What you may not know about past presidents
Think you know the presidents? A book from Smithsonian Books might make you think twice. That book is “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia.” President’s Day is February 19. To honor holiday, here are some facts from the book. The facts may surprise you. The facts include the clothing habits. It includes social practices. And it includes defining characteristics of our commanders-in-chief.
George Washington owned a whiskey distillery.
Whiskey was one of Washington’s most important business ventures. It was at Mount Vernon. That’s his home. It’s in Virginia. The peak production was in 1799. At that time the distillery used five stills and a boiler. It produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey. It had sales of $7,500 that year. That may have made it the country’s largest distillery.
Washington’s plantation manager was James Anderson. He was a Scottish man. He had distilling experience. He urged him to start the business. It was also a good way to use unsold ground wheat. It also used unsold corn and rye.
James Madison held the first Inaugural Ball.
There was a ball in 1789. It honored the election of George Washington. But the first official inaugural ball did not occur until 1809. That's when Madison took office. Madison was sworn in at the U.S. Capitol.
A gala was held that evening. It was hosted by his wife. Her name was Dolley Madison. It was held at Long’s Hotel. The cost to go was four dollars per ticket. Four hundred tickets were sold. This began a Washington tradition. Today the Presidential Inaugural Committee plans all the official inaugural balls.
Gerald Ford was a fashion model in his youth. He even appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
Ford’s first love was a woman named Phyllis Brown. She was a fashion model. Brown convinced Ford to invest in a modeling agency. She said he should do some modeling himself.
They appeared together in ski resort spread. It was for Look magazine. This was in 1940. They also appeared on a cover of Cosmopolitan. This was in 1942. The pair broke up. She wanted to continue modeling in New York. He quit modeling. Then he began his law career.
Warren Harding had the largest shoe size.
Harding wore a size 14. Unfortunately, those big feet did not ensure that his administration would be on firm footing. It turned out that Harding’s trusted advisors were not so trustworthy. His presidency was filled with scandal.
He died before his term was complete. His wife burned his potentially incriminating letters. But, his stately slippers and sporty golf shoes survive. They are at the Smithsonian.
Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have also won.
Roosevelt received his in 1906. It was for his many efforts toward international peace. This included his role in formulating the 1905 peace treaty. It was between Russia and Japan.
Wilson was awarded the Nobel in 1919. This was for founding the League of Nations. It was founded after World War I.
Carter was long retired from the presidency when he won the prize. This was in 2002. He won for his efforts to advance human rights. And also his efforts to advance peaceful solutions to international conflicts.
Obama was honored with a Nobel in 2009. This was for his work toward strengthening international diplomacy and cooperation.
William Howard Taft became a Supreme Court Justice after his retirement.
Taft was a graduate of Yale and Cincinnati Law School. He loved law. But he was unsure about politics. He was urged on by his wife. Her name was Nellie. He was also urged on by his mentor. His mentor was Theodore Roosevelt. Taft reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency. He called the presidential campaign “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.”
Taft lost the 1912 election. He lost to Woodrow Wilson. He served as a professor of law at Yale. Later, he was appointed by Warren Harding as chief justice of the United States. This was a position he said was his greatest honor.
Theodore Roosevelt wore a lock of Lincoln’s hair during his inauguration.
Roosevelt wore a ring. Inside was a lock of Lincoln’s hair. He wore it on March 14, 1905. It was his second inauguration. Roosevelt had been a long-time admirer of Lincoln. As a child he watched Lincoln’s funeral procession pass by his house in New York.
Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln was reinforced later when he met John Hay. Hay had worked for Lincoln in the White House. Hay and Roosevelt talked about Lincoln often. Hay gave Roosevelt the ring. He knew that Roosevelt would treasure it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to name a woman to his cabinet.
FDR named Frances Perkins as secretary of labor. This was in 1933. She was a Mount Holyoke College graduate. She was a trained social worker. She had worked in settlement houses in Chicago and Philadelphia. Her efforts on behalf of labor reform took on an added urgency after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.
She served as industrial commissioner under Roosevelt. This was when he was governor of New York. As labor secretary, Perkins established the Labor Standards Bureau. She was also a principal architect of the Social Security Act.
John Tyler had 15 children.
Tyler was married twice. He had eight children with his first wife. Her name was Letitia. After she died, the 54-year-old president remarried. He married Julia Gardiner. She was 24 years old. They had seven children.
Tyler had the most children of all American presidents.
Abraham Lincoln attended séances at the White House.
Lincoln’s wife was Mary Lincoln. She became interested in séances. This was after their young son Willie died in 1862. She engaged mediums at the White House. They conducted “spirit circles.” Those are ceremonies during which those who attended could communicate with their loved ones who had passed away.
Mary was eager to believe in these mediums. It made her loss somewhat bearable. She encouraged the president to attend a few séances. He did. It is not clear if Lincoln participated to make his wife happy or out of real interest and belief.