March 28, 2014

Joseph Pulitzer (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Joseph Pulitzer: 19th Century Crowdfunder

Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer was crowdfunding before crowdfunding was cool.

In 1884, the Hungarian immigrant used the editorial page of his powerful New York World newspaper to raise $100,000 to help build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. At the time, U.S. support for the pedestal was low. Many Americans thought New Yorkers should pay for the base that would hold Lady Liberty — a gift to America from the citizens of France.

Pulitzer, who came to the United States penniless, fought in the Civil War and began his journalism career as a reporter at the German-language Westliche Post in St. Louis, viewed the Statue of Liberty as a lasting symbol of his adopted homeland. He persuaded the wealthy and the working class to literally donate their pennies toward the cause. He convinced readers that the statue was a national concern.

"There is but one thing that can be done. We must raise the money!" he said. "The World is the people's paper, and it now appeals to the people to come forward and raise this money. … Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole population of France to the whole people of America."

In a savvy marketing move, Pulitzer promised to publish the names of everyone who donated to the pedestal, no matter how small the contribution. Donations poured in. In all, Pulitzer received more than 120,000 contributions — 80 percent were in amounts less than a dollar.

On Aug. 11, 1885, the results of Pulitzer's successful crowdfunding efforts were made public.

"One Hundred Thousand Dollars!" proclaimed a bold front-page headline in the World. In fact, $102,000 was raised.

Pulitzer, along with many other notable immigrant and minority journalists, will be featured in "One Nation With News for All," a new exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian that tells the dramatic story of how immigrants and minorities used the power of the press to fight for their rights and shape the American experience.

"News for All" opens May 16, 2014, through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Newseum.

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