THE GREAT Statue of Liberty Trinket Derby is in high gear, and it seems that the futures of the yard sale and the flea market have been insured for decades to come. Is this commercialization? A tawdry betrayal of a treasured national symbol? Don't worry.
Granted, the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers have been fretting that the statue has been sold off "as a corporate logo," her "virtue" has been sacrificed to get corporate sponsorship and too many celebrites are becoming involved in the official celebration, which will be a "three-ring circus."
And granted, it's hard to love all of the attempts to cash in on the celebration, such as Statue of Liberty wind chimes, towels, thimbles, belt buckles, pennants, patches, T-shirts, stickets, key chains, salt and pepper shakers, mugs, music boxes, plaques and posters.
Jim Hill, who heads the company that runs the concession on Liberty Island, had by mid-April seen and rejected such Statue of Liberty items as backscratchers, bathmats, doormats and the first garbage pail (not to be confused with the official Statue of Liberty wastepaper basket which has the sanction of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.) He'll be stocking about 200 separate items this year, not counting postcards.
But not to worry. Consider the words of Carl H. Scheele, curator of the Smithsonian's Division of Community Life, and a man who once was the proud owner of a pot-metal Statue of Liberty pencil sharpener. "I think that there is a very positive side to all of this. Souvenirs are a reflection of the upbeat, of high spirits and, in this case, of patriotism. Even the gaudy ones are bought out of respect, and I think that people who get upset with them are barking up the wrong tree."
Scheele, the man who brought Archie Bunker's chair and the Fonz's leather jacket to the Smithsonian, points to similar situations dating back to George Washington, whose contemporaries put his face on everything from metal tokens to mugs to commemorative plates.
He adds that we have done everything imaginable with the Liberty Bell, including making replicas out of every substance from straw to oranges to tobacco leaves. "The urge is the same but the vehicle changes," he says. "A hundred years ago we put our symbols on souvenir quilts and bandanas. Today they go on T-shirts. If there is an outstanding example of something that was totally commercialized, it was the American flag, which we put on everything: banners, coverlets, advertisements, trade cards and envelopes."
With the Statue of Liberty, commercialization is nothing new. One of the first to try to capitalize on logos and trinkets was none other than Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the statue's sculptor, who sold her image to French businessmen to use in advertising and who obtained an American copyright on the design in 1876. Bartholdi had not gotten a commission fee for his work and he hoped to make some money from licensing. As soon as the monument was completed, Bartholdi found himself embroiled in legal action, getting court injunctions against one man making badges and another manufacturing bronze statuettes.
According to biographer Andre Gschaedler, these actions were in vain, "as it was eventually impossible to prevent the reproduction of the Statue of Liberty."
A hundred years later, Lee Iacocca would invoke the efforts of Bartholdi in a newspaper column as a rebuttal to charges that he was commercializing the restoration. ''Poor guy,'' wrote Iacocca, ''he was accused of being too commercial!"
There have been countless manifestations of Libertiana since then. Some have raised more hackles than others. Back in 1950 the Boy Scouts of America embarked on a program to place eight-foot-tall reproductions of the statue in locations throughout the country. Unfortunately, the National Sculpture Society officially condemned the Scouts' deed "in the hope of arresting further use of these bad imitations of the great piece of sculpture which is our symbol of freedom."
Edward Kallop, who was curator of the museum at the statue and has written a book on its many replicas, says: "It started before the dedication and still goes on. Today we have Statue of Liberty pretzel tins, but 75 years ago she was on a cake tin."
Kallop says that "a number of proposals have been made to dress her with big red, white and blue ribbons and things of that nature. A designer actually wanted to make four outfits for her, one for each season of the year."
At that, even this Libertiana enthusiast says he draws the line.
Paul Dickson is a free-lance writer.