck often — so often, the National Park Service can’t keep count. Fortunately, the concrete and granite pedestal she stands on grounds the electricity, so there’s no danger of damage.
The 1980s were a glam time for everyone, and that included the statue. Between 1984 and 1986, she got an inside-and-out, multimillion-dollar renovation in preparation for the centennial of her completion. Prior to the renovation, visitors climbing up the inside stairs were unable to see clearly the statue’s impressive framework.
Sadly, it wasn’t long afterward that tragedy closed those stairs for nearly a decade. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 closed Liberty Island for a hundred days, and the statue’s base wasn’t open until 2004. Finally, in 2009, tourists were allowed to climb to the crown again.
Visits to Liberty Island are even more educational since 2019, when the National Park Service opened the new museum. It features a theater, two gallery spaces, and the original torch, as well as old immigration artifacts from Ellis Island.
Almost 4.5 million visitors go out on the ferries every year to see the statue, and those numbers have increased tenfold since just a decade ago. Tickets for the Liberty Island ferry are $19.25, and once you get to the island, it’s only another $3 to go up to the crown! But once you’ve crossed the Statue off your bucket list, you can explore New York’s more under-the-radar attractions…