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The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts

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President Barack Obama turns 48 on Tuesday. While the First Family encourages you to send contributions to your favorite charity in lieu of the White House, if you insist on doing some last-minute birthday shopping for 44, you might consider a pair of jeans or a case of Bud Light. For some historical precedent, here's a look back at some of the more interesting presidential gifts.

1. George W. Bush: Raw Lamb

President Bush and his family received about 1,000 gifts per month during his two terms in office. Bush's haul included an iPod from U2 lead singer, Bono, a Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and vocabulary-building game from the Sultan of Brunei, and an electric harp with a speakerphone from Vietnam. The most unusual gift Bush received may have been the 300 pounds of raw lamb meat from the president of Argentina in 2003. The lamb, like all gifts from overseas, was accepted by the Office of the President on behalf of the nation, and passed along to the General Services Administration. Most non-perishable gifts of state end up in presidential libraries or the National Archives.

2. Bill Clinton: Portraits "“ On a Carpet

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We'll say this for Heydar Aliyev's gift to President Clinton: it was unique. The president of Azerbaijan wanted his gift to be representative of Azerbaijani craftsmanship, so he called upon Kamil Aliyev, a renowned carpet portrait artist. Kamil Aliyev's design featured the First Couple inside a heart-shaped medallion, the first double portrait he ever attempted. "I wanted to convey their lives as one beating heart," he said. While Aliyev designed the carpet and dyed the yarn, 12 young women were employed to help complete the portrait in 10 weeks. Heydar Aliyev presented the carpet to the Clintons in August 1997.

3. George H.W. Bush: Komodo Dragon

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In 1990, the president of Indonesia presented a Komodo dragon to President Bush. Perhaps worried that the venomous, flesh-eating lizard wouldn't play nice with First Dog Millie, Bush donated the dragon, named Naga, to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Naga, who sired 32 offspring, died of an abdominal infection at the age of 24 in 2007. During his stay in Cincinnati, Naga was a star attraction, drawing about one million visits each year.

4. Ronald Reagan: Embroidered Saddle

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President Reagan, who was gifted 372 belt buckles while in office, received enough tacking equipment during his time in Washington to outfit an entire stable. Of the several dozen saddles presented to Reagan, few were more ornately decorated than the one above, which was a gift of the president of Algeria in 1985.

5. Jimmy Carter: Metamorphic Portrait

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Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo commissioned Octavio Ocampo to paint a portrait of President Carter in Ocampo's trademark metamorphic style, which juxtaposes various images within a larger image to create an optical illusion. While it's difficult to see here, Carter's image in the portrait is created out of national symbols, including buildings, flags, sailing ships, and truck convoys. Portillo presented the portrait to Carter in 1979.

6. Richard Nixon: Edible Portraits

A Pakistani man's gift to President Nixon required an unusual accessory to fully appreciate. S. Nabi Ahmed Rizvi provided a magnifying glass inside a plush blue velvet box, along with two snapshots of himself and two grains of rice. One grain of rice featured a portrait of Nixon as president; the other featured a portrait of a young Nixon in the Navy. The gift was displayed as part of the National Portrait Gallery's "To the President: Folk Portraits by the People" exhibit.

7. John F. Kennedy: Carved Peach Pit

JFK-peach

What better way to show your president you admire him than by carving his likeness into a peach pit? R.J. McErlean's remarkable ode to JFK features a portrait of Kennedy and the inscription "President John F. Kennedy of the United States." An eagle on a shield is carved on the left side of the pit, above a depiction of St. Christopher.

8. Harry Truman: Bowling Alley

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A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn't bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman's home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn't use the alley much himself "“ he was more of a poker player "“ but the addition was a big hit with Truman's staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Giant Cake

FDR-Cake

The birthday cake presented to FDR on the occasion of his 59th birthday was 5 feet high and weighed 300 pounds. The cake was a gift of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union of America. Along with the cake, the union donated $500 to FDR's "Fight Infantile-Paralysis" campaign.

10. Rutherford B. Hayes: Carved Lemon

When life gives you lemons, make pigs. A lemon carved to look like a pig was presented to President Hayes and later featured in an exhibit at the Herbert Hoover presidential library titled, "Weird and Wonderful: Gifts Fit For a President." Museum director Richard N. Smith said at the time, "It looks a little like you'd expect a 110-year-old lemon to look." While she may or may not have been the inspiration for the bizarre gift, Hayes' wife, Lucy, was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy" because she banned alcoholic beverages at state functions.

11. Abraham Lincoln: Clothes

While he donated most of the wine and liquor he received to military hospitals, President Lincoln made good use of many of the other gifts showered upon him throughout his presidency. He was inaugurated in a suit donated by Titsworth and Brothers of Chicago, and, according to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, is reported to have told his wife, "There is one thing to come out of this scrape anyhow. We are going to have some new clothes!"

12. Thomas Jefferson: Cheese

TJ-cheeseOne of the earliest recorded gifts of state was the mammoth cheese presented to President Jefferson by the Republican Baptists in Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802. To celebrate Jefferson's election, town elder John Leland inspired his Baptist congregation to manufacture a 1,235-pound cheese to give to the president. When it was finished, the cheese was filled with milk from the town's cows, save for those owned by the hated Federalists. The cheese was inscribed with the phrase "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God" and presented to Jefferson after a month-long journey to Washington on New Year's Day 1802. Jefferson, who had a policy not to accept free gifts, insisted that he pay $200 for the cheese.

13. George Washington: A Federal Holiday

In 1880, Congress created "Washington's Birthday," the first federal holiday to honor an American-born citizen. The holiday was celebrated on February 22 until 1968, when Congress moved it from its fixed day to the third Monday in February as part of the Uniform Monday Holidays Act.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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