Pennies for Old Ironsides

USS CONSTITUTION  NH 54592

USS CONSTITUTION as painted by Gordon Grant in 1927. NHHC image NH 54592.

In 1906, Congress appropriated a sum of money not to exceed $100,000 for the repairs and restoration of Constitution. Despite expenditure of these funds, by 1924 the condition of the frigate was such that if she was not rebuilt, the Navy’s only two choices would be to break up the ship or let Constitution sink at the dock. The Secretary of the Navy, Curtis D. Wilbur, upon viewing the ship, appointed a Board of Inspection and Survey which after inspecting the ship, recommended on February 19, 1924 that Wilbur ask Congress for a $400,000 appropriation. “The Secretary, however, took the attitude that it would be a fine gesture on the part of the people of the country, and particularly the school children, if they contributed small donations for the purpose.”

Thus in November 1924, Wilbur appointed the Commandant of the First Naval District and Boston Navy Yard, Rear Admiral Louis de Steiguer to call a meeting of the heads of various patriotic societies to discuss raising repair funds through donations. With Congress authorizing the Navy to collect funds for Constitution per an omnibus bill passed on March 4, 1925, Wilbur formally appointed de Steiger to lead the National Save Old Ironsides campaign committee two days later.  

As envisioned by the Secretary of the Navy, the committee’s initial fundraising ideas were to “popularize the campaign among the school children of the country and obtain from them in small sums the amount necessary,” and gain larger contributions from patriotic societies and organizations based on Secretary Wilbur’s general plan. The plan was to have the estimated 16,000,000 school children each contribute two and a half cents, which would, in theory, raise interests and awareness of their patriotic duties. Despite many school authorities, especially in urban school districts, opposing the notion of soliciting school kids for funds, the committee raised $154,000 through the pennies campaign – remarkable considering the logistics involved.

However, still well short of the mark, the committee eventually decided to sell lithographs of a Gordon Grant painting of Constitution for 25 cents and later 50 cents apiece. The initial problem with this effort was that the production of prints failed to meet demand. Eventually, production exceeded demand and the committee had a glut of prints to contend with. A sales force of 200 traveled the country seeking venues for sales. In the end, the print sales generated some $292,000.

In December 1926, the souvenir portion of the campaign commenced and by 1928 the first sales of souvenirs were made. The Committee sold souvenirs made from parts of Constitution that had been removed. Some items that were sold included pieces of wood and cordage, bookends, wood frames, gavel sets, plaques, anchors, cigarette boxes, miniature cannons, and bolts. The souvenir campaign raised a gross of $241,220.57 according to the calculations made on March 1, 1930.

The National Save Old Ironsides Committee also tried several other fundraising tactics used which were not as successful as those stated above. The three main sources of revenue the Save Old Ironsides Fund had were from the pennies campaign and other donations (a net total of $300,000), the print sales, and souvenir sales. After taking away the costs of fundraising and the salaries of the Committee workers the National Save Old Ironsides Committee raised a $617,000.00.

Unfortunately, the costs of repairing the Constitution escalated as the five-year fundraising effort proceeded. In the end, Congress authorized an additional $300,000 to finish the repairs.

Writing the report in 1930, Rear Admiral Philip Andrews, who had relieved de Steiger as the committee chair in 1927, lamented that Wilbur had shunned de Steiger’s recommendation of assembling an Honorary Committee of representatives from banking and industry in favor of a committee consisting mostly of politicians. He also noted that Wilbur’s insistence on turning down large donations in favor of his principle of a broad based campaign certainly contributed to the fundraising shortfall at the end.

However, Andrews did note that the campaign, because of tremendous media support as well as help from Hollywood in the form of a feature film, did much to increase public awareness of the history of the ship and its role in contributing to the heritage of the United States Navy. That some 50 million Americans were exposed to the appeal in some form or fashion in an era that preceded television, is a remarkable testament to the efforts of many organizations that helped to raise the desired funds.

Following her repair, Constitution would become an even greater naval icon, as she would be towed to ports up and down the East and West Coasts during the early 1930s, to be visited by hundreds of thousands. Today she can be visited at the former Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. On August 19, 2012, Constitution sailed under her own power for the first time since 1997, and only the second time since the 19th century, on the 200th anniversary of her victory over HMS Guerriere (read more here).

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15 Comments

  1. Reply

    I’m trying to find information abuut the 1925 ” Old Ironsides ” painting by Charles Robert Patterson, The 22″ by 28″ paintings were distributed to schools so the school children could see what they were donating there pennies for. They were known as the Old Ironsides school house paintings. Do you have information about this?
    The Boston Old Ironside Museum dosen’t have one as I was there a few years ago. Thanks Ed

    • Gail

      Reply

      I think I might have the painting you are looking for. USS Constitution “Old Ironsides” by Charles Robert Peterson 1925. My mother-in-law was cleaning out her actic a few years back and she was throwing it in the trash. She acquired it many, many years ago from a couple she kept house for in RI.
      Written in pencil on the back is a description of the painting, and it is signed Charles Robert Peterson 1925 on the front. I originally saved it for the frame until looking more closely at it. It does have some water spot damage, but I think it can be repaired.

  2. Bill Blaclk

    Reply

    I remember seeing Old Ironsides in San Diego It must have been about 1936 .q

  3. bob watson

    Reply

    I have a lithograph of U.S FRIGATE CONSTITUTION-1927. U.S.P. & L CO.
    reproduced form orginal printing grant G.G. by direction of nation committee sove old ironsides. grant by act of congress

  4. Mary Dixon

    Reply

    Sometime between 1025-1930, my uncle wrote the winning essay to save Old Ironsides. Does anyone know where I can get a picture of that award (medal) with his name on it? It used to be on display on the ship. His name was Mohammed Eidy.

    • Kim Harris

      Reply

      I have a bronze medal I can scan for you. First place was a gold medal and second place was a silver medal. I do not know how many of the bronze medals were made

    • Richard Small

      Reply

      Actually, I have seen a copy of the telegram sent to the Sect of Navy by Moses Gulesian ( immigrant, private citizen, resident of Newton, MA)with an offer of $10,000 to buy the ship and save it from destruction.
      I have also seen the reply to this telegram stating that sale of ship was impossible because it takes an act of congress to sell a naval vessel.

  5. richard e lesh

    Reply

    As an old navy man I had the honor to be aboard old iron-sides to do a simple chore we took her out into the bay and turned her around to be retied to the pier,for weathering conditions. Steering her for that brief moment was a thrill not to be forgotten.

    • Admin

      Reply

      Thanks for the memories, Richard!

      Matthew T. Eng
      NHF Digital Content Developer

  6. Joseph de Steiguer

    Reply

    Admiral Louis de Steiguer was my 1st cousin, twice removed. My cousins (now deceased) recalled visiting Galveston, TX when Old Ironsides arrived on the “Pennies” voyage. Must have been about 1932 or so. Adm. de Steiguer was on the ship at the time and greeted them. Would you have anymore information about his service on Old Ironsides? Thanks in advance.

  7. Frank Picariello

    Reply

    My wife is a member of the DAR and we Charter for the Old Newbury Chapter is framed in wood from the Frigate Constitution. The Charter is dated 1896.

    I am researching the making of this picture frame and would like to know who made it?

    I am aware that Eleanor Roosevelt stated a Woodworking company with her 3 friends called Val-Kill Industries in 1926 through 1936 making Colonial Furniture and hand made wooden gifts made from the rafters of the White House. These gifts were given by First Lady Mrs Hoover and others. Could it be that they acquired the wood from Old Ironsides as well? Do you have any info in this regard?

    • Admin

      Reply

      Frank

      Please contact the NHHF Navy Art Gallery at (202) 433-3815.

      V/r,

      Matthew T. Eng
      NHF Digital Content Developer

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