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The Bizarre History of White House Pets

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There's a new Portuguese water dog roaming the White House grounds. Now that Sunny has joined Bo, let's look back at some of our favorite White House pets.

Billy: Calvin Coolidge's Pygmy Hippopotamus

Calvin Coolidge may have been known for his reticence, but he showed little of his trademark reserve when it came to acquiring pets. After taking over the presidency upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge assembled a menagerie that would rival most zoos' collections. He had six dogs, a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, a cat, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby. The main attraction in his personal zoo, though, was Billy, a pygmy hippopotamus.

Billy was born in Liberia, but was captured at a young age. He came into the possession of tire mogul Harvey Firestone, who gave Billy to President Coolidge as a gift, possibly because Firestone didn't want to feed the critter. (Even a pygmy hippo is still quite rotund; Billy was six feet long and weighed upwards of 600 pounds.)

Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Since there were only a handful of pygmy hippos in the U.S. at the time, Billy quickly went to work as a stud, an endeavor at which he found some success. He sired 23 little hippos, and many of the pygmy hippos you see in American zoos today are his descendants.

The White House Gators

Herbert Hoover wanted to put a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and...a gator in the Oval Office? It's true. Hoover owned a slew of dogs, but those weren't his only pets. His second son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally allowed to wander around the White House grounds. Sound crazy? Blame John Quincy Adams for setting the precedent. The sixth president also had a pet gator. His was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette; it lived in a bathroom in the East Room of the White House. According to some reports, he enjoyed using the gator to scare his guests.

Fala: FDR's Traveling Companion

What do you get the Depression-conquering president who has everything? A lapdog. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt received a Scottish Terrier puppy named Big Boy as an early Christmas gift from a family friend. FDR immediately realized that Big Boy was no name for a presidential companion and rechristened the pooch Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor. For the sake of simplicity, though, he called his new pal Fala.

FDR-Fala.jpgAfter that, Fala became FDR's inseparable companion and traveled everywhere the President went. The dog "gave" $1 a day to the war effort, generosity that earned him the rank of honorary private in the Army. Each morning when FDR's breakfast tray came in, it included a bone for Fala. Fala also made a famous appearance in one of his master's speeches. When FDR was decrying personal attacks from his political opponents, he jokingly said that it was okay to mock him, but leave Fala alone. "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since!" Fala stayed with FDR until the President's death in 1945 and lived in the care of Eleanor Roosevelt until his death in 1952.

Millie: Literary Sensation

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he brought his pet springer spaniel Millie to the White House. The bubbly canine won over the nation's heart so completely that she even collaborated with the First Lady on Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush. Millie brought further joy to the Bush family when she gave birth to a litter of six presidential puppies in 1989. Just as her master helped slip one of his boys into the White House, so did Millie: when George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office, so did his dog, Millie's son Spot Fetcher.

Barney, Miss Beazley & India: The W Years

Sadly, Spot Fetcher had to be put down in 2004, but the Bushes weren't pet-deprived. They had a pair of Scottish Terriers named Barney and Miss Beazley, both of whom had websites and appeared in White House-produced web videos. (Your tax dollars adorably at work!) The Bushes also had a black cat named India, who also went by "Willie." The name India rankled some citizens of the country of the same name to the point that many Indians supposedly named their dogs "Bush." The name wasn't meant to be controversial, though; the Bushes merely named their cat after Ruben "El Indio" Sierra, who played for the Texas Rangers while George W. owned the team. Spot Fetcher was similarly named after former Rangers middle infielder Scott Fletcher.

Other First Pets of Note:

Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection — Benjamin Harrison's two opossums. Harrison's son Russell also had a pet goat named Old Whiskers.

Pauline — The last cow to live at the White House. She made milk for President Taft's consumption.

Old Ike — To save cash during World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought in a flock of sheep to take care of the White House's groundskeeping duties. Old Ike, a ram, supposedly chewed tobacco.

ford-liberty.jpgLaddie Boy — Warren G. Harding's beloved Airedale who had his own seat at Cabinet meetings and gave a 1921 "interview" with The Washington Post in which he talked about Prohibition and shortening the workday for guard dogs.

Liberty (pictured) — Gerald Ford's golden retriever hung out in the Oval Office and could supposedly read a sign from Ford that she should go be affectionate to guests—a cute and cuddly way to gracefully end the President's conversations.

Socks and Buddy — President Clinton's faithful cat and the chocolate lab he acquired while in office. Socks didn't like Buddy's youthful friendliness, so the two pets had to be kept separated at all times. The tensions were so bad that the family couldn't keep both pets at the end of Bill's second term, so Socks went to live with Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.

Gamecocks — Ulysses S. Grant supposedly kept some gamecocks at the White House.

Two tiger cubs — Martin Van Buren received the cats as a gift from the Sultan of Oman. Congress supposedly made him give the gift to a zoo.

Satan — One of Abigail Adams' unfortunately named dogs. She called the other one Juno.

Jonathan Edwards — Theodore Roosevelt received this black bear cub as a gift from supporters in West Virginia who gave the bear the name, he wrote to a friend, "partly because they thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear's character."

Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady — Teddy Roosevelt's kids also had these tremendously named guinea pigs.

Josiah — Roosevelt also had a pet badger, of course.

Bonus Trivia: Checkers

nixon-checkers.jpgNixon's dog was immortalized in the "Checkers speech," which Nixon gave while facing allegations of illegal campaign contributions. He said the only gift he'd accepted was a cocker spaniel named Checkers for his daughters. Checkers, however, was never the White House dog. This scandal bubbled up while Nixon was Eisenhower's running mate in the 1952 election, and Nixon gave the Checkers speech to convince Republicans to keep him on the ticket. Although the speech was a success and Nixon later made it to the White House, Checkers never got to be First Dog; he passed away in 1964.

This article originally ran in 2008.

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8 Surprising Facts About the Presidential Yacht
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If you consider a boat to be a suboptimal way of ferrying the President of the United States, you’re not alone. No sitting president has used one for official travel purposes since 1977, when the USS Sequoia was decommissioned. But for a good chunk of the 20th century, the POTUS was able to jump on a yacht and set sail for both recreational and government business, getting a change of scenery without having to hop on a plane. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about this unique—and extinct—political retreat.

1. THE SEQUOIA WASN’T THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL YACHT.

The idea of toting presidents in a floating White House for social engagements dates back to 1893, when the USS Dolphin flew the presidential flag for Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt anointed the USS Mayflower, a luxury steam yacht, that was occupied by three successive presidents until it was decommissioned in 1929. Two other ships were in service before the Sequoia was selected in 1933.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A DECOY SHIP DURING PROHIBITION.

The Sequoia wasn’t custom-built for presidential purposes. Constructed in 1925, the 104-foot-long vessel was originally owned by a Texas oilman and purchased by the U.S. government in 1931. It was used as a decoy ship to intercede rum runners during Prohibition before being rehomed with the U.S. Navy. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed fishing off the ship—in Hoover’s case, so much so that he put a picture of it on the White House’s official 1932 Christmas card. Hoover soon declared it the official presidential yacht in 1933.

3. EACH PRESIDENT CUSTOMIZED IT.

The Sequoia underwent several minor facelifts as each new sitting president decided they wanted a custom yacht experience. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tall that he had to have the shower on board extended so he could bathe comfortably; John F. Kennedy had a king-sized bed installed. An elevator was added to make it wheelchair-accessible for Franklin Roosevelt; Johnson later ripped out the lift and used the space for a wet bar.

4. NIXON LOVED THE BOAT.

Of all the presidents to board the Sequoia, Richard Nixon did so with the greatest frequency and zeal. He reportedly stepped on the ship at least 88 times, sailing to Mount Vernon and insisting staff salute Washington’s tomb. Later, when Watergate began to consume most of his final days in office, he insisted an anti-bug electronic shield be installed in case the ship was being tapped for sound. Nixon also made the decision to resign while on board, mournfully playing “God Bless America” on the piano that Truman had installed.

5. JFK HAD HIS LAST BIRTHDAY PARTY THERE.

On what turned out to be his last birthday, John F. Kennedy devoted the night of May 29, 1963 to a celebration on the Sequoia. Just 24 guests were invited, and only three Secret Service members were on board—the rest populated security boats trailing behind.

6. ELVIS BOUGHT ONE.

For Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USS Potomac was his ship of choice: The 165-foot-long ship was big enough to accommodate more Secret Service staff and was in use from 1936 to 1945. After passing through other hands, Elvis Presley decided he wanted to make sure the ship was preserved and bought it at auction in 1964 for $55,000. The King immediately donated it to Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where it continued to change hands until being designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987.

7. JIMMY CARTER SOLD IT OFF.

By 1977, the Sequoia had been in service for over four decades, and the cost to maintain it was significant: $800,000 a year. Because Jimmy Carter had made campaign promises to cut extraneous expenses, he had little choice but to trim the fat by decommissioning the yacht. The Sequoia was sold off for $236,000. In 1999, a collector of presidential memorabilia bought it for nearly $2 million and began renting it out to visitors for $10,000.

8. IT BECAME FULL OF RACCOON POOP.

Once the Sequoia entered the private sector, its seaworthiness became a very costly pursuit. In 2016, a judge ruled that FE Partners, which restores historic ships, could have the vessel free of charge after it was declared to be rotting and infested with raccoons while idling in a Virginia shipyard: The animals reportedly pooped on presidential carpets. The group hopes to restore the Sequoia and have it back on the water sometime in the next few years.

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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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