FDR’s Ship Models Part One: Sailing Ships

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an avid collector – of objects, people and most importantly ideas. He was a connoisseur of naval art, stamps, rare first edition books and of course ship models. While he was well known for his stamp collecting, his first love was the sea. His fascination with everything nautical was handed down from both sides of his family.  The Delano’s, his mother’s side, made fortunes and lost fortunes and made them again in the adventurous world of clipper ships, privateers and maritime trading. The Roosevelts also had oceanic connections as investors, owners and builders. Several of the models in the collection have a direct link to his family.

John Aspinwall, the President’s great-grandfather, was a New York City merchant and privateer whose sons, William Henry and John Lloyd Aspinwall, owned a ship building firm, Howland and Aspinwall.

Rainbow, John C. Weeks, Wood, string, metal, fabric MO 1941.7.72

They launched the Rainbow in 1845, the first of the “extreme clippers.” With its sharp bow and sleek lines it was designed for speed rather than for cargo capacity. It quickly established itself as the fastest sailing ship in the world. John C. Weeks of Provincetown, Massachusetts gave FDR this model of the Rainbow when the President stopped there during a 1933 sailing trip along the New England coast.  “As you know,” FDR later wrote Weeks, “I take great interest in ships and ship models and have spent many happy hours with my collection to which the ‘Rainbow’ becomes a valuable addition.”  FDR named his youngest son John Aspinwall Roosevelt.

Sea Witch, Charles V. Nielsen Ca. 1936-1937 MO 1941.7.62

The year after launching the Rainbow the Aspinwalls launched the Sea Witch, which was even faster. The Sea Witch set a speed record for the journey from Hong Kong, China to New York – 74 days – a record which stood until 2003!  This model of the Sea Witch was made by model builder and restorer Charles V. Nielsen of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey.  Nielsen sent it to President Roosevelt as a gift in 1937.

New Bedford whaling brig, ca. 1840, Wood, ivory, string MO 1941.7.99

Roosevelt’s Delano ancestors included owners and captains of whaling ships. This model of a New Bedford whaling brig is believed to have been made in the 1840s by a seaman who served aboard the vessel. It is not known how FDR acquired the model, but it was in his collection as early as 1924.

As a child, he heard tales of the whaling trade from his family and spent time in New Bedford during frequent visits to the Delano homestead in Fairhaven. In 1929 Roosevelt wrote about his childhood fascination with whaling in an introduction to Ashley Clifford’s Whale Ships of New Bedford.

“Forty years ago a little boy sat on the old string-piece of his grandfather’s stone wharf at Fairhaven. Close by lay a whaleship, out in the stream another rode at anchor, and over on the New Bedford shore, near the old winding wooden bridge, a dozen tall spars overtopped the granite warehouses. Even then he felt that these great ships were but the survivors of a mightier age…”

Mary Isaac Delano ca. 1827 Wood, string, MO 1941.7.96

This model was built around 1827 by Captain Isaac Delano of Marion, Massachusetts. Isaac Delano was a distant relative of the President’s mother, and the model was passed down to Isaac’s grandson, Howard A. Delano of York, Pennsylvania. In July 1933, Howard Delano wrote to FDR offering to give him “this heir-loom of the Delano Family as a gift to its most distinguished son.” Roosevelt responded immediately, writing “I should be perfectly delighted to have the model . . . particularly so, as Captain Isaac Delano was a friend of my grandfather, Warren Delano.”

The FDR Presidential Library and Museum opened in June of 1941, and FDR personally selected the models for display in the original Naval Room.  Despite its name, FDR filled his Naval Room with both naval and merchant ship models. The admission fee was 25 cents.

West Wind Leander D. Lovell Ca. late 1930s Wood, fabric, string MO 1941.7.76

Leander D. Lovell created this elaborate model of the clipper ship West Wind and sent it to FDR as a gift. Roosevelt put the model on display in the living quarters of the White House and later agreed to exhibit it at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In 1941, he included it in the inaugural display in the Naval Exhibition Room at the FDR Library.

FDRs cousin and close confidant Margaret “Daisy” Suckley took this photo of him reading a naval manuscript in the White House study surrounded by his models. In the background you can see the USS Constitution. Known affectionately as “Old Ironsides,” the Constitution is the most famous ship of the early American navy.

MO 1945.70.1

Of all his ships, this model of the USS Constitution was his favorite. FDR purchased it in 1914, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It had originally belonged to Dr. Bailey Washington, a surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Family tradition claimed the model had been made at the Washington Navy Yard and given to Dr. Washington while he was stationed there in the 1830s or 1840s.  Roosevelt personally re-rigged this model while he was Governor of New York and he always kept it nearby. During his presidency he displayed it in a prominent spot in his private White House study. It remained there until he donated it to the Roosevelt Library shortly before his death.

Engagement Between Constitution and Guerriere Mid-nineteenth century. MO 1941.3.185

FDR also collected more than one hundred paintings, prints, engravings and drawings of the ship. This painting depicts the legendary battle of August 19, 1812, when the Constitution clashed with the British frigate HMS Guerriere. During the engagement, shots fired by the Guerriere bounced harmlessly off the Constitution’s hull, prompting her crew to nickname her “Old Ironsides.” A devastating series of broadsides by the Constitution decimated the Guerriere and led to her capture.  The oldest commissioned U.S. warship still afloat, the USS Constitution occupies a unique place in American naval history.

Even though he is said to have rigged this model, FDR was not a model maker. There is only one existing scale model we know of that he personally constructed.

This wood and canvas 19th century schooner model was made by FDR and given to his “right hand woman” Missy Lehand. It has 17 sails and is 9.5 inches stem to stern. This model is currently owned by Ms. Lehand’s relatives.

Though he did not build scale-model ships, FDR did construct miniature working sailboats. FDR created these for his children and for his own amusement. This photo was taken at the family retreat in Campobello, Brunswick. They raced these sailboats and trophies were awarded each year.

The main ship model collection storage room at the Library is downstairs and visible to the public.  President Roosevelt’s personal collection of around 400 ship models is unique in the National Archives Presidential Library System, and may be unique in the world as it combines such a wide range of ship types. Roosevelt purchased some, many others were gifts from friends, admirers, public figures, ship builders and foreign leaders.  In Part Two we will look at the models of 20th Century Naval Ships.

Watch Director Paul Sparrow lead a special tour inside the FDR Library’s Behind the Scenes storage area where FDR’s priceless collection of rare ship models is kept:

Special Thanks to Herman Eberhardt and the museum staff who curated the Treasures of a President: FDR and the Sea exhibit at the South Street Seaport from which much of this information is derived.

Explore a selection of the FDR’s Ship Model collection on our Digital Artifact Collection: FDR’s Ship Models

FDR’s Ship Models – Part Two : 20th Century Naval Ships

FDR’s Ship Models – Part 3: Other Interesting Models