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REVEALED: Mary Todd Lincoln was a Shopaholic! (and other First Lady facts)

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Today we're re-excerpting from Cormac O'Brien's terrific piece in mental_floss.

The First to Walk Like a Crab: Julia Dent Grant (first lady, 1869"“1877)

JuliaGrant.jpgJulia Dent Grant was cross-eyed her entire life. While that never stopped her from being a tomboy in her youth, or—remarkably—from developing into an accomplished equestrienne, it did lead to some embarrassing White House moments. At the galas she was fond of throwing, Julia had a habit of standing in the corner to avoid bumping into people. When she did manage to move, she did so in a noticeably sideways gait that some likened to the motion of a crab, often knocking into furniture.

The First to Clean Her Clothes Long-Distance: Bess Truman (first lady, 1945"“1953)

149.jpgUpon finding out that she was going to become first lady, Bess Truman had the exact same reaction as her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt: She wept. Apparently, anything that kept Bess away from her home in Independence, Mo., was cause for despair. She had been in school in Kansas City when her father committed suicide in 1903 (his drinking and debt had finally overwhelmed him), and thereafter had done everything possible to stay close to her family. Despite her attempts, Bess never got used to life in Washington; she even preferred the Laundromats back home. Upon moving to D.C., she was so unimpressed with the city's cleaning establishments that she insisted on having her laundry mailed to Kansas City for washing.

The First to Sell White House Manure for Cash: Mary Todd Lincoln (first lady, 1861"“1865)

mary_todd_lincoln.jpgDuring Abe's re-election campaign in 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln fretted—but not out of hope for her husband's success. An infamous shopoholic, Mary had run up tens of thousands of dollars in department store debt. Should Abe win, she could sit on the expenses for a while. But should he lose, the couple's transformation into ordinary citizens would leave her no option but to tell him. And, as it turned out, Mary knew all too well how Abe would react to her spending habits. When she had overspent the congressional appropriation for White House furnishings within months of moving into the mansion, it left Abe fuming. So, rather than turning to her husband for financial aid, Mary resorted to more creative tactics, such as selling off excess manure purchased for the fertilization of White House grounds and firing some of the mansion's staff.
7 More After the Jump!

The First to Make Fun of the President's Libido: Grace Coolidge (first lady, 1923"“1929)

Calvin and Grace Coolidge didn't have one of the more romantic marriages on White House record. Fortunately, they had a sense of humor about their love life. According to biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the couple once visited a chicken farm in Maryland, where the first lady witnessed a rooster copulating with a hen. Upon asking the farmer if the rooster did that often, Grace was informed that he did it several times a day. "Tell that to the president," she responded, and the farmer did just that. "To the same hen?" Calvin inquired. "No, Mr. President," said the red-faced farmer. "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," said the president.

The First to Throw Glass in Stone Houses: Martha Washington (first lady, 1789"“1797)

martha-washington-2-sized.jpgGeorge Washington might have been America's first president, but he could never claim the title of Martha's first love. Prior to Georgie, Martha had been married to a wealthy Williamsburg plantation heir named Daniel Parke Custis, who was a scandalous 20 years her senior. While blissful for the most part, Martha and Daniel's short marriage was saddled by the antics of Custis' cantankerous father-in-law, John Custis IV, whom Martha absolutely abhorred. Shortly after Daniel died (only seven years into their marriage), she paid a not-so-friendly visit to the Williamsburg mansion that had been John's main residence and auctioned off the remainder of her father-in-law's valuable possessions. Everything, that is, except for his priceless collection of hand-blown wineglasses. Those she proceeded to smash in a spectacular act of vengeance.

The First to Don a Party Hat: Dolley Madison (first lady, 1809"“1817)

One thing is certain about Dolley Madison: The girl knew how to throw a party. From the moment she stepped foot in the White House, the stiff, humorless receptions of her predecessors became a thing of the past. At Dolley's affairs, people mingled, joked, laughed, and treated themselves to ice cream. Such graces were indispensable, but not only to her husband. Dolley once got two congressmen, John Eppes and Thomas Randolph, to call off their duel over a nasty political argument. When husband James died in 1836, she moved back to the capital to resume her role as First Entertainer and was even granted an honorary seat in Congress (by unanimous vote, no less). In fact, until her death in 1849, it was customary for newly inaugurated presidents to call on Dolley to receive her blessing.

The First to Be Suspected of Murder: Margaret Taylor (first lady, 1849"“1850)

When Zachary Taylor passed away unexpectedly in 1850, it hit his wife hard. On several occasions, Margaret, saddened to the point of hysteria, pawed the preserving ice from his corpse so that she could gaze upon his frozen face. She also did something slightly more questionable: She refused to have him embalmed. Such an unorthodox demand raised eyebrows, and a rumor quickly circulated that Margaret wanted to prevent anyone from learning that she'd poisoned her husband. Not until 1991, when historians convinced Taylor's descendants to exhume his remains, were the rumors finally put to rest.

The First to Show No Fear: Lou Henry Hoover (first lady, 1929"“1933)

Lou Hoover wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Posted in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Lou actually joined in the action, delivering tea and other supplies to troops by bicycle. In fact, on one trip, a stray bullet flattened her tire. But even the Hoovers' residence in China wasn't safe from danger. One day, Lou was playing solitaire when a shell burst through the window in the adjoining room and nearly blew the staircase apart. When a group of witnesses rushed in to check on her safety, they saw her calmly sitting at the table with her cards. She then asked them to join her for tea. Not surprisingly, Lou's obituary mistakenly appeared in a Peking newspaper. Upon reading it, she was thrilled to discover that the editors had devoted three columns to her. "I was never so proud in my life," she quipped.

The First to Lose a Fiancé to a Train: Nancy Reagan (first lady, 1981"“1989)

81_Nancy-Reagan-Head-Shot.jpegIf Nancy and Ronald Reagan are known for their intensely romantic relationship, it may be because of their decidedly tragic romantic pasts. The two met when Ronald was recovering from his divorce from starlet Jane Wyman, and Nancy was coping with the loss of her fiancé, who'd been atomized by a train while crossing a railroad track. And even then, their relationship didn't get off to the most fairy-tale start. Their courtship lasted two years, during which Nancy became pregnant with their first child. Actor/friend William Holden and his wife Ardis were the only guests present at their 1952 wedding.

The First to Go Gray: Barbara Bush (first lady, 1989"“1993)

Barbara Bush got her trademark gray hair at quite an early age. Unfortunately, the cause was tragic. In 1953, the Bushes' first daughter, Robin, contracted leukemia. The little girl spent eight months in a New York hospital, attended by her parents, until she died. By the time of Robin's death, Bar's hair had gone gray. The change likely didn't bother her much, though; the former first lady had a great sense of humor about her appearance. A master of self-deprecating humor, she once said of her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, "As you know, we have a lot in common. She adores her husband; I adore mine. She fights drugs; I fight illiteracy. She wears a size three "¦ so's my leg."

0505.jpgIf you liked this article, be sure to pick up Cormac's wonderful history guides here, and the back issue of mental_floss here.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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