On June 17, 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor, ready to serve as a powerful new national symbol. It marks the 130th anniversary of France delivering the statue to the United States.
But when the statue reached New York, it wasn't certain that it would ever have a place to stand. That's because the pedestal was in the middle of an early crowdfunding campaign — years before the internet was a figment in anybody's imagination.
With the rise of platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon, it's tempting to think of crowdfunding as an internet-only phenomenon. But the concept goes back a lot further than that.
1) The Statue of Liberty needed a crowdfunding campaign before it could be assembled in the United States
The Statue of Liberty might have taken a lot longer to finish if it weren't for a campaign that raised cash from the public — and even gave them tiered rewards.
The party responsible for assembling the statue was the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty. And as the National Parks Service notes, they ran out of money in 1884.
Enter publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who, through a combination of altruism and opportunism, initiated a fundraising campaign in the New York World newspaper. Called the "Pedestal Fund," it was established to assemble statue's base. Pulitzer petitioned the public: "Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money." The campaign drew about 125,000 donors through a combination of incentives. Much like a modern-day Kickstarter campaign, there were tiered rewards: Pulitzer printed the name of every donor in his papers, and he also gave away statues to donors who put up enough cash ($1 got you a six-inch statue; $5 got a 12-inch one).
As the campaign progressed, Pulitzer published frequent updates (both to gin up donations and to boost sales of his paper). The many small donations, combined with corporate contributions, helped raise enough money to finish building the pedestal. As the Statue herself arrived in New York on that June day 130 years ago, the fundraising drive was nearing completion.
Lady Liberty didn't have to wait long for her pedestal to be "funded." Finally, on August 11, 1885, the World announced it had reached the fundraising goal. The statue was dedicated October 28, 1886 (it took a while to assemble the pedestal and Lady Liberty herself).
But though the statue itself is the landmark campaign today, the anniversary of its arrival in New York, it was only one of a few surprisingly old crowdfunded efforts.
2) In the 18th century, Martin Luther's works were "funded" through crowd support
Nowadays it's common for authors to campaign for their graphic novels and biographies on crowdfunding sites, offering backers a crack at the first copies. It was the same for Johann Heinrich Zedler. In 1728, he offered the works of Martin Luther to the theologian's biggest fans.
We don't know exactly how much money it took for Zedler's printing of Luther's works to get "funded," but we do know it was part of an established crowdfunding model called praenumeration. The idea is familiar to any indie-publishing backer — readers subscribed to a series beforehand, giving it the funds to be published and receiving a discounted early copy in return.
Of course, there was risk involved. Toward the end of his Luther series Zedler defaulted, because he used subscription fees for future books to pay off past debts. That should sound familiar to any crowdfunding contributor who has seen a campaign collapse.
3) Aimee Semple McPherson was an early crowdfunded evangelist
Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most notable evangelists of the early 20th century, and she became one of the first preachers to make significant use of the radio. Yet none of that would have been possible without a crowdfunding campaign to buy a radio transmitter.
As Tona Hangen wrote in Redeeming the Dial (and recalled on a recent episode of the history podcast Backstory), McPherson needed a way to disseminate her sermons. In the 1920s, a bourgeoning consumer technology called "radio" was the perfect fit.
So she launched a campaign in Bridal Call magazine. "These are the days of invention!" McPherson wrote. "The days when the impossible have become possible!" Early sketches asked donors to "Help Convert the World by Radio" and included sketches of the temple with radio transmitters over it. The funding goal was $25,000, about $347,000 in 2015 money. In some ways, it was a traditional fundraising campaign, but the uniquely specific goal, the mass-audience appeal through media, and the large number of small donations make it an early example of crowdfunding.
Over the course of a year, McPherson raised $25,000 to build a 500-watt broadcasting facility. Though only 200,000 radio sets were in range when her station, KFSG, launched, within a few years, radio became exponentially more popular. McPherson's station excelled, programming illustrated sermons, children's programs, and even faith-healing segments over the airwaves.
4) During the Civil War, Southerners crowdfunded iron boats for the Confederacy
The most unusual crowdfunding campaign might be Confederate attempts to raise funds during the Civil War.
The Confederacy wanted to purchase ironclad warships, which were significantly more powerful and durable than their wood counterparts (these ships appeared most famously in the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack, pictured above). But what was unusual was that the money for some of the iron ships wasn't raised through taxation or war bonds. Instead, as noted in American Quilts, Southern women made and sold quilts to raise the funds, and there's evidence that up to six of the so-called "petticoat gunboats" were funded by Southern crowdfunding.
It's obvious that fundraising and commerce have been around for a while, but crowdfunding seems anachronistic when it appears before the internet era. That's because the idea — mass-funding for a product before it's made — seems dependent on technology. But crowdfunding existed long before fiber optic cables, as shown by everything from a German book, to a radio transmitter in LA, to the Statue of Liberty, who awaited "funding" 130 years ago today. It's the quality of an idea, not the technology, that inspires consumers to take a chance on it.