I emphasize the importance of a nationwide, continuous campaign because experience tells us that epidemic diseases can be stamped out only through carefully directed work on a nationwide scale. — FDR, 1939
January 30, 2022 marks the 140th birthday of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in 1882. It’s hard to believe that he arrived so long ago on a wintry day in Hyde Park, New York, the only child of James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt. There are few details about his childhood birthdays, but letters from FDR to his parents mention the gifts and treats he received while at Groton, his prep school. They sent hampers of fruits and sweets from S.S. Pierce, a Boston grocery catering to the wealthy. These had “everything I like best,” which he assured them would be shared with his friends. Birthday gifts also included requested items such as moccasins from William Read, a Boston sporting goods store; a special keyring; and books, including a much coveted Audubon’s Journal that he promised to “spend every moment on.” Another year he received a Thesaurus, “which I shall use frequently,” and a fountain pen, “an encouragement to good penmanship.” Aunts and uncles also sent greetings and treats.
Starting in the 1920s FDR’s birthdays brought together friends and political colleagues for convivial dinners, but the celebrations would change significantly once he became president. Beginning in January 1934, the President’s Birthday Balls became annual fundraising events, first for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and then for its successor in 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). The money was allocated between Warm Springs and communities around the nation. In Georgia, FDR had found the warm waters and therapy helped his muscles – though that treatment never restored his ability to walk – and established a polio treatment center there in 1926 five years after he had been stricken with the disease. The ‘balls’ ranged from simple gatherings in local community centers to elaborate affairs at hotels and other event venues in places like New York and Washington, and even in the recreation halls at the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal’s earliest and most successful programs. The idea of these balls originated with businessman Henry Doherty, a friend of the Roosevelts, who also suggested that FDR thank the participants through an address on the radio. This he would do every year until his last birthday in 1945. Then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt read his remarks as the president traveled to the Yalta Conference, just two months before his death on April 12, 1945.
Alabama, January 29 and 30, 1934, where $1300 was raised.
At such hotels as the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, and the Statler in Washington DC, there were giant cakes, dance bands, theater and movie celebrities, local politicians, and formal dress. The President’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, attended on his behalf in New York in 1934 along with entertainer Rudy Vallee and Mayor LaGuardia, at the Waldorf where champagne and other drinks could be served legally with the repeal of Prohibition. Albert Einstein and his wife attended the ball at the Hotel Astor. Eleanor Roosevelt always went to several events in the course of an evening in Washington. Irving Berlin wrote a song, “The President’s Birthday Ball,” which was performed in 1942 at balls in Washington and also in New York by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Everyone would pause while attendees listened to the President’s broadcast late in the evening. Funds were raised by the sale of tickets to the events, auctions, and even the donated proceeds of special theater performances and movie shows.
Eleanor cutting a cake in Washington, 1938.
In 1938 comedian Eddie Cantor had urged people to send in whatever they could to support the new NFIP, even a dime, and the White House was deluged with tens of thousands of pieces of mail. FDR told the nation:
In all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills—gifts from grown-ups and children-mostly from children who want to help other children to get well…. I must take this opportunity of thanking all of those who have given, to thank them for the messages that have come with their gifts, and to thank all who have aided and cooperated in the splendid work we are doing. It is glorious to have one’s birthday associated with a work like this.
Going forward, the NFIP would soon become known popularly as the March of Dimes. In commemoration of this appeal, FDR’s face was placed on the dime in 1946 and issued in time for his posthumous birthday on January 30 that year.
FDR and Basil O’Connor counting dimes
The balls were great successes, raising about a million dollars a year (approximately $21 million today). In 1938 Basil O’Connor, former law partner, friend and advisor to FDR, became head of the NFIP and started organizing local chapters to fundraise and provide assistance to polio patients. Under his leadership NFIP was able to raise $18 million dollars in 1945 (approximately $280-300 million today) which went to providing care and funding the research on polio that would culminate in the first successful tested vaccine created by Dr. Jonas Salk and released for use on April 12, 1955, exactly ten years after FDR’s death.
FDR’s first birthday address on January 30, 1934 had many of the themes that would recur in the following years. The fact that polio crippled more children and adults than any other cause. The fact that many hospitals and clinics and medical professionals around the country were engaged in their care and thus merited the support of all in their communities. And it was both patriotic and pragmatic to help polio victims:
Let us well remember that every child and indeed every person who is restored to useful citizenship is an asset to the country and is enabled “to pull his own weight in the boat.” In the long run, by helping this work we are contributing not to charity but to the building up of a sound Nation.
He concluded by thanking his vast audience, “but lack the words to tell you how deeply I appreciate what you have done and I bid you good night on what is to me the happiest birthday I have ever known.”
In May 1934 FDR receives a million dollar check from first birthday balls to benefit Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
In his 1938 speech he introduced the nation to the new National Foundation, and in 1939, perhaps reflecting the era, had a more militant tone in his address, noting:
…the national determination to wage unending warfare against a national peril. We are all engaged in a campaign which, because of special circumstances, requires that our effort shall be nationwide, unified and continuous. Infantile paralysis is an enemy which neither slumbers nor sleeps. It lurks in hidden places and strikes without warning whether the victim be child, or youth, or man or woman of mature years. I emphasize the importance of a nationwide, continuous campaign because experience tells us that epidemic diseases can be stamped out only through carefully directed work on a nationwide scale.
By 1940 FDR was reporting to his audience that there were more than 25,000 birthday parties involving
hundreds of thousands of devoted volunteer workers in State, county, city and hamlet. To all of them, of all ages and representing all callings, I tender my heartfelt thanks …I think I am safe in saying that no nation in the whole world has ever in all history put a larger volunteer army into the field on any given date than the army of Americans which tonight is taking part in the defense of American childhood.
During the following years his remarks not surprisingly reflect the war raging around the world, telling his audience in 1942:
In the midst of world tragedy—in the midst of sorrow, suffering, destruction, and death—it is natural for most of us to say even on a birthday or a feast day: “Isn’t the word ‘happy’ a bit out of place just now?” That was perhaps my own predominant thought this morning. Yet the day itself and the evening have brought with them a great reassurance that comes from the deep knowledge that most of this world is still ruled by the spirit of Faith, and Hope, and Charity.
He then went on talk about the role of volunteers in a democracy to “support our tasks of humanity” in war and peace and continued referring to these themes in his speeches. In 1945 the president’s speech reflected his confidence in victory:
The success of the 1945 March of Dimes in the campaign against infantile paralysis does not come as a surprise to me. We are a Nation of free people, and free people know how to go over the top- whether it’s a Nazi wall, a Japanese island fortress, a production goal, a bond drive, or a stream of silver dimes. The reason for these achievements is no military secret. It is the determination of the many to work as one for the common good. It is such unity which is the essence of our democracy.
Our national concern for the handicapped and the infirm is one of our national characteristics. Indeed, it caused our enemies to laugh at us as soft. “Decadent” was the word they used. But not anymore. They are learning—and learning the hard way—that there are many things we are mighty tough about. We will never tolerate a force that destroys the life, the happiness, the free future of our children, any more than we will tolerate the continuance on earth of the brutalities and barbarities of the Nazis or of the Japanese war lords. We combat this evil enemy of disease at home just as unremittingly as we fight our evil enemies abroad.
Eleanor Roosevelt wholeheartedly supported the campaigns to raise funds. In her travels around the country she often visited facilities for crippled children. She reported in her newspaper column “My Day” on how the funds raised by the Birthday Balls had helped improve those facilities and the care they offered since 50 to 70 percent of the funds raised were retained locally. On January 29, 1937, she wrote about community responsibility, a theme that was central to her philosophy, as it was to FDR’s thought too:
I think it is important that people should take an interest in the way that this money is spent in their community. It is not enough to treat a child in a hospital for a brief time. Crippled children must be rehabilitated. Something must be done which will make life worth living and a rounded program of education as well as health should be the concern of every community in the interest of preventing these youngsters from growing up to be a charge on the community rather than an asset …. they will need new braces, they will need new exercises, they will need checking up. There is no use in thinking that you have fully discharged your duty to a crippled child when you have done the first part of the job. I am hopeful that in every community where these children are, the committees will concern themselves with how the money is spent, search out those who need help and make sure that they get it until they are really on their feet and able to be self-supporting citizens.
Eleanor in Albany, New York at a therapeutic treatment center for crippled children in 1936.
On the days of the Birthday Balls, Eleanor hosted a luncheon at the White House for the family members who had gathered and movie stars like Ginger Rogers, Mary Martin, Joan Fontaine, and Lana Turner. She wrote that they would
help him celebrate his birthday by making the birthday balls a success throughout this city. Washington seemed so thrilled with all the movie stars that I think many people must be finding it hard to settle down again today to being in a city where you are not looking for a glamorous lady or a gentleman of romance on every corner! I always enjoy the luncheon with these young people. How they remain as natural as they do never ceases to be a wonder to me when I consider the constant gauntlet of observation which they have to run and the interminable number of autographs which they have to sign.
Eleanor Roosevelt with movie and stage stars after Birthday Ball luncheon at the White House, 1937. Jean Harlow is to her right.
Eleanor with 1944 celebrities at White House: Standing (left to right): Joan Fontaine, Martha Scott, Mary Martin, Virginia Field, Mary Pickford, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lucille Ball, Maria Montez, Jinx Falkenburg, Jeanne Cagney, Lily Pons, Patricia Collinge. Seated (left to right): Guy Lombardo, Brian Aherne, Grantland Rice, Roland Young, Red Skelton, John Garfield, Meyer Davis, Walter Pidgeon, Brian Donlevy.
Each year, attired in evening clothes, she visited all the main birthday balls in Washington – seven in 1939 – and in 1940 also stopped by at the “Birthday Ball given by the colored employees of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.” In 1941 she reported that the crowds were larger and more enthusiastic than usual. I met the different stars at various hotels and cut a most beautiful creation of a birthday cake at the Wardman-Park Hotel. Then I dashed back to the White House in time to join those stars who were able to be there during the President’s broadcast. They continued on their rounds after the broadcast was over. In 1943 Eleanor noted the generosity of the movie stars who also went to Walter Reed hospital “to give the hospitalized boys there a thrill.”
Eleanor Roosevelt with 33-year old movie star Lucille Ball in 1944.
Support for the balls continued strong even during the war. In 1945, Eleanor reported on her day’s activities and then At 11:40 p.m. I will be back at the White House to read the President’s broadcast, which he is not able to do this year owing to war conditions. Then I will return to the Statler Hotel to cut the birthday cake at midnight. She was impressed by the number of men in uniform who were taking part in these celebrations. …. it shows that the appeal of a home front battle is strong for the man who has to fight our battles overseas. …you want your country to be the best possible place to live in, both for yourself and your children. As was typical of Eleanor’s columns about a specific event they also included larger lessons. And so it was with FDR’s birthday speeches too, reaffirming the strength of American values to conquer armed enemies and ideologies abroad and viral enemies at home.