Happy Birthday Eleanor Roosevelt: Modern Woman of the Gilded Age

On October 11, 1884 Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on West 37th Street in New York City. By the end of her life, she would be known as the longest serving First Lady of the United States, and Harry Truman would nickname her “First Lady of the World” for her humanitarian efforts. But she began her life surrounded by New York City’s Gilded Age riches.

Anna Eleanor was born to Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt and Anna Rebecca Hall. Anna Rebecca was a celebrated beauty in New York, and was the subject of one of Peter Marié’s miniatures, many of which can be seen in Beauty’s Legacy: Portraits of the Gilded Age. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her biography, “My mother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Old Peter Marié, who gave choice parties and whose approval stamped young girls and young matrons a success, called my mother a queen, and bowed before her charm and beauty, and to her this was important.”

Katherine Arthur Behenna (ca. 1860-1924), Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt (Anna Hall, 1863-1924), 1893. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the Estate of Peter Marié, 1905.216

Anna Rebecca married Elliott, brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1883. Like many rich wives of the Gilded Age, her days consisted mostly of hosting guests and planning events. Unfortunately, Mrs. Roosevelt began to have problems with alcohol, for which the family sought treatment in Europe. She eventually died of dyptheria at the age of 29, when Eleanor was just eight years old.

Eleanor was sent to live with her grandmother in Tivoli, NY, where she met her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt became the First Lady, the role was considered largely like the role of her socialite mother: hostess and mother. For instance, take a look at these paper dolls of the clothing of the First Ladies, made in 1937. Clearly, wives of the Presidents were expected to be gracious and feminine, and little else.

Maybelle Mercer, Dresses Worn by the "First Ladies" of the White House (Paper Doll Cut-outs), 1937. Gift of Ellen Liman, 2008.33
Maybelle Mercer, Dresses Worn by the “First Ladies” of the White House (Paper Doll Cut-outs), 1937. Gift of Ellen Liman, 2008.33

Eleanor had little interest in spending a life as just a fashion model and mother, and in 1933 became the first First Lady to hold a press conference…one that only female reporters could attend. Her time as First Lady was spent as an activist for the rights and needs of women, minorities, and the poor. For instance, according to the FDR Library, “In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Marion Anderson, an African American singer, to perform in their auditorium. In protest, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR.”

84851d_EleanorRooseveltVotesWomenNYHSEarlier this year, the FDR Library and Museum was rededicated, with new permanent museum exhibits, and their Tumblr has some amazing resources about Eleanor Roosevelt.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *