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The Birthday Balls and the Fight Against Infantile Paralysis

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January, 1942

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January, 1942

FDR contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39, and was paralyzed from the waist down. For the rest of his life, FDR was committed to finding a way to rehabilitate himself as well as others afflicted with infantile paralysis.

In 1924, FDR visited a rundown spa in Warm Springs, Georgia where it was said that the buoyant mineral waters had therapeutic powers. After six weeks, he was convinced that he had made more progress in his rehabilitation than at any time in the previous three years. He built a home for himself at Warm Springs.

In 1926 when the spa faced hardship, he purchased the facility for $200,000, creating a therapeutic center called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It opened its doors to patients from all over the country, providing medical treatment and an opportunity to spend time with others suffering the effects of polio.

FDR returned to politics, serving as Governor of New York from 1929-1932, and elected President in 1933. Even with the burdens of office, he regularly visited Warm Springs for treatment and rest, becoming known to the patients as “Dr. Roosevelt.” But the growing demands on the facility, and the increasing number of patients being treated there, required more money than FDR alone or a small number of contributors could provide.

At the suggestion of a public relations consultant, business magnate and FDR political ally Henry L. Doherty launched the National Committee for Birthday Balls that sponsored a dance in every town across the nation, both to celebrate the President’s birthday but also to raise money for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.

The first Birthday Ball was held in 1934, with 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations that raised over one million dollars for Warm Springs. Future Birthday Balls continued to raise about a million dollars per year, with contributions split between Warm Springs and the local communities where the balls were held.

In 1938, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, not only to help Warm Springs but also the victims of polio throughout the country. To increase awareness of the campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”

Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised 18.9 million dollars for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Ultimately, the March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) financially supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, eradicating the disease throughout most of the world by the 1960s.

Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication to finding a cure for polio benefited millions of children worldwide. But it was the participation of Americans across the nation in Birthday Balls that made the campaign a success. Their hard work and financial support supported the development of new methods of treatment to improve the lives of those stricken with polio and the creation of a vaccine to protect future generations from its devastation. Although the Birthday Balls ended in 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt, both of their legacies live on in the March of Dimes.

Eleanor at FDR Birthday Ball at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, with Red Skelton, William O. Douglas, Lucille Ball, John Garfield, and Maria Montez. January, 1944.

Eleanor at a FDR Birthday Ball at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, with Red Skelton, William O. Douglas, Lucille Ball, John Garfield, and Maria Montez. January, 1944.

1942 Wartime Party Game

We came across this interesting little item in a recent donation by the family of Charles H. McCarthy, Sr., an original member of the so-called Cuff Links Gang who gathered every January 30th to celebrate FDR’s birthday.

It seems that at the 1942 birthday bash the guests played a party game called “6 Shots at a Ratzi”, a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game where Hitler’s posterior was the donkey. This game, printed on very lightweight paper, involved placing a lit cigarette on a red dot next to the player’s favorite weapon of choice. You could choose between a tank, a rifle, and a variety of machine guns and cannon. The cigarette apparently ignited a narrow line of chemical painted on the paper from the weapon to the swastika on Hitler’s behind. The player who successfully hit the swastika won the game.

The handwritten notation on the game was made by Mr. McCarthy and identifies it as coming from the 1942 birthday dinner for the President. There’s no record of who won the game, but we hope everyone followed the printed warning “Avoid lighting in draft.”


Marion Dickerman’s Toga Costume (MO 1975.38a-b)


Franklin Roosevelt’s harsher critics sometimes compared him to a dictator. In 1934, the President and his staff turned this criticism into a lighthearted joke at FDR’s 52nd birthday party.

The party was held on January 30, 1934, at the White House by members of the Cuff Links Gang, a group of longtime political advisers and friends who joined Roosevelt every year for his birthday. The 1934 party had a “Caesarian” theme, with guests wearing togas and centurion costumes. Marion Dickerman, a friend of the Roosevelts, wore the muslin toga costume seen above to the party. In the photo, FDR, as “Caesar,” is surrounded by friends, family members, and close advisers, including Eleanor Roosevelt (as the “Delphic Oracle”). Dickerman is standing at the far right, wearing the toga. Just below her is Louis Howe, FDR’s longtime political adviser, dressed as a member of the Praetorian Guard.

This photograph, along with hundreds more, can be seen in a new exhibit opening this Spring at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum: The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives.



Eleanor Roosevelt’s Engagement Ring (MO 1974.375)


On November 22, 1903, 21-year-old Franklin Roosevelt asked 19-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt to be his wife. Eleanor accepted, but Franklin’s mother, Sara, opposed the match, believing her son was too young to marry. She convinced the couple to keep their engagement secret for a year—hoping their ardor would cool. It was nearly a year before Eleanor received this engagement ring on her birthday, October 11, 1904, and several months more before she and Franklin announced the engagement.

In a letter to her fiancé written shortly after her birthday, Eleanor wrote:

“I am longing to have my birthday present from you for good, and yet I love it so I know I shall find it hard to keep from wearing it! You could not have found a ring I would have liked better, even if you were not you! This sounds odd but is quite sensible.”

The ring is special for more than sentimental reasons. It is one of the earliest known examples of the Tiffany style setting, which revolutionized jewelry design by raising the diamond above the ring band to allow light to hit the stone from all angles. The center diamond is very slightly imperfect and weighs approximately 3.40 carats. The six diamonds at the sides weigh about .30 carats each.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

FDR Birthday Event:
Rose Garden Ceremony
Location: Rose Garden, Home of FDR National Historic Site
Time: 3:00 p.m.

On Sunday, January 30 at 3:00 p.m., the National Park Service will hold a Rose Garden Ceremony to commemorate Franklin Roosevelt’s Birthday. Following the ceremony, the FDR Presidential Library will invite attendees to return to the Wallace Center for birthday cake and refreshments.

Free public event. For information call (845) 229-6214.


Click here to check out our new web feature on FDR’s birthday.

January 30, 1884: FDR is born in his family home in Hyde Park, NY.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth announcement.

FDR “Toga Party” Birthday Celebration. Pictured: Marvin McIntyre, Grace Tully, Tom Lynch, Marguerite LeHand, Kirke Simpson, Nancy Cook, Malvina Thompson, Eleanor, Irwin McDuffie, FDR, Anna Roosevelt, Charles McCarthy, Margaret Durand, Stanley Prenosil, James Sullivan, Marion Dickerman, Louis Howe, Stephen Early.
January 30, 1934
FDR Library Photo Collection. NPx. 47-96:1756.

October 11, 1884: Eleanor Roosevelt is born in New York City.

Picture of a young Eleanor Roosevelt.
FDR Library Photo Collection. NPx. 48-22:4289(2).

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