Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Traversing the Dakota back country atop his horse, a young Theodore Roosevelt arrived at a “desolate, little mud-roofed hut” belonging to Mrs. Maddox . She “had acquired some fame in the region . . . by her skill in making buckskin shirts,” and the future president had arrived at her home to obtain a shirt of his very own .
In memory of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth (October 27, 1858), this post offers a glimpse, not at the future New York Police Commissioner or the Rough Rider, nor the New York Governor or future President, but at the young man who strove to model himself as a rugged frontiersman.
Born on East 20th Street in Manhattan, Roosevelt grew up as a sickly, yet privileged boy. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1880, he promptly married Alice Hathaway Lee, his first wife. Three years later, he made his first venture West to the Dakota badlands. Sadly, tragedy struck the following year when his wife and mother, Mittie, both died on Valentine’s Day 1884. Devastated, the young widower recorded his sorrow that night: “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote in his diary . In search of solace, he returned West to dedicate himself to ranching, while leaving his newly born daughter in the care of relatives.
From an early age, Roosevelt wished to transform his body into a model of strength. As a frail and asthmatic child, Roosevelt worked diligently to follow his father’s advice to “make your body” . Nevertheless, his slight build continued to attract attention when he traveled West. One reporter from the Pittsburgh Dispatch described him in April 1885 as a “pale, slim young man with a thin piping voice and a general look of dyspepsia about him . . .boyish looking . . . with a slight lisp, a short red mustache and eye glasses, [who] looks the typical New York dude” . Given his comfortable upbringing and refined decorum, Roosevelt stood in contrast to the rough cowboys and hardened trappers of the West. Thus, he wished to prove himself as evinced in a letter dated June 1884 to his older sister: “I have been fulfilling a boyish ambition of mine, playing at frontier hunter in good earnest” . Eventually, he would transform: from the tender greenhorn to the tough frontiersman capable of knocking out a drunken gunslinger who made the mistake of addressing him as “four-eyes”; but before that could happen, he needed to dress the part.
For Roosevelt, the buckskin shirt represented a uniquely American form of dress that symbolized the masculine virtues of those legendary figures, such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who donned the outfit before him. And so, with every stitch, Mrs. Maddox tailored a garment imbued with great personal significance for Roosevelt. It makes sense, then, that he decided to take a photograph while wearing his buckskin shirt.
For the Christmas season of 1884, Roosevelt traveled east to his sister’s New York house at 422 Madison Avenue. Back in the city, he donned the suit and posed for photographer George Grantham Bain at his studio near Union Square. Clad in his buckskin attire, Roosevelt gazed stoically at the camera with a rifle perched on his lap and a hunting knife tucked in his ammunition belt. His rigid posture, bent foot, and index finger, resting on the trigger, suggest he is ready for action. The painted background, theatrical rocks, and imitation grass, which barely conceal the rug, dramatize Roosevelt’s performance to consciously cast himself as an “authentic” westerner who possessed manly characteristics. The circumstances surrounding this single photograph capture the nuance of who Roosevelt was, who he wanted to be, and who he was becoming: an urban woodsman.
 Hagedorn, Hermann, Roosevelt in the Bad Lands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921), 95.
 Felsenthal, Carol, Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 31.
 National Park Service, The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, http://www.nps.gov/thri/theodorerooseveltbio.htm (Oct. 14, 2014)
 White, Edward, G. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 83.