That Time the Statue of Liberty Almost Got a Glowing Wrist Watch

The copper goddess is an artistic masterpiece—but also a longstanding symbol of technological progress.

A photomechanical print of the Statue of Liberty, produced in 1905.
A photomechanical print of the Statue of Liberty, produced in 1905. (Detroit Photographic Co. / Library of Congress )

The Lazarus brothers had an idea.

It was 1926, and the trio of watchmakers—Benjamin, Oscar, and S. Ralph  Lazarus—had opened a shop on Beekman Street, in Lower Manhattan. Their business was a short walk from the Battery, where they would have been able to stand on the South shoreline of the island and gaze at the Statue of Liberty across the harbor.

The Statue of Liberty was beautiful, the brothers conceded, but didn’t such a goddess deserve a bit of bling? They offered to make her a giant, illuminated wristwatch—you know, a little something she could show off on her upraised, torch-toting arm.

Officials with the War Department, which was then responsible for the statue’s oversight, told the press at the time that they had genuinely considered the proposal, but ultimately they decided against it.

The primary concern wasn’t that using Lady Liberty as an implicit vehicle for advertising might somehow tarnish her image, but that such a technological display would amount to a disorienting mashup of "so modern an ornament as a wristwatch upon the classically robed figure,” as one official put it, according to an obituary for one of the brothers published decades later. This concern is understandable: In today’s terms, it might be like replacing the tablet in the statue’s left hand with a colossal iPad.

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.

Finally, by the winter of 1886, the torch worked reasonably well—powered by nine electric arc lamps that were visible from more than 20 miles away.

Even when the lighting was technically functional, critics complained it wasn’t designed as it should have been. “It has been said, for instance, that the bronze goddess appears to have a double chin,” the Times wrote in 1931, “that under the four-and-one-half-foot nose, an ugly blur is cast on either side of the face, giving the cheeks a hollow appearance, and that other blemishes are caused by the lighting system.”

Over the generations, it wasn’t any one feature that came to define the Statue of Liberty as a technological marvel—certainly not the lighting that caused so many problems early-on, or the elevators that have since been installed, or the many tens of millions of dollars of renovations that have kept Lady Liberty intact.

Instead it is the statue’s positioning that gives the sense of an inexorable forward march. This is both because of the figure’s corporeal positioning—the way she seems to be gazing ahead, lighting a path, and leading the way all at once—but also in her juxtaposition against the ever-changing skyline of Lower Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty and the city reverberate against one another this way, Warner wrote, such that the statue is forever anticipating a future that is constantly being made.

“When we look across from the foot of the statue,” Warner wrote, “towards the massed towers of steel and glass and stone, exploding as if in frozen fission, like a giant crystal’s spars, we are looking at a future that has happened.”