Napoleon’s Sleigh

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Napoleon’s Sleigh

The image on this card is quite charming. High front, two seaters are a rare sleigh to say the least and I turned the card to its address side hoping to find a caption. Gold mine!

The card’s image is a pencil sketch of a sleigh ride, real or imagined on a country lane or maybe in an open field, likely in Dutchess County, New York, in the winter, sometime around or after 1888. This assumption is based on a guess that the passenger is between five and eight years old.

The caption reads:

Franklin Roosevelt Goes Sleighriding
With his parents
From “Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park” by Olin Dows
The sleigh was given to Napoleon III of France by Alexander II of Russia.
James Roosevelt bought it for $15 after the Commune in 1872 at a Paris auction.

This tiny piece of history captured my attention. It generated many questions and here I sit recording my findings. I hope you find the story just as amusing as I have.

*   *   *

The whole world referred to the 32nd American President by his initials – FDR. Born in New York state on January 30, 1882, he was educated at Harvard University and the Columbia Law School. His first election to public office came in 1910 when he, surprisingly won a New York State Senate seat in a highly Republican district. FDR’s story is better told elsewhere – there are thousands of books. We all know he was our President longer than any other, serving from 1933 to his death on April 12, 1945. With all else said, every great man was once a boy. This story comes from those years when he was, perhaps five to ten years old.

*   *   *

On April 12, 1949, the fourth anniversary of the President’s passing, Olin Dows’ book, Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park, was released.

Prior to the release a review appeared in newspapers across the country written by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt herself. In that review Mrs. Roosevelt stated that “Olin Dows’ book is one my husband would have enjoyed tremendously.” The contents included 174 drawings by Dows with documentary text added by the artist.

Sixteen of the drawings were selected for inclusion in a book of postcards. The set was designed for exclusive sales at the Hyde Park Gift Shop. Each card has a brief caption that explains the image, but there is never enough information to satisfy the most curious of us.

Olin Dows was a native of Westchester County, New York. He was one of President Roosevelt’s favorite artists. His palette was pleasing to everyone who saw his work. His post-war reputation was based on a series of sketches and drawings done while he served in the 35th Infantry division of the U. S. Army from June 1942 to 1945.

*   *   *

James Roosevelt, frequently and respectfully known as Squire James, and his second wife Sara Delano, were the parents of President Roosevelt. After earning a Harvard law degree, he joined a law firm and dabbled in coal and transportation law which some six years later and on several other occasions took him to London on business.

The legend behind Olin Dow’s sleigh ride drawing started while James Roosevelt was in Europe on business in 1872. It has been suggested that on a whim, Mr. Roosevelt attended an auction of royal memorabilia in Paris. He bought a sleigh that once was a gift to Napoleon III from Tsar Alexander II of Russia. He paid $15.

*   *   *

Alexander II at the time of his accession to Tsar of Russia in 1855 was 37 years old. He and he alone was responsible for the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. As a political leader he enjoyed a number of successful endeavors in foreign policy but fell victim to an assassination in 1881.

Near the end of the Crimean War (the Treaty of Paris was signed in March 1856) was when Alexander II assumed control of the Russian foreign policy. Russia lost the conflict to a coalition of nations consisting of France, part of the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom and Sardinia.

The war had two very diplomatic outcomes. Thought to be the better was a reconciliation of British and French ambassadorial policies; secondly Alexander II became a political ally of Napoleon III of France.

It may be that the personal relationship between Alexander and Napoleon was the most important of all, for even with the tensions of war fresh in the minds of the citizenry, there was still time for practical jokes. Seldom do we think of Royalty (in its most genteel definition) being those with keen senses of humor, but Alexander II may well have had a twinkle in his eye when he gave Napoleon III of France a sleigh.

*   *   *

The Parisian winters of the late 19th century were insufferable. The snow piled up in the streets to levels just below the second-story windows. The cold came early in those years, the temperatures dropped below freezing in mid-November and it remained cold until mid-March. During the night of November 27, 1872, in the skies above Paris a very intense meteor shower produced more than one-thousand meteors an hour. The pundits pronounced that the shower would affect the weather and cause the temperatures to drop. Real or dreamt, that is exactly what happened. By Christmas the Seine was frozen hard enough to skate on.

James Roosevelt bought the sleigh, perhaps with the idea in mind that there would be plenty of time to use it.

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A running joke in my home is how often the Crimean War comes up as a subject in “Jeopardy!” clues, as does Liberia. In a recent episode, both were trotted out!

Another article that surprises me with many facts which I find so interesting in later live spiced with some humor that amazes !

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