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Silver champagne bottle holder from launch of the battleship USS Wisco | Wisconsin Historical Society

Silver champagne bottle holder from launch of the battleship USS Wisconsin

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object - Feature Story

Silver champagne bottle holder from launch of the battleship USS Wisco | Wisconsin Historical Society

 

EnlargeUSS Wisconsin Champagne Bottle

Silver champagne bottle holder from the launch of the battleship USS Wisconsin, 1943

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1947.1412

Museum object 1947.1412

Margaret Roche Goodland, wife of Wisconsin Governor Walter S. Goodland, used this bottle holder to launch the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) on December 7, 1943. At 10:44 a.m. Madison time that Tuesday morning, Margaret “cried ‘I christen you Wisconsin,’ and shattered a bottle of champagne against the towering bows of the new queen of the United States fleet.” [i] Goodland’s strike sent the 45,000-ton battleship sliding down the ramp for a perfect, stern-first launch into the Delaware River.

Tradition

EnlargeUSS Wisconsin

USS Wisconsin

USS Wisconsin in drydock during construction, Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, 1943
WHI 64190

Ceremonies to mark the launch of new ships are millennia old. They likely began as religious ceremonies, as offerings to the gods for good fortune and protection. Over time, the events became more secular, but certain traditions persisted. Perhaps because if its religious associations, wine has been the most common christening liquid, but brandy, whiskey, or water from significant rivers have also been used. In 1890, the steel battleship Maine became the first US Navy vessel to be christened with champagne, perhaps because of the beverage’s association with elegance and success. Champagne remained popular until Prohibition, when juice, cider, or ocean water were also used. Champagne returned with the passage of the 21st Amendment and has been the preferred launching fluid ever since.

The Fast Battleships

EnlargeGovernor Walter Goodland and Mrs. Goodland

Governor Walter Goodland and Mrs. Goodland

 

Governor Walter Goodland and Mrs. Goodland board the train for the Republican Governors conference in St. Louis. The meeting was called by Thomas E. Dewey, governor of New York, and Governor John W. Bricker, Ohio, nominees for the presidency and vice-presidency.
WHI image ID 40284

While newspaper coverage of the launch emphasized retribution for Pearl Harbor, construction of the battleship had begun almost a year before the attack. The keel of Wisconsin was laid down on Jan. 25, 1941. Wisconsin was one of four Iowa-class battleships eventually built by the US Navy. These vessels were derived from the US Navy's War Plan Orange, developed in the 1930s. The plan envisioned a Pacific war against Japan, and identified the need for vessels that could keep up with the Japanese Kongō class battleships, which could reach top speeds of over 30 knots. Six Iowa-class fast battleships were ordered in 1939 and 1940.  Four of the battleships were completed and saw service in WWII.  After a shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, Wisconsin was commissioned for service on April 16, 1944 and joined the Pacific fleet.

Despite her speed and formidable weaponry, Wisconsin was never used quite as imagined. By 1944, it had become clear that airpower was the key to naval supremacy, and aircraft carriers had displaced battleships as the primary offensive tools of both the United States and Japanese Navies. As a result, American fast battleships were relegated to the secondary role of carrier escorts, where they provided anti-aircraft screening for the carriers and performed shore bombardment for amphibious landings. During World War II Wisconsin participated in engagements in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the final bombardments of the Japanese homelands.

The Christening Bottle Holder

This holder is made of silver-plated metal, engraved with the Navy’s anchor logo and various patriotic symbols. A relief casting of the Wisconsin State seal is affixed to the front, along with engraved text describing the details of the event. The back of the holder features 48 star-shaped perforations. The bottom, an openwork star, was soldered onto the holder after the bottle was inserted. The decorative appearance is in keeping with the festive and ceremonial nature of the event. The back and bottom are deformed from being struck against a battleship.

Society of Sponsors

The lower front of the holder is marked “SPONSOR/ MRS. WALTER S. GOODLAND/ WIFE OF/ HONORABLE WALTER S. GOODLAND/ GOVERNOR OF/ THE STATE OF WISCONSIN.” Sponsor is, in fact, a formal title.  “Sponsors” were those who christened new vessels. In 1846, Lavinia Fanning Watson became the first identified woman to sponsor a US Navy vessel. Since then, the tradition of women launching ships became increasingly common. In 1908, two former sponsors, Annie Keith Frazier (USS Tennessee) and Mary Campbell Underwood (USS Birmingham) enlisted the support of Secretary of the Navy Victor Metcalf and President Theodore Roosevelt to foster a continuing relationship between sponsor and ship. These women, ages 20 and 19 respectively at the time, founded the Society of Sponsors of the United States Navy.  According to the contemporary Society of Sponsors website, “Far beyond participation in ceremonial milestones, Sponsorship represents a lifelong relationship with the ship and her crew. While this bond begins with the ship’s christening and the initial crew, it will ideally extend throughout the ship’s service life and even beyond. Sponsors are encouraged to make every effort to foster this special relationship, and to maintain contact with the initial and successive captains and the amazing men and women who comprise her crew.”[ii]  The membership of the Society of Sponsors is now entirely female.

Madge Goodland

Who was the sponsor whose name does not even appear on this holder?  Margaret Roche Risney Goodland (1887-1966) was a Milwaukee native who first met Goodland during World War I. She was an employee of the Wisconsin Loyalty Legion, and he, then Mayor of Racine, was a Legion supporter. They renewed their friendship when she returned to Wisconsin following the death of her first husband. Margaret and Walter were married in 1933 when she was 47 and he was 70.  It was her second marriage and his third. 

Margaret, known as “Madge,” may have reasonably anticipated a life of comfortable retirement at Goodland’s Racine County farm. Walter gave up running the Racine Times newspaper the year they were married, and he declined to run for re-election to the Wisconsin State Senate in the year after. In 1938, however, Walter was nominated for Lt. Governor on a Republican-Democratic fusion ticket aimed at thwarting the Wisconsin Progressive Party. He was elected to the office as a Republican in 1938, 1940, and, despite efforts of the State Republican Party to drop him from the ticket, in 1942. Goodland improbably became Wisconsin Governor in 1943, when the Progressive governor-elect, Orlando S. Loomis, died before the inauguration.

In January 1943, Madge stepped into the duties of a wartime First Lady. According to a profile in the La Crosse Tribune, “she joined with energy and efficiency in various war service activities, dashed around with a spirit that belied her 54 [sic] years.”[iii]  Launching a battleship must have been one of the most entertaining of those activities.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal account, “Mrs. Goodland, who had practiced for the launching ceremonies by cracking empty sherry bottles against the corner of the executive mansion in Madison, cracked the bottle today in her first try. Actually, she swung about a minute too soon. But the champagne flowed bubbling down the sleek gray bow of the sea monster and as the vessel actually began to slip toward the river the first lady gave it a more friendly rap with the metal-encased bottle of bubbly. The whistles roared, the navy yard band struck up “On Wisconsin,” the crowd cheered, women waved handkerchiefs and scarves, and even the navy men forgot their dignity long enough to wave gold-braided caps.” [iv]

Madge Goodland had a reputation as a down to earth, unpretentious woman, who preferred household activities but executed her political responsibilities with aptitude and grace. John Wyngaard of the La Crosse Tribune commented that “her charm, her unfailing good nature and democratic spirit make her one of the most loved and respected” of Wisconsin’s First Ladies. [v] 

Governor Goodland died in office on March 12, 1947, and Margaret donated this champagne bottle holder and some of her husband’s personal effects to the Wisconsin Historical Society shortly later that year. She returned to Milwaukee, where she continued to support to people and causes she believed in. She died in 1966.

Wisconsin was decommissioned in 1991 and is now operated as a museum ship in Norfolk, Virginia.


[iv] Wisconsin State Journal, December 7, 1943

[v] La Crosse Tribune, November 10, 1945