Theodore Roosevelt: Childhood

Figure 1.--Theodore herewas photographed at about age 8 years of age in 1866 during the Civil War. He wears knickers with white stockings. It looks to be a velvet suit with contrasting trim. This would be an outfit for a fashionable well-to-do family. I'm not sure how to describe his hat.

Theodore was born in New York City at 28 East 20th Street. His youth differed sharply from that of the log cabin Presidents. He was born in New York City in 1858 into a wealthy family, but he too struggled--against ill health--and in his triumph became an advocate of the strenuous life. Theodore as a boy in 1865 remembers watching Abraham Lincoln's funeral prosession from an upstairs window of his grandfather's house on Union Square, New York City. With him are his younger brother Elliott and a friend named Edith Kermit Carow. Theodore was a weak, sickly boy. He had poor eye sight and suffered from astma. He was deeply affected by an experience with two bullies. A biographer believes that the experience helps explain his character as a adult. [O'Toole] He worked hard to build his body through an exercise program his father devised. He developed a special love of natural history. He was to become the first president of the 20th century, leading America into the new century.

Early Years

From earlist childhood, it was clear that Theodore, or Teedy as he was called was a brilliant boy. He took aspecial delight in the outdoors and nature. In fact the house began to smell because of his interest in collection biological specimens and all the formaldahid he used. All the children, including two older brothers (Theodore and Elliot) and sister (Anna known as Bami) were very close. Corinne was the youngest. Theodore also developed a close relationship with Edith Carrow, a friend of his sister. Edith was asked to join the nursery school in the Roosevelt home. A fascinating photograph in 1865 was taken of President Lincoln's funeral procession in New York City. Theodore and a brother can be seig peeting out of the windowof the family home.

Sickly Boy

Theodore was a weak, sickly boy which was to plague him throughout his childhood. He had poor eye sight and suffered from asthma. He suffered from many ailments including headaches, fevers, stomach pains, and intestinal groaning. But by far his worst malady was asthma. At times these attacks were so bad as to nearly suffocate him. Some of these attacks lasted for weeks. The illness at that time was not very well understood, and there was no medicine to aid in opening the air passages. In an attempt to relieve the child his parents tried many ommonly used remedies of the day. The stimulants nicotine and caffeine were believed to help open the air passages so his parents would have Theodore puff on a cigar, or drink the blackest strongest coffee one could get down. The coffee often had the effect of making Theodore vomit. Usually Theodore, Sr. would carry his young son around just trying to comfort the child and to force air into his lungs. His lings wee so weak that Theodore had to have his prents blow out his candlel at night. [Burns] Young Theodore adored his father and cherished the extra attention he received from him when he was ill. His father also counceled exercise for Theodore and the other children. He belt an exercise room on the porch. His father recogizing the strnth of his character and weakness of his body, strongly encouraged him to develop his body through exercise. Health problems in the Roosevelt children were not limited to Teedie. His sister Bamie was dropped as a child and suffered from a spinal defect. Elliot often suffered from rushes of blood to the head and often succumbed to colds. Corinne, like her brother Theodore, suffered from asthma but to a much lesser degree. Theodore, Sr., a picture of health, often wondered how two people of such good health could have such a sickly brood of children.


Summers were spent in the country, and the children thrived on running bare-foot and watching the gathering of hay, and the picking of apples as well as all the other mischief that children in the country could get into. Theodore, Sr. hoped that these summer excursions would help to improve the children's health. Edith Carrow, born less than two months apart from Corrine and a very close friend, often accompanied the family at their summer stays at Oyster Bay. The Carrows were longtime friends of Theodore, Sr., and Corrine and Edith had been playmates before they could even talk. Edith, although 3 years younger than Theodore was often in his company. She was intelligent and more willing than most to tolerate Theodore's quirks. She would often accompany him on outings on his rowboat. The children loved their time in the country and were always forlorn with the arrival of fall and the return to the city.

Uncle Robert

Uncle Robert lived next door and the adjoining porch offered for room for the children. (Their parents had bought houses for all the children so the family could be close together.) Robert's wife Lizzie had a monkey which once bit one of the girls.

Childhood Clothing and Hair Styles

We do not have a lot of information about Teedie's child clothing. Right now all we have to go on is the family record, but because of the appearance of the CDV, there are several available portraits. We note early portraits of him at about 5-years of age wearing cut-away jacket outfits with white collars. The collar is a little difficult to make out because of the neckwear. One shows him wearing what look like a velvet cut-away jackts with light-colored pants. We note him wearing suits with bloomer knickers and white socks. This was a style for boy from ell-to-do families. Most American boys at the time wore long pants suits. The portait here shows him at about 9 years of age which would mean it was taken about 1867 (figure 1). He is wearing a dark cut-away jacket with piping. One of the earliest photographs we have noted of Theodore shows him at about 4-5 years of age wearing his hair over his ears with a kind of top curl. I'm not sure how this would have been described in the 1860s. This appears to have been a popular hair style during the 1860s. A year or so later w note the top curl is gine, but his hair is syill over his ears and combed eith a center part.

Trip to Europe

At the age of ten Theodore traveled with the rest of his family to Europe. During the ocean voyage he became somewhat homesick and extremely seasick. When the ship reached Liverpool, Theodore was introduced to his two famous uncles and Confederate heroes of the Civil War. The boy thrived on the great adventures told by his Uncles and much of his future fascination with sea power originated here. He spent his 11th birthday in the city of Cologne. According to Teddy he hated the trip, as did his younger brother and sister. The only enjoyment they found on this particular trip was in exploring any ruins or mountains when they could get away from the adults. They spent most of their time looking forward to getting back to America. Four years later the family would again travel to Europe and this time Theodore would gain far more from the experience and in his words 'enjoy it thoroughly.' In Europe he told his mother that he missed his friend Edith.

Exercise Program

One thing of note that happened on this first trip to Europe was the discovery of the effect of exercise on young Theodore's health. His asthma attacks returned and he struggled to breathe for much of the beginning of the trip. Fortunately when the family reached the Swiss and Austrian Alps, Theodore was feeling better. On long outings in the country he found that of all the family members, only he could keep up with his father. Theodore, Sr. also noticed the change in his son that the strenuous exercise of the mountain walks had brought on. It was shortly after this that one of the most enduring pieces of Roosevelt legend came to be. Theodore, Sr. is said to have said, "Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it." Theodore rose to the challenge of his father and from that point on began a regiment of strenuous exercise, a pattern he would follow for the rest of his life. A room in the family home was renovated to make a room where he could work out. His exercise consisted of weight lifting, gymnastics on the equipment in the special room in the house, wrestling, horseback riding, hiking, climbing, swimming, rowing and any other form of physical exertion each and every day and sometimes into the night.

Interest in Natuaral History

His reading of adventure stories sparked his love for natural history, but Theodore Roosevelt reveals in his autobiography that he distinctly remembers the day on which he started on his career as a zoologist. He was walking up Broadway, when at a market he discovered the carcass of a seal lying on a slab of wood. This seal brought all of the adventures he had read about to life and sparked an amazing interest in natural history. As a young boy, he had no fancy instruments, but nonetheless began to take all sorts of measurements of the seal. Day after day, as long as the seal remained, he would visit the market and take and record its measurements in what began to be his own natural history. With nothing else to use, he measured the girth of the seal with a folding pocket foot-rule. The skull of the seal was obtained and became the first exhibit in what he and his cousins referred to as the 'Roosevelt Museum of Natural History'. For a time this 'Museum' was maintained in his bedroom until complaints from the chambermaid forced him to move it to a bookcase in the back hall upstairs. With his interest sparked, he read book after book on natural history in an attempt to satisfy his hunger for knowledge of the subject.


At the age of thirteen he took lessons in taxidermy from a white-haired old man who had been a friend of Audubon's. It was also at this time that Theodore was given his first gun. As T.R. recorded in his own autobiography, "It was this summer that I got my first gun, and it puzzled me to find that my companions seemed to see things to shoot at which I could not see at all. One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles. I had been a clumsy and awkward little boy, and while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing." [Roosevelt, "Theodore Roosevelt An Autobiography; 19]


Shortly after this incident, Theodore was faced with another life changing moment. At age 14, due to a serious asthma attack, he was sent off by himself to Moosehead Lake. On the stagecoach in which he traveled were a couple of more mischievous boys who began to pick on him. When he was finally irritated to the point of fighting his two adversaries, he discovered that try as he might, he could not inflict any serious damage on either of them and each of them could easily hold him at bay without inflicting any damage to him. He realized that despite all of his exercise and weight lifting he was still a weakling. It was at this point that he decided he would join what he called "the fellowship of the doers." Although he had worked out hard in the past, he would now redouble his efforts and he would also learn to box. He was deeply affected by this experience with the two bullies. A biographer believes that the experience helps explain his character as a adult. [O'Toole]

Another Trip to Europe and Egypt

It was not long after this that the family took its second trip to Europe in the winter of 1872 and 1873. It was during this trip that he began collecting his first specimens of natural history while in Egypt. Years later, many of the birds collected on this trip were given to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Burns, Eric. The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt (2016)

O'Toole, Patricia. When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon & Schuster), 494p.


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Created: December 5, 1999
Last changed: 9:15 AM 10/10/2016