The Smithsonian Institution has conducted numerous scientific research expeditions to many different places throughout the globe. Waldo L. Schmitt, a curator at the United States National Museum, (the precursor the National Museum of Natural History) participated in many of these expeditions throughout the mid-twentieth century. One such expedition found Waldo aboard the USS Houston alongside President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the appointed naturalist in the President's entourage.
The USS Houston, captained by G.N. Barker, left San Diego, California on July 16, 1938 and would travel close to 6,000 nautical miles in just 24 days before arriving back in the United States on August 9, 1938 in Pensacola, Florida. The USS Houston dropped anchor at the Clipperton, Galapagos, and Cocos Islands where Schmitt went ashore to collect specimens and conduct research on behalf of the Smithsonian.
The Waldo L. Schmitt papers contain many different items from this expedition, including candid photographs of the President during many of the deep-sea fishing stops the Houston made during the cruise. In addition, another intriguing photograph is of the ship's crew participating in a "crossing-the-line" ceremony.
The "crossing-the-line," or "shellback" ceremony is an old naval tradition that occurs when a ship passes the equator during an underway period. Before reaching the equator, those members of the crew who have yet to "cross the line" (called pollywogs) are summoned by Davey Jones to see if they are worthy to cross into the Royal Domain of King Neptune - the ruler of the Raging Main. These pollywogs must undergo certain tasks set forth by the ship's crew who have previously crossed the equator (called shellbacks).
The USS Houston crossed the equator on the morning of 25 July 1938 and one photograph within the Waldo L. Schmitt collection shows the proceedings of the Houston's shellback ceremony. It is apparent in the picture which members of the crew were shellbacks and which were pollywogs. The shellbacks, wearing traditional naval uniforms decorated with what is most likely boot polish, are seen tipping the pollywogs into a makeshift pool after being "initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of Shellbacks" by Davey Jones, King Neptune, and his royal staff.
This expedition is just one example of the fascinating and illustrious career of Smithsonian curator, Waldo L. Schmitt.
Record Unit 7231 - Waldo LaSalle Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Waldo Schmitt and The Presidential Cruise of 1938: Correspondence - Smithsonian Transcription Center