Statue of Liberty Pedestal and the Invention of Fundraising

Nobody had attempted building a colossus since the Colossus of Rhodes, the towering wonder of the ancient world — until the Statue of Liberty. Constructing such an edifice presented not only titanic technical obstacles but also a formidable financial challenge. Raising funds for building the modern-day colossus — Lady Liberty — is the story of the invention of a completely new concept in project financing: crowdsourcing.

The idea of the statue was conceived by a group of French intellectuals, lead by renowned law professor, politician, poet, and activist Édouard René de Laboulaye, as a gift from the people of France to the people of United States. Symbolizing liberty, it had to be funded not by governments but by ordinary people. The people of France would foot the bill for the construction of Lady Liberty, a present to the American people, while the Americans would pay for her pedestal.

On the French side of the Atlantic, the fundraising campaign proved to be quite challenging. Traditional methods such as holding dinners and benefits, publishing postcards and pictures, and even organizing a lottery were not sufficient. Cleverly, the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi decided that he could use parts of the statue in his promotional campaign. The arm holding the torch and the Liberty’s head were exhibited in France and in the United States to raise awareness for the project and collect funds. The arm holding the torch was put on display in the 1876 centennial exhibition in Philadelphia before being relocated to Madison Square Park, where it wowed New Yorkers for several years. People could climb up to the torch for a fee, which would go towards the project. After a laborious but ultimately successful campaign, Lady Liberty was constructed in Paris. It was dedicated, ceremoniously presented to the American delegation, disassembled, packed into over 200 crates, and shipped to the United States.

If collecting funds from the French was difficult, then taking money from the Americas proved nearly impossible. Practical yankees did not have any use for some French statue and certainly were not interested in parting with their hard-earned cash for a civic project. At the time philanthropy was the realm of the super-wealthy, who generously financed important projects, while the middle class and the poor only had enough for survival.

When the crates containing the disassembled statue arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, tasked with raising funds for the construction of the pedestal, had raised hardly over half of the moneys. If the rest of the funds were not produced in time, the Lady Liberty would have had no choice but to take a trip back to her country of origin.

Lady Liberty, the most prominent American immigrant, owes its place on American soil to another immigrant — Joseph Pulitzer. Coming from Hungary with little, he eventually rose to the top of the journalistic profession. He owned The World, which he turned from a failing newspaper into one of the most influential and widely read publications around. Pulitzer’s fierce competition with William Randolph Hearst, who ran The Journal, gave birth to what we know now as “yellow journalism.” Joseph Pulitzer got involved in the money-raising campaign for the pedestal, writing quite a few editorials. The most important one stated, “The $250,000 that the making of the Statue cost was paid in by the masses of the French people—by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans—by all, irrespective of class or condition. Let us respond in like manner. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”

However ernest, the appeals were not enough. The campaign required an out-of-the-box solution. Pulitzer announced that he would publish the names of all the people who donated to the pedestal, regardless of the amount, in his paper. The solution was brilliant, since for any small amount, one could be afforded the thrill of seeing one’s own name in the newspaper. Children, ecstatic with the prospect of reading their names in print, donated their pennies. The names appeared in the paper, as promised, but not always on the next day, making the donors anxiously buy the paper daily. Some used the opportunity to cheaply advertise their business, having the name of the business appear on the pages for a small contribution. Pulitzer raised over $100,000 in six months, with most donations being about $1 or less.

Construction on the pedestal on Bedloe’s Island in 1885. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, STATUE OF LIBERTY

Roughly 125,000 people contributed to the campaign. Pulitzer’s ingenious scheme not only achieved the goal of securing funds for the statue but also tremendously increased the circulation of the The World, essentially giving birth to the modern-day concept of fundraising.

In the end, the pedestal for the first modern-day colossus, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the leading US architects, was financed by the people of America in the first-ever-organized pre-internet crowdsourcing campaign.

  • 1811 – Star-shaped Fort Wood built on Bedloe’s (now Liberty) Island.
  • 1874 – Fundraising for Statue begins in France.
  • 1877 – Congress authorizes site for Statue but appropriates no money. Private fundraising begins for pedestal construction.
  • 1881 – Statue assembly begins in Paris. Completed in 1884.
  • 1885 – Statue dismantled and shipped to New York. Joseph Pulitzer begins nationwide fundraising for pedestal.
  • 1886 – Statue reassembled and dedicated.

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