What you may not know about past presidents What little-known facts could you learn about FDR? (Corbis/NARA)
What you may not know about past presidents
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Think you know all about the presidents? The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia from Smithsonian Books might make you think twice. President’s Day is February 19 and to honor the holiday, we offer some facts taken from the book that reveal a few unexpected things about our presidents. These include the clothing habits and social practices. It also includes defining characteristics of our commanders-in-chief.

George Washington owned a profitable whiskey distillery.

Whiskey was one of Washington’s most important business ventures at Mount Vernon. At peak production in 1799, the distillery used five stills and a boiler. It produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey. With sales of $7,500 that year, it was perhaps the country’s largest distillery.

Washington’s plantation manager was James Anderson. He was a Scottish man with distilling experience. He urged him to start the venture. It was also an efficient way to use unsold ground wheat, corn and rye.

James Madison held the first Inaugural Ball.

There was a ball in 1789 to honor 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.

That evening his wife hosted a gala at Long’s Hotel. Her name was Dolley Madison. The price of admissions 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 persuaded Ford to invest in a modeling agency and to do some modeling himself.

Together they appeared in ski resort spread of Look magazine. This was in 1940. They also appeared and on a cover of Cosmopolitan in 1942. Ultimately, the pair broke up. She wanted to continue modeling in New York. He decided to quit modeling and begin 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 riddled with scandal.

He died before his term was complete. His wife burned his potentially incriminating correspondence. However, his stately slippers and sporty golf shoes survive at the Smithsonian.


Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Roosevelt received his in 1906 for his many efforts toward international peace. This included his role in formulating the 1905 peace treaty between Russia and Japan. 

Wilson was awarded the Nobel in 1919 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 in 2002. He won for his efforts to advance human rights and advance peaceful solutions to international conflicts. 

Obama was honored with a Nobel in 2009 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 and loved law. He was unsure about politics. He was encouraged to run by his wife, Nellie. He was also encouraged by his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt. He reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency. He called the presidential campaign “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.”

After losing the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, Taft served as a professor of law at Yale. He was later appointed by Warren Harding as chief justice of the United States, a position he said was his greatest honor.

Theodore Roosevelt wore a lock of Lincoln’s hair during his inauguration.

Roosevelt wore a ring with a lock of Lincoln’s hair in 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, and 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 in 1933. She was a Mount Holyoke College graduate. She was a trained social worker who 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 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, Letitia. After she died, the 54-year-old president married the 24-year-old Julia Gardiner. 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 after their young son Willie died in 1862. She engaged mediums at the White House. They conducted “spirit circles” or ceremonies during which those who attended could communicate with their loved ones who had passed away.

Mary was eager to believe in these mediums as it made her loss somewhat bearable. She encouraged the president to attend a few séances, which he did. It is not clear if Lincoln participated to make his wife happy or out of real interest and belief.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Which presidential fact was the most surprising?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (24)
  • jackiek-orv
    2/05/2018 - 11:51 a.m.

    i think the most surprising fact was that Theodore Roosevelt wore a lock of Lincoln’s hair during his inauguration.

  • jeremyj-orv
    2/05/2018 - 08:39 p.m.

    I think its crazy how little we can know about our history and our past presidents, this article really opened my eyes to that...

  • NickD-kni
    2/06/2018 - 08:35 a.m.

    IT was super cool that John Tyler had 15 children. I find that super fascinating. If i had 15 children i wouldn't know what to do. It is cool that he could keep up with 15 children and be president. I hope i am like him one day.

  • AdamR-kni1
    2/06/2018 - 08:39 a.m.

    I think it was really weird that Theodore Roosevelt wore some of Lincoln's hair to his inauguration. Wearing a ring with the past president's hair is kinda weird. And Abraham Lincoln and his wife trying to speak to the dead. That's really weird. And a fashion model turned president is even weirder. George Washington owning a distillery is kinda odd. Who expected that?

  • NooraynS-kni
    2/06/2018 - 08:43 a.m.

    This article was really great because it included facts that people would have never thought of. The most surprising presidential fact was about Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, participating in seances. This was surprising because I never would have thought the White House had a dark past. Another surprising fact was that President Obama earned a Nobel Piece Prize. This surprised me because there are 45 U.S. Presidents, so I would have never guessed he would win one. Although, I think he deserves it because of his great accomplishments.

  • NateB-kni
    2/06/2018 - 08:43 a.m.

    I thought that it was cool and maybe a little weird that Theodore Roosevelt had a lock of Lincoln's hair at his inauguration. Also that John Tyler had 15 children. I think that is to many children and that he shouldn't of had that many. I also think it was cool that FDR was the first to put a woman in his cabinet. I think it's cool that Warren Harding had a size 14 shoe. That is really big!!!!!

  • BlaiseK-kni
    2/06/2018 - 08:43 a.m.

    I thought it was cool that George Washington had the largest distillery in the country making around $7,500 in 1799.This would have been a lot of money back then so that could have helped him in his presidency.I also thought that John Tyler having 15 children is insane. Having 15 must be a handful me having four siblings almost makes me go crazy. i Though these were some really interesting facts about our U.S. presidents.

  • NickD-kni
    2/06/2018 - 08:45 a.m.

    IN my opinion JOHN is cool. To have FIFTEEN children is INSANE. I KNOW I couldnt have fifteen children and be the President. THat is just crazy. THat is just supppper cool. I hope i can be like him one day

    sincerly,nick

  • holdenj-orv
    2/06/2018 - 11:27 a.m.

    Here is a fact. George H.W. Bush was in WWII. His plane, a bomber, was shot down in the Pacific and he and his 8 other crewmen were captured by the Japanese. They then tortured and killed the eight crewmen and fed their remains to Crocodiles.

  • Neveahh-orv
    2/06/2018 - 11:27 a.m.

    I think that the most thing that was weird was the thing about FDR with his name Francis Perkins I thought that was kind of weird

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