There and Back Again: How FDR Shaped Thanksgiving

Moving turkeyI’ve always been particularly fond of the film “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby. You know the one, I’m sure: it introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world. The gist of the movie is that Bing gives up New York showbiz (and partner Fred Astaire) to retire quietly to Connecticut where he can lie around “doing time, being laaaaazy.” He converts a massive old house he bought into an inn, which will only open on holidays. That’s where the fun starts. Needless to say things don’t go as planned, and by Thanksgiving der Bingle is sitting alone, crooning the ironic “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For,” with his girl in the arms of his old partner and the concept for the inn sold to a  movie production company. This being 1941, each holiday is introduced by a little animation: the one for Thanksgiving pictures a turkey, obviously confused, running back and forth on a calendar from the last Thursday of the month to the second to last and back again. What’s going on here? It’s an inside joke, surely, but of what?

Well, the answer lies in what some took to derisively calling “Franksgiving.” In 1939 the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association wrote to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins warning that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) would adversely effect  retail sales.

Remember this was still the day when it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have “Christmas” sales before Thanksgiving. With the economy still in a slump, FDR issued a proclamation moving Thanksgiving up a week, to the 23rd.

The plan encountered immediate opposition, especially from Republicans, which was surprising given their pro-business stance. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s challenger in the 1936 election, called this “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Athletic associations weren’t pleased either: it wreaked havoc with their football lineups. Cities, towns, schools and universities had to alter schedules as well. Overall 62% of Americans opposed the change with 79% of Republicans in the no column. Some began to call it “Franksgiving.”

As FDR’s declaration was based on the “moral authority” of the president, it was up to the states to decide whether or not to implement it. Twenty-three states’ governments and the District of Columbia recognized the non-traditional date, twenty-two states preserved the traditional date on November 30, and the remaining three – Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas – celebrated both dates.

The proposal fared a little better in 1940 & 41, but Congress soon had enough of the confusion. By joint resolution, Congress fixed the date on the fourth Thursday, where it remains.

This little tale has  been in preparation for a slight Thanksgiving shift of our own. Last year, as I sat beside my table groaning with goodies, it occurred to me that this would be a good time for the Foundation give back something to our students. About a tenth of the College doesn’t leave campus for Thanksgiving: most of our international students, for example; and those on the West Coast, as well as some who just can’t afford the travel. Suddenly, the College is a rather lonely place for those without somewhere to go. So this year, I decided that we (the Foundation via the new FDR Global Fellowship) were going to spread the Harvard hand of cheer and give an All American Thanksgiving Eve Supper in the Suite. We’ll be moving out the Morris chairs and day bed in a few hours, and 35 students from five continents, five Houses and the Yard, will be joining us for a state-themed menu served buffet style:

• Maryland Jumbo Lump Crabcakes with Chipotle Aioli
• Louisiana Style Mini Pulled Pork Sandwiches
• Hawaiian Coconut Crusted Shrimp with Sweet Chili Sauce
• Missouri Fried Cheese Ravioli with Marinara Sauce
California Big Sur Avocado Salad
• Maine Clam Chowder with Oyster Crackers
•Mini Alabama Pecan Pie
• Mini Florida Key Lime Pie
• New York State Apple Cider & Assorted Beverages

(Those wondering about the logistics of serving so much to so many in such a small space, fear not: we’ve actually expanded down the wide and capacious hallway outside the Suite, the site of our new FDR timeline. With luck this will all be wrapped up tonight around nine, with just enough time for me to run home and get my own preparations underway.) The moral here is simple: while we take the historic preservation aspect of our role very seriously, we’re not slaves to a particular partisan view of the past, and happy, as FDR was, to laugh at past mistakes. Franksgiving was a failure, but the spirit that informed and motivated it was not. “The only way to have a friend is to be one,” FDR once famously said, and hopefully we’ll have 35 new friends tomorrow.

(Oh, and by the way: this supper is financed entirely by the Foundation, meaning by folks like you. If any of you would like to extend the generosity of your table to ours, just click the button below.)

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

 




FDR: A Life in Pictures

The Foundation is DEE-lighted, to borrow a turn from TR, to announce the publication of its new Roosevelt biography, FDR: A Life in Pictures.

front cover shadow 8.5

From the back cover:

“Lightweight yet Machiavellian. Frivolous but intense. Socialist and fascist. Devious yet charming. Communist while Caesar. Both traitor and savior combined. Rarely have such contradictory descriptions been attached to a single man. But at one time or another, each was tagged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps the most influential political figure of the 20th century. Here for the very first time in one volume: a visual road map through the extraordinarily rich timeline of FDR’s life, charting step-by-illustrated-step his amazing progression from pampered youth to 32nd President of the United States. Meticulously compiled from more than 70 large-format, digitally restored period photos — some never before published, and most with extended captions — FDR: A Life in Pictures documents as no other book can the remarkable living legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

This 154-page volume features several newly discovered photos found in our archives, as well as a half-dozen full color spreads of the Suite. Three of these were recently shot for us by noted photographer Ralph Lieberman, who’s in the middle of a two year campaign to document the architecture of Harvard in conjunction with the Fine Arts Library and the Graduate School of Design. This is one of his great wide angle views, which finally shows the extent of the study.

2013 Suite 02 lieberman

This book has been a real labor of love, arising out of the hallway timeline exhibit I put together over the winter with my friend Dr. Cynthia Koch, the former director of the FDR Presidential Library and now public historian in residence at Bard College. The short story is that having spent a huge amount of time tracking down and digitally restoring so many fine images – and then researching and writing the extended captions –  I discovered due to limits of space we’d need to exclude dozens of important photos. So rather than limit the work, I expanded it, and decided to put the full range together in a book, and there you have it. This volume is particularly helpful for the Foundation, as not only does it expand awareness of the Suite and its activities, but it also goes a long way to placing FDR’s Harvard experience in the wider context of his life and presidency.

For now, copies are only available through Amazon or through us (Click here to order.). Proceeds, of course, go entirely to benefit the Foundation. So start thinking about that perfect gift for FDR fans on your list!

 

 

 

Time Machine

Our latest find

Our latest find

One of the things that amazes me most about this project is that every now and then, a piece of the puzzle drops mysteriously from the sky, as if by preordained writ. I noted in a previous post how a strange and unlikely attraction to a tiny spot in Big Sur led me to Lathrop Brown’s descendants in the persons of Pam and Elmer Grossman, and how since then, so many aspects of Lathrop’s life, previously almost a perfect void, have now come together, including the wonderful family photo archives Dan L’Engle Davis shared with us last month. Thanks to these folks, Lathrop’s room will be as replete with personal memorabilia as Franklin’s (there thanks to the FDR Library), just as if ol’ “Lapes” had left the Suite moments before.

Last week another fascinating bit of FDR history descended from the heavens, this time from a far more prosaic source: EBay. As is my occasional wont, I was scanning one day for period Harvard memorabilia, and I noticed a little tome entitled Harvard University Songs. It had a delightful cover, and I was intrigued. There was very little detail supplied, except that it was an illustrated songbook, and that the publication date was 1902 – right in our range. So without giving it much thought, I bid on the item, maximum price, $20, thinking it might make an interesting addition to the period music already in our collection. It was mine later that day for a grand total of $18.12, including shipping.

The book arrived today, and turned out to be a small treasure.

True to description, it was a charmingly illustrated volume, much akin to the caricature book of Harvard Personalities I discovered earlier this year (also on EBay, and the subject of a future post). Even more appropriately, the drawings were done by FDR classmate (and fellow Newell Junior Crew Member freshman year) S.A. Welldon ’04, and dedicated, interestingly, to the Harvard Union. (The Union’s appeal is hard for us to appreciate today, but in 1902, it was hugely important in Harvard student life.)  All very intriguing. But what really got me going was the short introduction:

The compiler has tried to make a collection of the songs that are actually sung at Harvard, by the Glee Club, by the crowds at football games, and by the undergraduates and graduates. Many of the songs and versions of songs have been passed down to the present classes by ear alone, and are printed here for the first time.

WOW!

Think about it: what sits beside me on my desk as I write is a veritable miniature window back in time, capturing from that pre-recording age, the actual songs, and versions of songs, that FDR knew and sang at Harvard, exactly as he sang them. (And sang our president-resident did: the reason we have a piano in the Suite is that FDR and Lathrop both belonged to the Freshman Glee Club.) And these songs were sung not only by the class of 1904, but by generations of Harvardians before them. You can tell by just reading the melody and lyrics that some of these songs are truly old:

musi2

Now I can’t claim this volume as a first-ever discovery; once I had this dear little book in my hands and realized what exactly it was, I soon able to backtrack and find another copy buried away in the Harvard University archives, and later, was even able to track down a scanned version of the entire book (at UCLA Berkeley, of all places. You can, and should, view it here). But what fascinates me, and what I hope fascinates you, is the FDR Project’s unique ability to pluck otherwise dead and dry material like this thin neglected volume and place it once again in a living, breathing historical context of immense interest to scholars and historians worldwide, so that you and I and they,  – and eventually, hopefully, everyone with a computer through the virtual museum we’re planning – can hop-skip an entire century, and for a brief instant, experience what it was like to be alive at Harvard with FDR in his sophomore year. It’s one thing for me to simply tell you that FDR and Lathrop sat in Morris chairs and sang some ditty called “The Winter Song” over a glass of Piper with chums by the fire: it’s entirely another for me to give you the opportunity to sink into the soft cushions of those very same chairs, feel the heat of that same crackling fire, hand you a glass of sibilant bubbly, and teach you to sing this almost forgotten song in precisely the manner,  in precisely the same spot, on precisely the same instrument as FDR heard it eleven decades ago.

Time travel is what this is, really – rudimentary perhaps, but time travel none-the-less, and frankly, it’s enthralling.

What’s next from the heavens? I know not, but surely something. For the moment, we’ll just take our cue from another FDR contemporary, and head towards “the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning…”

Thanks to all you who’ve made this incredible journey possible. We continue to welcome, and need, your support.

Project Lathrop Brown

I was sitting in the Suite a few weeks ago, looking around, and I must admit to being quite impressed. With furniture mostly in place, pictures on the walls, mementos scattered everywhere, the place is really starting to become a real Victorian room with personality. This last is truly the key, because our quest is not so much to create a period interior (although that’s interesting in itself) but rather to create a period interior that reflects two very specific men: FDR and Lathrop Brown. Fortunately for FDR’s posterity, our president’s past is extremely well documented. The FDR Library and Museum at Hyde Park in the person of Bob Clark, chief archivist, has been extremely helpful in providing us with images that make FDR’s personal space come alive: pictures of the family at play, views of Springwood, images of the Half Moon at full sail. Not so for Lathrop Brown – his early life was mostly a blank to us beyond the wonderful later-life pics Pam Grossman, Lathrop’s granddaughter, and her husband Elmer dug up for us  – at least until last month. Exactly as I was lamenting the lack of detailed information and photos of Lathrop’s family, I received an email from Teresa Izzo, friend and fellow history detective to Dan L’Engle Davis, who turned out to be Lathrop’s sister Lucy’s grandson. (Got that?) Teresa had found us through the website, and wanted to let me know that Dan had “quite a collection” of Brown family memorabilia.

Was I interested?

Is the Pope Catholic? How soon can you get here?!!

“Quite a collection” turned out to be a tremendous understatement: an unbelievable collection of numerous photo albums, stuffed with over a century of Brown family history from the 1860’s to about 1910. Here at last were the insights into Lathrop and his family we had lacked: their travels, their childhood pictures, their homes, all in a remarkable state of preservation. Some examples:

LucyNevinsBarnes

Lathrop’s mother, the former Lucy Nevins Barnes, about 1878, just before she married Charles Stelle Brown, who was then in the process of building a real estate empire in New York City. (Brown’s firm sold the land to build the Brooklyn Bridge, as just one example.) Later in life, Lucy Barnes Brown would go on to become the first ever woman’s amateur golf champion.

Here she is, ready for the links in 1895:

lucy barnes brown

Lathrop’s Father, Charles Stelle Brown: (this pic courtesy the Grossman’s)

Charles Stelle Brown

And the children:

brother

Lathrop’s siblings in 1893. From left to right: Charles S Brown Jr, ’08, Lathrop Brown ’04, Lucy Brown, and Archibald Manning Brown ’03. Charlie, as he was known, went on to head the family’s real estate firm in Manhattan, which still exists today,  by the way – Brown, Harris Stevens; Lathrop (Lapes, (or Lapie) to his family, as we now know thanks to the albums, would soon be congressman and presidential confidante); Lucy, who married artist William L’Engle, became a famous painter; and Archie, who became a well known architect.

The pictures run the gamut from formal portraits to Brownie shots. Below is Lathrop and Miss Lydia Jones, Long Island Sound, summer, 1903. (Lathrop, already with sufficient credits to graduate, would return to Cambridge that fall, his only duty to manage the Varsity Football Squad. FDR, also unofficially matriculated, would occupy himself with his two loves, one old – The Crimson, and one new – Eleanor.) The two hand-held Brownie shots, here restored, are humorously labeled “Before the Sail”:

before the sail

and “After the Sail.”

after the sail

I could go on and on, but you get the general idea: from the clear blue sky has dropped an invaluable collection of close to 1000 pictures that documents the lives of not one, but three distinguished Harvard alums, and that allows us to fill out the Lathrop Brown side of the FDR Suite equation in a way we never thought possible.(Not to mention fulfilling the Foundation’s charter “to preserve and document Harvard student life at the turn of the 20th century.”)

So, short story: we’ve launched Project Lathrop Brown. With the help of our summer intern Justin Roshak, and while we have the kind loan of this material from Dan and Teresa for the summer, it’s our intention to scan and catalog a large percentage of these photos, both for our own eventual use in the Suite, as well to share with the Harvard University Archives and FDR Presidential Library.

And that’s where you come in: after some heady months of donations earlier this year, funding has slowed to a trickle, and we could use your help! Project Lathrop Brown will cost about $2500, mostly in new digital equipment suitable for this kind of intensive photographic preservation and reproduction; in addition, we’re still about 30K out from finishing the Suite. If you haven’t donated before, or if you can find your way to helping us again, now’s the hour!

Interior Design, and Redesign, Harvard 1900

Shortly after last year’s FDR dinner, I received an email from a certain Mr. Dave Robinson in Maine, inquiring as to whether or not we’d be interested in taking a look at some of the Harvard photos and ephemera he’d inherited from his grandfather, Chester Robinson, ’04, a friend and a classmate of FDR’s. I said certainly. Well, one thing led to another, I got busy, Dave got busy, then we made arrangements to get the materials scanned, then there was further delay, then mysteriously the ISB drive Dave sent me arrived empty: you get the general idea. Almost a year passed, and I still really hadn’t had a chance to see the extent of the collection.

The files arrived last week, and I opened them today.

Are we in for a treat!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be showing you more of the incredible treasure trove of material that the Robinson family has been kind enough to share with us, but let’s just say we’ve taken a major step forward in locating specific items to purchase or replicate. For now, I wanted to share with you these six photos, of Chester (Chet) Robinson’s rooms. They show Robinson and his roommate Goodhue’s bay-windowed corner suite in the old Russel Hall, a Claverly like building that stood where today’s Russell (C-Entry) now stands. What’s fantastic about these photos, (and to my knowledge unique in the Harvard collection) is that they show the same room from three views, with two different decorative schemes. Somewhere during their four years, the pair decided to redecorate, in keeping with the shift in taste that was occurring right around the turn of the century. Ornate Victorian styling was moving out, and what would become Arts and Crafts, and eventually, neo-Colonial, was beginning to take hold. What’s critical about finding these pictures, just as we are about to paper the FDR suite, is what it reveals about the wallpaper: we’ve been wondering whether or not our selection of solid silk papers for the bedrooms, as we had seen in the Vanderbilt Suite, was typical of the time, or merely the product of Vanderbilt’s elevated design aesthetic. No longer:

window-before

Here’s the window seat before. Note the rather frilly drapes, and the striped wall paper. Two Morris chairs, similar to those coming to the FDR suite, and again, all those Harvard pillows we see in many of the photos. Heaven knows where we will find or recreate those! And how’s this for bizarre coincidence: the view out the windows reveals Westmorly, and the windows of the FDR suite!

window-after

Now look at this: a much more distinguished arrangement, with a solid, silk like material on the walls, almost identical to what we were guessing for the FDR Suite bedrooms. YES! The name placards, by the way, are another typical element of Harvard student rooms of the period, though generally they are located over the individual’s bedroom door.

hearth before

A view of the hearth before. Note the Meerschaum pipes (present in almost every room photo) and the beer mugs (another ubiquitous student item.)

hearth-after

Here’s the hearth view after: you can tell it’s years later from the medals now hanging from the pictures: these are club and sports member medallions, and Dave’s family still has many of them, as well as the picture of dear old John the Orangeman, just visible on the mantle behind the mugs to right.

door-before

The doors to the bedrooms before: the curtains over the doorways appear in many of the room pictures of the period, and seem very odd to modern eyes. Most bookcases had curtains as well, as shown in the picture two above this one – to keep out coal and wood dust from the fires.

door-after

The door view after: a much more civilized arrangement than the ad hoc day bed previously. Note the Crimsons hanging from a hook on the wall. In general, it’s surprising how much the decor has matured over the interval. One (or both) of these gentlemen had a very good eye!

All in all, these six pictures provide a wealth of invaluable leads as to what kind of items we’ll need to acquire for the Suite, and as well as confirming both our reproduction of the printed study paper, and use of solid silks elsewhere. They also remind us what we often forget: the past is not static, locked at a single point and place the way we tend to view it from photos. It changed and moved, just like the present. Something to keep in mind when re-creaeting a set of rooms occupied for four years by two men of maturing times and taste…

We are all hugely grateful to Dave Robinson and his family for sharing this amazing time capsule with us, and I look forward to sharing more of it with you, our readers, over the next month.

Christmas Revised: December 1900

santa in auto

Courtesy Harvard University Archives

When the streets of the city are whitened with snow
And windows coated with rime,
When the tree is awaiting its wonderful fruit,
And the bells are beginning to chime,
The children need listen no more in their beds
For the scampering runners of steel
And the reindeer of Santa Claus over the roof
For he comes in an automobile!

The poet no longer may sing of the bells
That glitter and jingle and shake,
The St. Nick of this year wears a rose in his coat
And sits with a hand on a brake.
Half tone and color page daintily drawn
In the holiday numbers reveal
A ruddy old gentleman booted and gloved
Who rides in an automobile!

From all of us at Adams House and the FDR Suite Foundation, to all of you:
the merriest of holidays and our most heartfelt good wishes for the New Year!