New Online Exhibit: The “Old Navy” Prints and Watercolors

Today’s post comes from Megan Huang from the National Archives History Office.

Besides his role as President during two of the greatest crises in American history, Franklin D. Roosevelt is also famous for having been a collector. Well-known as a collector of stamps, Roosevelt also carefully accumulated a vast amount of paraphernalia relating to the “Old Navy” in his lifetime, a term used to refer to the United States Navy before its modernization in late 19th century.

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Capture of the U.S. frigate Philadelphia by Tripolitan gunboats, November 1, 1803, undated. (JFK Library, National Archives).

The National Archives History Office has produced a new online exhibit on Google Cultural Institute that adapts a 1962 exhibit about the Old Navy. When President John F. Kennedy, who held a lifelong interest in American history, learned of Roosevelt’s collection, he suggested the National Archives host an exhibit dedicated to some of the prints and watercolors in the collection. It fell to naval historian Samuel E. Morison to sift through the thousands of prints and watercolors in Roosevelt’s possession and select the ones that were both rare and representative.

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President John F. Kennedy standing in front of a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt after speaking at the opening of the Old Navy exhibit, 6/27/1962. (National Archives Identifier 12170326)

The exhibit reflected the personal interests of not only Roosevelt but also Kennedy. Besides the similarities of coming from wealthy families and the same political party, the two icons of the 20th century also shared a deep affinity for the sea, sailing, and the Navy. Both learned to sail at a young age, with part of their youths being spent on boats. Before becoming President, Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary to the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, while Kennedy had served in the Navy during World War II.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt with Aunt Annie in Campobello, 1910. (National Archives Identifier 197283)

The birth of the American Navy took place during the tumult of the Revolution. Any naval force that was created would have faced the daunting task of challenging Great Britain’s Royal Navy, then the most powerful navy in the world. Supporters of the creation of a navy, however, argued it would a benefit to protect shipping and attract allies. Ultimately, a Continental Navy was formed.

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President John F. Kennedy at the wheel of the U.S. Coast Guard yacht Manitou in Boothbay Harbor, ME, 8/12/1962. (National Archives Identifier 194210)

Over the course of the early 19th century, the Navy played a more substantial a role that enhanced its prestige (particularly during the War of 1812), but it fell prey to foreign navies as well, misfortunes that underscored the relative youth of the American navy compared to other countries. When not engaged in warfare, the Navy was remained active in domestic shipping and sometimes diplomatic affairs.

The Old Navy lent itself well to artistic depiction for the high drama that is evident in the depiction of several maritime battles. Along with the other images, the exhibit reflects as well the many moods sailing could inspire, as well as the Navy’s triumphs and failures throughout the first half of its existence.

For more images and information on the exhibit or Roosevelt’s collection, you can visit the Kennedy Library or Roosevelt Library websites. To learn about Roosevelt and Kennedy’s interest in the Navy, and to view some of the prints and watercolors that were shown in 1962, visit our new online exhibit.

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