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September Artifact of the Month – USS Leviathan Eagle Ornament

When asked to work on this collections blog, my supervisor asked what artifacts in particular drew my attention. It’s a little awkward to say, but I’ve always been a fan of wartime histories and I may or may not have responded with a jubilant “WAR,” which sounds worse when you excitedly exclaim it in front of people. Regardless of my intern embarrassment, my declaration has ensured that I often get to focus on war relics, such as this month’s artifact, a metal eagle ornament from SS Leviathan. The eagle is a decorative metal piece that would have been displayed on the interior of the ship following its renovations. It’s two toned in color, with a blueish colored body, and gilt accents on the feathers and legs. It’s pictured twice below, once in color, and once in black and white so that it is easier to see the detailing on the piece.

Eagle decorative ornament from SS Leviathan, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

Leviathan was originally SS Vaterland, a passenger liner built at Hamburg, Germany. In 1914, she was the biggest ship in the world, but only made a couple of trips prior to the outbreak of World War I. Vaterland had just arrived in New York when war was declared, and was therefore unable to return to Germany. Prior to this, she had made only three round trips between New York and Europe. Instead she remained in a terminal in New Jersey for three years until the United States entered the war in 1917. At that point, Vaterland was taken and turned over to the U.S. Navy, who renamed her Leviathan and kept her in service as a troop ship until 1919. Following the conclusion of the war, Leviathan again found herself in limbo, until she was sent to the Newport News Shipyard in southern Virginia to undergo a complete overhaul and renovations to turn her back into a passenger liner. Her renovation was actually supervised by William Frances Gibbs, the naval architect who would later design SS United States, and the owner of two of the baseballs that were featured in our April Artifact of the Month.

Detail shot, eagle decorative ornament from SS Leviathan, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

As a United States passenger line however, Leviathan was less successful. She was popular as one of the few American cruise liners following her renovation, but this faded with the passing of the 18th Amendment and the establishment of Prohibition. Leviathan established herself as a “dry” ship that did not serve any alcohol in accordance with Prohibition, provoking potential customers to ride on British ships that did serve alcohol. This, in addition to the Great Depression, helped prevent Leviathan from reaching her potential as a luxury cruise liner, and in the mid 1930’s she was deemed not profitable and placed inactive until 1938. Eventually she was sent to Scotland where she was dismantled and turned into scrap. However, Leviathan remained the largest commercial ship until 1952, with the completion of SS United States. While Leviathan was not involved in the war in the way that a submarine or battleship would have been, she still transported troops to and from Europe to aid the war effort. Her size made her hugely effective in moving large numbers of troops, and for a German luxury liner, it helped the American war effort effectively and efficiently.

USS Leviathan, March 6, 1919. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.
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