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The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts

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

carter-portrait

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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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