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Look For Liberty In All of Her Many Representations

Give me your tired, your poor, … I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Almost every adult in America, upon hearing those lines, immediately thinks of our most well-known female, the Statue of Liberty. She is aging well, reaching the ripe age of 134 years in 2020.

Liberty was a gift to the American people by the French, and assembled in a studio in Paris. She arrived in America on June 17, 1886, and was officially installed on her base on Bedloe’s Island in New Yord City’s harbor on October 28 of that year.

That was not altogether her first visit to this country, however. The 225-ton statue was made in 300 separate sections. Before she arrived in her entirety, Miss Liberty’s right arm, the one holding the torch, had been completed and sent to the United States for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Following the Exposition, it was moved to Madison Square in New York City, where it was viewed by thousands until 1884. Then the rm was shipped back ot France to be assembled with the rest of the statue.

The Statue of Liberty and earlier representations of a female figure depicting the same values have been portrayed in a wide variety of forms over the years. She was, and still is, a popular topic of American folk art paintings and sculpture.

Copper weathervanes featuring the Goddess of Liberty were being made by the 1860s. In many vanes, she held a flag, which was blowing one direction with her arm outstretched pointing in the opposite direction -- these features presumably necessary to make her function as a weathervane. Other old Liberty vanes have been found in cast zinc, hammered copper and gilded wood.

Wooden ship figureheads of the mid 1800s were also, frequently, of the Goddess of Liberty. She supposedly symbolized not only a free naotin, but also that the sailing fleet of the United States believed in free trade and sailors’ rights.

The same woodcarvers who made the ship figureheads often turned their attention to carving life-size figures that were placed in front of cigar stores. These carvings were painted with bright colors and then coated for protection against the elements, with a hole drilled in the head through which linseed oil could be added for preservation. A smaller size version of the cigar-store figures was made to set on a counter inside.

Another place where liberty could be found was attached to the top of a stove, acting as a radiator! In the mid-1899s, the rapid growth of the iron industry in the United States created innumerable objects for use in the home, yard, store and elsewhere. A cast-iron stove figure, sometimes painted, could be attacked to the top of a box-like stove. There she not only made the stove more attractive, but helped to radiate the heat it produced.

The cast-iron foundries produced another utilitarian object that was also made more attractive by the addition of Liberty at the front. Andirons for use in the fireplace became living room decorations in this way.

Many trade signs of the late 1800s featured Miss Liberty, also. What could be a better symbol of the integrity of the proprietor than to have this lady a part of his advertising?

Liberty also appeared in the kitchen. One of the earliest pieces known is a black walnut cake board from the 18th century. It has the earliest form of this national symbol, when she was still an Indian Princess, carved in its center. A tin cookie cutter from about 1900 has just the head of Liberty. Also from this time were ice cream molds made of pewter.

The Goddess of Liberty was also a popular motif in most kinds of needlework.By the mid-1900s, she was being woven into coverlets, copper-plate imprinted on fabric swatches of cotton and linen, and embroidered on muslin and linen.

In fact, there is almost no aspect of American life that has not used Miss Liberty as a motif.

She has been made into dolls; she has been impressed in glass bottles; she has been carved as scrimshaw; and she has decorated the side panels of fire engines. She perches on top of flagpoles, smiles down from stained glass windows, and smiles up from the tops of cigar boxes. In 1984, she was re-created in 229 pounds of chocolate.

A collection of items featuring Miss Liberty in any of her forms is a fascinating look at American life. An excellent pictorial reference with historical background is” Liberties with Liberty,” by Nancy Jo Fox. It was published in 1986, in honor of the Statue of Liberty Centennial. Most of the items mentioned in this article can be found illustrated in this book.

In 2019, the Statue of Liberty Museum opened to the public, with interactive high-tec displays mixed with galleries of artifacts and archival records representing the cultural and natural histories of both Liberty and Ellis Island. The National Park System’s collection includes approximately 390,000 individual items and over 1 million archival records.

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