There were no speeches, it being a hot day. So, with a minimum of ceremony, and before a crowd of some 60,000 people, the new First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, clumsily christened the new cargo ship, the champagne splashing off its hull and all over her lovely dress of lavender voile. A small detail lost in the excitement of the moment, as the enormous freighter slid down the ways under the gaze of dignitaries, the tens of thousands of shipyard workers who built her, and their families. Meanwhile Edith’s husband, the President Woodrow, suddenly boylike, waved his hat in the air and led the crowd in a riotous patriotic cheer. Bands played tinny airs, almost drowned out, while flags flapped in a sultry breeze.
It was a curious phase of WWI, with the long war nearly over and America’s concomitant shipbuilding effort only just then hitting its stride. After years of maintaining its neutrality, the United States had entered the war in the spring of 1917, partly in response to Germany’s relentless U-Boat attacks upon all trans-Atlantic shipping. It was another year before the US had embarked on an ambitious breakneck program to build a whole fleet of ships to replace the many US vessels that German submarines had destroyed. (Germany sank some 6.2 million tons of Allied and neutral ships in 1917 alone.)
One result of this determination was the overnight creation of the vast Hog Island shipyard on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Built on swampy outlying land (where the Philadelphia airport stands today), the shipyard consisted of 50 enormous bays. Covering 1.25 miles of land along the Delaware River, the yard, which 30,000 workers labored in harsh winter conditions to build, was the largest of any in the world. Though something of a boondoggle (the $50-million shipyard was essentially defunct by 1921), Hog Island was at the same time a source of great national pride, a proof of what American industry and a common sense of mission could together accomplish.
(Some scholars also credit Hog Island workers, who lived in an instant city and represented many food traditions, with giving the bulky sandwich known as the hoagie to the world.)
The Quistconck was the first vessel to be launched, of the hundreds that Hog Island was expected to produce. Though some of the ships were never built (the end of the war made them unnecessary), the Hog Island shipyard produced 248 5500-ton steel vessels over a two-year period, at the unprecedented rate of one every three to four days. The shipyard was innovative in applying standardized assembly-line techniques to shipbuilding, helping to restore and modernize the nation’s inadequate and sadly decimated merchant marine. Essential to any military effort abroad, many of these ugly supply vessels saw service in WWII.
Mrs Wilson, who had been married to the president for less than a year, was given the privilege of naming many of the vessels. Believing she was descended from Pocahontas and therefore a living representative of America’s indigenous nobility, Edith Wilson gave the ships Indian names. Quistconck was Hog Island’s native Delaware name.
The Quistconck’s christening celebrated the mobilization of a whole society around the national interests perceived to be in play during WWI. Whether or not this was the whole story of the shipyard, art and photography record the vigor of patriotic sentiment that kept the crowds cheering on that hot August day.