Nevertheless, reporters at the time had a bit of fun with the news. One described the statue as crestfallen by the decision, and playfully imagined her crying into the water at her feet. “Here I have been standing in rain and mist and snow...” The New York Times mock-quoted Lady Liberty as having said, “And nobody has suggested a pair of zippers—no, not even an umbrella.”
But government officials had made up their minds. Besides, they said, allowing for the addition of a watch would only open the door for more such accoutrements, which would inevitably lead to “fashionable modistes ... showering her with gowns, and beauty specialists persuading her to indulge in nine varieties of haircuts.” (Though a “boyish bob” might be appropriate, the Times offered.)
Today, Lady Liberty’s hair is a lovely shade of verdigris. But back then it was darker: “Liberty, who has been hiding her light under a good many bushels of bituminous,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1926, referring to coal stains, “now appears as a decided brunette.”
Stylistic continuity (or lack thereof) aside, the notion of adorning a gargantuan neoclassical figure with a glowing, contemporary timepiece is only partly absurd. The statue has always been as much a technological object as it is an artistic masterpiece.
The sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed the statue to be fully illuminated, a feature that’s suggested in its official name, “La Liberté Eclairant le Monde,” or “Liberty Enlightening the World.” (At first the Statue of Liberty doubled as a lighthouse, given its position in the New York Harbor, but that didn’t last: It was decommissioned as such in 1902.)
Originally the lighting scheme was to be red, white, and blue—with a giant searchlight trained on the statue’s face and shoulders. Officials claimed in 19th-century newspaper accounts that they would make the statue so bright as to cast a glow on the clouds of the night sky 100 miles away. The statue’s face was to be lit by a reflector so bright that newspapers described it as “4 million candle power.” Her diadem was meant to sparkle with electric light. These were lofty goals in the dawn of the electrical age, and they carried symbolism that has lost much of its potency now that electricity is taken for granted.
“In the 1870s and 1880s, when the use of electricity and gas for light and heat was first spreading into private houses, a figure like Liberty evoked more vividly than today the power of man over natural forces,” wrote Marina Warner, the author of Monuments & Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, in an essay in 1986. “It was as if the generating energy of the sun had been yoked to work for humanity.”
Back in 1886, when the statue was unveiled, not even the White House had electricity. So it’s not surprising that early attempts to light the statue went terribly wrong. Bartholdi had intended for the statue to be lit up, but he never specified exactly how. In late October of that year, the inaugural torch lighting failed. Even after a successful demonstration soon after, the statue remained cloaked in shadow most nights. Then, the lights turned on, but didn’t appear as planned: For weeks, the statue appeared to be headless after dark—light from the torch only lit up her shoulders, not her face, and the torch itself appeared to be floating in midair. “It is thought to be impossible to illuminate the whole statue so that it will be seen at night, owing to its dull, non-reflecting surface,” the Times reported that year. To complicate matters, there was a standoff among government agencies as to who should pay for the lighting.