As anticipation builds for the royal newlyweds' first official North American tour, I’m reminded yet again of how beautiful Kate Middleton (er, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) looked. With billions of eyes on her as she towed a nearly nine-foot train across Westminster Abbey, she embodied poise and grace, winning many admirers at home and overseas. Such was the reception of a gowned and bejeweled Frenchwoman introduced to the United States 125 years ago, “a mighty woman with a torch,” as Emma Lazarus described her in “The New Colossus.” Since the Statue of Liberty’s 1886 inauguration, the sculpture has become a symbol of freedom, opportunity, and greatness. Unsurprisingly, companies have appropriated her iconic image for commercial purposes, often to comic effect.
Some artifacts from the Iris F. Hollander November Collection at The Strong’s National Museum of Play feature popular characters carrying the Statue of Liberty’s familiar symbols. Popeye flexes his biceps to salute Olive Oyl, his string bean of a sweetheart who proudly wears Lady Liberty’s seven-pronged crown representing the world’s continents and seven seas, many of which her beloved Sailor Man navigated in his quest for justice. Liberty Libby, charming subject of a Garbage Pail Kids collecting card, exchanges the Statue of Liberty’s book of law for a curling newspaper and her golden torch for a sack of trash.
Lady Liberty’s torch has received the most attention over the years. From bouquets to birthday cakes, just about anything looks majestic when held aloft by a woman in a copper gown. The sculpture’s formal title, Liberty Enlightening the World, offers a clue to the importance of this particular symbol. Not only is her torch a beacon for wayfarers, but in tandem with the broken chain at her feet, it also signifies America’s elevated principles following the abolition of slavery. Merrick Thread Co. replaced Lady Liberty’s torch with a glowing company logo to suggest that its six cord thread was superior to other brands. And how do modern Americans express approval for rock stars? They wave lighters in the air. With these patriotic butane lighters, concertgoers can summon the flame of Lady Liberty herself as they affirm a well-executed power ballad.
If you carry a torch for American social history, selected Statue of Liberty artifacts in The Strong’s Online Collections and a display on the National Museum of Play’s second floor will enlighten you to the sculpture’s impact on material culture. The Library of Congress offers an online exhibit and a wealth of resources illuminating the Statue’s history, including the deed of gift from France to the United States, a motion picture filmed in 1898 by Thomas Edison, and installation photographs of the new torch. Much like Princess Kate, Lady Liberty manages to look great in every picture.
The Statue of Liberty projects confidence and elegance to those who behold her. As thousands of immigrants glimpsed her in New York Harbor on ships bound from places of oppression, persecution, or perhaps simply tradition, who among them did not feel a little like a commoner elevated one step closer to royalty?