Shaking Up History: Curator Bustard’s Artifact of Choice

Today’s post comes from Meagan Frenzer, graduate research intern for the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On display in the “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a silver cocktail shaker and six cups that once belonged to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Governor of New York and later, as President, Roosevelt used these items to mix drinks and entertain guests, even during Prohibition.

FDR's Chinese Cocktail Set. (National Archives Identifier 16917407)
FDR’s Chinese Cocktail Set. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library; National Archives Identifier 16917407)

The sides and bottoms of the silver cocktail set, circa 1925, are adorned with a bamboo motif and Chinese characters. The items fit into a maroon leather box with blue velvet lining, though this item is not currently on display.

Senior Curator of “Spirited Republic” Bruce Bustard identified FDR’s cocktail set as one of his favorite items in the exhibit, due both to its elegance and historical richness. Bustard believes that this particular item best highlights the divide in American perceptions regarding alcohol.

The cocktail set represents this divide between those as close as husband and wife, or in this case, between President and First Lady.

For instance, President Roosevelt held a daily tradition, where he hosted an evening cocktail hour for his closest staff and friends called the “Children’s Hour.”

Roosevelt most likely used this cocktail set both during his “Children’s Hour” throughout his governorship and Presidency. According to daughter Anna Roosevelt Halsted, her father kept the shaker and cups with him in Hyde Park and the White House.

Named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Children’s Hour,” President Roosevelt’s rules for this hour were simple: No formal discussion of politics or government policy, and he mixed the drinks. The President supposedly made strong cocktails, where he experimented with different spirits, including absinthe.

The “Children’s Hour” played a large role in creating positive associations with the cocktail set for the President.  FDR came to look fondly on his cocktail, because it was connected to a time where the President could cast aside the burdens of his office and socialize with friends and associates.

Despite the President’s feelings, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt might have held less-than-positive associations with the silver cocktail set.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s father and brother were both alcoholics. When she was young, her father became estranged from the family due to his alcoholism, and later died in a sanitarium after suffering complications from a fall during withdrawals.

These experiences with alcoholism pushed the First Lady away from alcohol. While she did not completely abstain from drinking, the amount was minimal.

The First Lady viewed her husband’s “Children’s Hour” as a waste of time better spent on pressing political matters. She rarely participated in the cocktail hour. Instead, she held time for tea with her associates. She shared her view on the “Children’s Hour” with the President in her nightly notes to him.

As Bustard noted, an artifact like FDR’s silver cocktail shaker can demonstrate polarizing viewpoints on alcohol consumption.

For President Roosevelt, the shaker was a cultural artifact that represented a time of day spent focusing on those closest to you in a less formal setting. To the First Lady, the silver cocktail set symbolized time and resources that could have been better spent effecting change.

To see FDR’s cocktail set or learn more about the history of alcohol in America, visit “Spirited Republic,” on display through January 10, 2016, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

And for more information about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visit Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Take a virtual tour of the “Spirited Republic” exhibit.

Listen to exhibit curator Bruce Bustard on the Kojo Nnamdi show!

L-R Derek Brown, celebrity mixologist, Kojo Nnamdi, and Bruce Bustard.
L-R Derek Brown, celebrity mixologist, Kojo Nnamdi, and Bruce Bustard.


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