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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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How Cambodian Refugees Started the Pink Doughnut Box Trend
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Like the red-and-green cardboard pizza boxes or white Chinese takeout containers, many doughnut boxes share a certain look regardless of where you buy them. This is especially true in Southern California: Order a dozen crullers from one of the region's many independently-run doughnut shops and you’ll likely receive them in a glossy pink box. According to Great Big Story, this trend can be traced back to an influential immigrant business owner.

In the 1970s, Ted Ngoy moved to Southern California as a refugee from Cambodia. Much of Los Angeles's current doughnut scene is thanks to him: He opened dozens of doughnut shops of his own and helped fellow Cambodian refugees in the area get started in the business. Along with passing down entrepreneurial advice, he also inspired them to choose the light pink boxes that he used in his stores. As Ngoy recalled years later, either he or his business partner, Ning Yen, started the trend after asking their supplier for a cheaper alternative to the traditional white boxes. The company was able to offer them pink boxes at a discount. Because red is considered a lucky color in many Asian cultures, the distinctive shade stuck.

Today, many doughnut places in L.A. County are still owned by Cambodian-American immigrants and their families, and they still use the same old-school packaging Ngoy and his partner popularized 40 years ago.

You can get the full origin story in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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