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9 Tips for that James K. Polk Bash You’re Probably Planning


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Looking for ways to go wild this weekend? Then think about throwing a big-time 217th birthday bash for one of America’s least known presidents of all time, Mr. James K. Polk, born November 2, 1795. Here are some hosting tips to get you started...

1. Keep a low profile...

We’ve all been to parties with an overbearing host who insists on being the center of attention. But your posh Polk party demands a self-effacing touch. Be the mysterious, shadowy host that blends into the background. Even at the height of his career, Polk was known for being unknown—particularly outside of the world of politics. In fact, in the 1844 election, Polk’s opponents alluded to his rival’s obscurity with one pithy campaign slogan: “Who is James K. Polk?”

2. But be accessible.

Polk may have been the most available president in United States history. Polk held presidential “office hours” twice a week, during which concerned citizens could drop by to chat. All you had to do was knock on the White House door, present your card to the doorman, and wait your turn. So when you host your posh Polk party, make yourself available to chat with your guests about any party-related questions or concerns.

3. WWJD?

Polk was a big fan of Wacko Jacko (Old Hickory’s other, lesser-known nickname). In fact, Polk was probably the most Jacksonian president in history—even more devoted to Manifest Destiny than Andrew Jackson himself. Indeed, Polk oversaw the greatest territorial expansion of the United States to date: a one-third increase in land size. So whenever the stress of party planning seems like too much, ask yourself one simple question: What would Jackson do?

4. No Drinking/Dancing/Cards Permitted...

Polk’s wife Sarah was a devout Presbyterian who banned dancing, card games, and liquor at White House receptions. In deference to her unwavering convictions, music and dancing were suspended at the inaugural ball, then resumed after she and the president left. These rather strict limitations may sound like bad news for your bash. Look at it this way: You’ll save a ton on entertainment costs. But to ensure that your guests don’t stage a mutiny, you should probably make sure the food’s good.

5. But You Can Play Oregon Trail.

Remember that sick computer game from elementary school—the one where you had to survive a rough-and-tough wagon ride across the American countryside by fording rivers, hunting bison, and steering clear of dysentery? Without Polk, this groundbreaking diversion might not exist. Polk entered the presidency with the intention of putting an end to Britain’s claims to the Oregon Territory—hence the campaign slogan “54-40 or fight.” Thankfully, the U.S. never actually went to war. Through a combination of military threats and diplomacy, Polk arrived at a compromise with England that fixed the Oregon Territory’s boundary at the 49th parallel. Seeing as basically every form of merrymaking will be prohibited at your bash, you can at least entertain guests with their favorite childhood game. In fact, there’s even a newer 2011 iOS/Android version of this old classic.

6. Break out the Brandy.

Although drinking should be mostly prohibited at your bash, you should definitely break out a bottle of brandy as a tribute to Polk’s bad-assedness. At 17, Polk underwent an operation to have his kidney stones removed. Because anesthesia wasn’t available, Polk was awake during the entire surgery, with nothing but a bit of brandy to dull the pain. The procedure was a success; however, some historians suspect it may have left him sterile.

7. Work Yourself to Death

Polk may have been the hardest working president in history. In fact, he once declared, "No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” Right from the get-go, Polk set out to achieve five major goals during the following four years: reestablish an independent treasury; lower the tariff; resolve the dispute with England over Oregon; acquire California; and annex Texas. After only one term, he’d accomplished his ambitious agenda. All that hard work came with a price, though. 53-year-old Polk died three months after leaving office—making his the shortest retirement of any American president. While Polk died of cholera, some historians have suggested that his years of non-stop working may have weakened his body and made him more vulnerable to infection. So be warned: Planning a posh Polk bash requires some serious stamina.

8. Keep It Short and Sweet.

James K. Polk solidified support among his divided Democratic party by promising he wouldn’t run again, thus giving other presidential hopefuls a shot at the presidency. Even despite calls for reelection in after a successful first term, Polk happily threw in the towel after his first four years were up—becoming the first U.S. president to voluntarily retire after one term. Follow Polk’s lead, and make sure your party doesn’t go on indefinitely. To ensure that guests don’t overstay their welcome, establish a non-negotiable end time. Believe it or not, invitees might be more apt to attend if they know they’ve got an excuse to curl up in bed at midnight with the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

9. Keep It Understated.

Polk is known as the dark horse president—a relative unknown who rose from obscurity to steal the nomination and later the election. Polk’s meteoric rise to fame was launched by intra-party tension. In 1844, the Democrats became embroiled in a nomination battle between former President Martin Van Buren (who’d lost reelection 4 years earlier) and Michigan senator Lewis Cass. While Van Buren won the most votes, he didn’t garner the required 2/3 majority to secure the nomination. When it became obvious that neither he nor Cass would be able to mobilize enough support, Polk was offered up as compromise candidate—a Jacksonian Democrat who supported the annexation of Texas. Polk went on to defeat Whig rival Henry Clay in the general election.

Channel Polk’s dark-horse appeal when planning your bash. Even thought your party may not be the flashiest rager on the block, it might offer an appealing alternative. Just make sure your bash does justice to the memory of the man historians call "America’s least-known consequential president." Because the only other tribute he’s got is a There Might Be Giants song.

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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