The Magazine

The Lady Is a Lamp

What you don’t know about the Statue of Liberty.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By EMILY SCHULTHEIS
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The people of Paris fell so in love with the statue that Bartholdi ultimately produced a scaled-down replica that now stands on a small island in the Seine. The original was disassembled, placed into 212 crates, and sent to Bedloe’s Island, where the crates sat unopened for nearly a year while the pedestal was completed. Once the statue was reassembled, a massive inaugural parade was arranged in 1886. 

As part of an Art Loan Exhibition to raise money for the pedestal in 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” which, 20 years later, would be engraved on a bronze plaque hung at the base of the statue. However, the poem did not become so well known until the 1930s, when Liberty’s symbolism as a welcoming “mother” to immigrants was established. 

It is Lady Liberty’s “symbolic malleability” that Berenson takes up in the second half of his book, and this makes his contribution to her history different. Before she became a symbol of welcome to newcomers, Americans saw her as a symbol of opposition to immigration. The massive influx of immigrants around the turn of the 20th century caused tension with native-born Americans. In the decades before the Civil War, the United States saw an average of 125,000 immigrants a year; by 1880, half a million people every year were coming to our shores. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1900, 13.3 million immigrants arrived in the United States, and another 13 million or so arrived in the years leading up to World War I. 

This flood of newcomers began around the same time as the economic crises of the 1870s and ’80s, as manufacturing jobs were rapidly expanding and unions were striking. The new working class became overwhelmingly immigrant, causing complicated class and cultural conflicts with their native-born managers. 

It was during this time of economic dislocation and tumult that the Statue of Liberty became associated with immigrants, since most European vessels arrived in New York Harbor. Between 1890 and 1924, the reception facility on Ellis Island (next door to Lady Liberty) processed more than 12 million immigrants—the current populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined.

Having arrived in New York Harbor, immigrants who had achieved success “began to see the Statue of Liberty as an emblem of their good fortune,” writes Berenson. But it was not until the First World War, when Liberty’s image was used to recruit newcomers to the American cause, that she began to take on a more positive meaning. And not until the 1930s, when the largest waves of immigrants had ceased, “did the American public at large come to see the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of immigration and to regard that symbolism in a largely positive light.” 

It was in this environment that Lazarus’s poem took hold as the overarching characterization of the “Mother of Exiles.” Berenson notes that, in the context of Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler on the eve of World War II, sympathy for the plight of immigrants in general became more widespread, and the experience of World War II made America a welcoming “melting pot” of cultures. 

In fact, by 1956, the immigrant experience had become so universal that Congress approved a plan for an immigration museum at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and renamed her island perch Liberty Island. But assembling an immigration museum on the eve of the Age of Aquarius turned out to be too contentious a proposition, and there was a public outcry against putting such a controversial site at the foot of a beloved icon. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Ellis Island would host the immigration museum, separating Bartholdi’s colossus from the culture debates, and allowing her to take up the abstract mantle of liberty once more.  

Berenson includes an entertaining chapter on the ways in which the Statue of Liberty has been used in advertisements, film, television, and popular culture. Her likeness has been used to sell everything from cigarettes to World War I Liberty Loans, the latter asking contributors to “Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty.” Her versatility stems not only from her universal popularity, writes Berenson, but also her “status as a ‘hollow icon,’ open to almost any meaning, [allowing] her to stand just as easily for peace as for war.” She has been a popular cultural symbol for the better part of a century: Irving Berlin wrote an entire Broadway musical about her in 1949, and she has made appearances in a wide variety of Hollywood films, even coming alive to save New York in Ghostbusters II