By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Many of the ships in FDR’s collection are historically significant vessels. Others fall more into the unique and unusual category.
Originally a United States Coast Guard patrol boat, the USS Potomac served as the presidential yacht from 1936 until 1945. FDR spent many relaxing days aboard the ship as it cruised the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay, and other locations. After his death, the Potomac was decommissioned and returned to the Coast Guard. It was later sold and fell into disrepair. Eventually a non-profit organization in Oakland, California acquired the ship. It is preserved there as a national historic landmark.
Two retired sailors at Sailor’s Snug Harbor—a home for elderly seamen in Staten Island, New York— made this model of the Civil War screw frigate Wabash as a gift for FDR in 1922. Frank Walters and John Colbert were longtime friends of Roosevelt who wanted to express their gratitude for his service to sailors during World War I. Roosevelt helped the men (“a couple of old deep water, square rigged sailormen, friends of mine”) by obtaining copies of the ship’s plans from the Navy. He prized this model “not only for the historical interest, but because it had been made by men who actually sailed on, and lived on these old ships.”
FDR purchased this model of the USS Macedonian in New York City in March 1922. He paid $210 (about $2600 in current dollars) for it. He later displayed it in the family quarters in the White House before putting it on exhibit at the FDR Library. Roosevelt believed the model dated to around 1825. Originally a British ship, the Macedonian was captured by Commodore Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812 and refitted for service in the American navy. It was the first British Naval ship to become part of the US Navy. FDR had a special interest in the Macedonian and also collected a number of prints and paintings of it.
FDR purchased this model during his first hectic weeks as president while he was busy enacting emergency legislation to overcome the Great Depression. The Raleigh was one of thirteen frigates ordered by the Continental Congress during the early days of the United States Navy. FDR purchased this model in April 1933 for $125 (roughly $2000 in current dollars) from the S&G Gump Company of San Francisco. Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to relax with his hobbies amid great crises became a hallmark of his presidency.
This model was created by O.G. Haines of Palms, California for a “Mutiny on the Bounty” model contest designed to help promote the 1935 MGM feature film starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. The film recounts the famous mutiny that occurred during Vice-Admiral William Bligh’s 1787 expedition to transport breadfruit trees to the West Indies. The model was presented to President Roosevelt in August 1935.
This is a particularly beautiful model, with delicate sails and painted hull. A.L. Lawbaugh of Jefferson City, Missouri presented FDR with this model of the clipper ship Cutty Sark in May 1938. Launched in 1869, the Cutty Sark was among the fastest ships involved in the China tea and Australian wool trade.
In addition to ship models FDR also collected books about naval history, ships, and even books about ship models.
Many of the books are rare first editions, some of them have both the author’s signature and FDR’s. They are typical of the kinds of books FDR collected- special versions of books on subjects he was very interested in.
There are a number of unique and unusual models in the collection. This Viking model is based on Leif Ericson’s ship and was given to FDR by the Washington State Federation of Scandinavian-American Democratic Clubs in Sept, 1937. The ship is named the FDR.
Sometimes it’s the people who give the model who are interesting. This outrigger canoe carved from highly polished brown wood is quite charming. It has a tall mast and a brown and black fiber sail of Fijian design. It was presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Boy Scout Troop 13 from Honolulu. FDR included this model in the Naval Exhibition Gallery when it first opened in 1941.
We are going to end with one of my favorite models, although it is unusual in a number of ways. It is made of varnished wood and has a metal tip and a small engine that actually works. Stitched on the floor of the back seat on red fabric: the letters F.D.R. Its about three feet long and really quite exquisite.
A 48-foot working replica of the ship is located at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY, in one of the rare instances when a real boat was based on a model. It is said to be the world’s largest and fasted runabout, powered by a Packard V-12 1,800 horsepower engine that can hit 70 miles an hour.
The model was made over several years by a prisoner of Sing Sing Prison in New York and given to Roosevelt when he was Governor of New York. We don’t know the prisoners name, but the ships name : Pardon Me.
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