The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts

President George H.W. Bush received a Komodo dragon from the president of Indonesia.
President George H.W. Bush received a Komodo dragon from the president of Indonesia.
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

What do you get the Commander-in-Chief who has everything? Let's look back at some of the more interesting gifts presidents have received.

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 called Forgotten English 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

 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

 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

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

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

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

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

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

One 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.

A Gory Toy Story: The Horrible History of the Evilstick

iStock.com/EKramar
iStock.com/EKramar

When Nicole Allen bought a gift for her 2-year-old daughter the week after Halloween at a dollar store in Dayton, Ohio in 2014, there was little indication Allen should have inspected it prior to letting her child play with it. The toy was a princess wand topped with flower petals, with a cardboard package that featured a smiling female heroine and a suggestion that it was suitable for ages 3 and up. The back of the package promised buyers that the toy “Can Send Out Wonderful Music.” It appeared to be little more than a cheap trinket—the kind customers passing through a discount store might glimpse and toss into their cart without much thought.

Allen didn’t notice that the toy’s playful graphics obscured a somewhat malevolent name. At the top, in a juvenile font, was the official name of the product: Evilstick.

It wasn't until Allen got home that she found out why.

Instead of playing “beautiful music,” pushing a button on the wand’s handle activated a maniacal laugh—one made all the more disturbing by the product’s cheap, tinny speaker. Pressing the button also made the toy’s flower top light up, illuminating a piece of foil that was made transparent to reveal a horrifying image of a woman with pupil-less eyes miming the act of slitting her wrists.

The image would be alarming regardless of context. Stuck in a child’s toy and coupled with a light and sound show, it seemed like a cruel prank. Allen’s subsequent complaint made local news before going viral.

Four years later, the questions remain. Who made it? Was this macabre toy an accident of negligent bootleg manufacturing, or was it something more sinister? And why did an amateur sleuth close to uncovering its origins suddenly disappear from view?

 

For years, discount retailers have stocked inventory shelves with goods manufactured in China. The country’s notoriously economical labor costs can undercut most other wholesale suppliers, particularly when low prices are paramount.

But that tidal wave of product has a key and chaotic consequence: a lack of quality control. It’s virtually impossible for U.S. customs officials to inspect containers and single out counterfeit goods or items that infringe on a company’s intellectual property, leading to a significant problem with knockoff merchandise. Earlier this year, MGA, maker of the successful L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, filed suit against distributors of lookalike toys that were being sold for a lower price. It’s an uphill battle—with a Byzantine supply system, locating companies and pursuing legal remedies across countries and continents is a costly and frustrating process. While MGA has successfully held 81 dealers responsible for the fake dolls, dozens more continue to proliferate.

A photo of the Evilstick toy wand with the gruesome image visible

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 // Model photo courtesy of Butcher Ludwig

It’s this complex artery of distribution that presumably allowed Dayton Dollar Store owner Amar Moustafa to purchase a supply of princess wands dubbed Evilsticks in 2012. The “princess” appearing on the package was a character named Sakura Kinomoto, star of the late '90s animated series Cardcaptor Sakura and a popular manga protagonist in Japan. In a nod to Pokemon, fourth-grader Sakura has to retrieve a series of magical cards she accidentally unleashed on the world. While she didn’t wield a wand on the show, the package illustration had been altered so that she was holding one like it.

Speaking to news outlet WHIO in Dayton, Moustafa said he had been at a retailer’s convention when he made the deal for the inventory and that he didn’t recall who sold him the wands. They apparently remained in the store unnoticed until 2014, when Nicole Allen contacted WHIO to report her daughter had been troubled by the image hidden behind the foil wrap. For his part, Moustafa pointed out to WHIO that the “name on it was Evilstick,” and that should have been a tip-off. Allen argued the toy was placed on a rack adjacent to Barbie knockoffs and other kids' items.

Matt Clark, a freelance writer and Dayton resident, didn’t quite buy Moustafa's explanation either. Clark caught mention of the Evilstick via WHIO’s coverage and decided to see it for himself. “I knew where the Dollar Store was and basically made up my mind to go try to get one,” he tells Mental Floss.

Entering the store, Clark encountered Moustafa and asked where the toy was. “He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and pointed to the back,” Clark says. There, Clark found a peg full of Evilsticks. Peeling away the foil that obscured the image of the suicidal woman to buyers, he found that not all of them featured the grisly photo. “There was one zombie-type character, but most of them were straight cut-out pictures from manga or anime, pretty cartoony and not scary at all.”

It was an intriguing discovery. The Evilsticks seemed to consist of an assortment of images, with the troubling photo placed at random. Whether or not you got one seemed as though it would be the luck of the draw.

Clark eventually found one bearing the notorious photo, bought it, then went home to make a brief 11-second YouTube video showing off the toy’s light-up feature and cackling laugh. “I actually just made it to show a buddy in Cincinnati,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be shared.”

But it was. The next morning, Clark’s snippet had 100,000 views. That led to a longer video review of the Evilstick that garnered 1.3 million visits. Clark had an otherwise unremarkable YouTube presence; the handful of other videos he made had garnered just a few thousand hits each. But with his introduction to the Evilstick, the internet had found a new obsession.

In the rapidly expanding comments section, Clark and his viewers began exchanging theories about the toy’s origins. They determined the image of the woman taking a knife to her wrists could be traced to a horror photographer named Butcher Ludwig, who posted the image on his website and on Facebook years prior. Taken in 2002, it was part of his “Macabre Muses” series, which depicted a vampire ready to feast on her own blood for sustenance.

“[The model] was about 20 at the time of the photo,” Ludwig tells Mental Floss. “I’m not even sure she knows she’s been so well-known.”

Ludwig did not give permission for his photo to appear on the toy. When he was notified of its existence, he says he was shocked someone had “massacred” his photo. Someone had taken his original image and given the model a pair of demonic eyes. Though it’s protected by copyright, it’s almost certain someone involved in the toy’s production saw his image online and downloaded it without his consent.

But who? Clark and his commenters tried searching to see if the barcode—the only real identifying mark on the Evilstick package—led anywhere. It did. “I tracked it down to a factory in China,” Clark says. “I contacted them through [online wholesaler] Alibaba and they said, yes, they made it. I wanted to see if I could talk to someone involved.”

Clark posted on his YouTube page that he appeared close to solving the mystery. People waited. He suddenly went quiet and never made another video again.

 

Quickly, speculation turned to the possibility of the Evilstick being a cursed object—one that had punished Clark for his curiosity. His last message, which mentioned he had things nearly figured out, resembled the words of someone who had flown too close to powers he couldn’t understand.

The reality was a little bit more mundane. “People were saying I had been killed by the curse of the Evilstick and that’s why I never made another video,” he says. “I found that hilarious, and it kind of made me not want to do anything more.”

The Chinese factory—Clark doesn’t recall the name—stopped responding to his emails asking for clarification, and the trail went cold. The alternative speculation was that it actually wasn’t a knockoff item at all but a deliberate act of product tampering. Like the poisoned Halloween candy legends of years past, it was conceivable that someone planted a gory image in a young child’s toy to be a nuisance or maybe to spin a new urban legend. After all, Allen and Clark were the only two documented people to have purchased the spookiest variant of the Evilstick.

A look at the image hidden in the Evilstick
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 // Model photo courtesy of Butcher Ludwig

But that doesn’t explain Justin Sevakis. The commercial home video producer had actually uncovered an Evilstick back in 2008, six years before the Dayton discovery. Sevakis was living in New York City at the time and came across the toy while shopping with a friend. Highly familiar with the anime industry—his company, MediaOCD, compiles Japanese-language series for U.S. releases—he recognized Cardcaptor Sakura on the packaging immediately.

“It’s actually a very well-known property,” Sevakis tells Mental Floss. “There was an American dub of the cartoon called Cardcaptors that aired on Fox Kids.” Taking the toy home, it sat in his living room, a perfect blend of Japanese anime iconography and a highly misguided sense of appropriateness. To Sevakis, there was nothing exceptionally sinister about the Evilstick. It was yet another consequence of bootleg manufacturing and a lack of attention to detail.

“Dollar stores are drenched in bootleg anime stuff,” he says. “Sailor Moon, Gundam.” While the gory photo was unusual, a cobbled-together knockoff was part and parcel of the counterfeit trade. “It even had a cheap feel,” Sevakis says. “Like you’d been handling fireworks.”

Sevakis’s earlier excavation of the Evilstick means aftermarket tampering is unlikely. The fact that so few people have come across the wand with Ludwig’s image means it probably appeared in just a small selection of the stock. Yet someone still went through the trouble of altering Ludwig’s photo to be even more upsetting. And while Moustafa was correct in that it was transparently named an “Evilstick,” nothing else about the toy or its material communicated it was a horror-themed novelty. It seemed calculated to disarm parents or children until it was taken home: In order for the sound and light to work, a tab protecting the battery had to be pulled first—a task most people wouldn’t bother with until after it was purchased.

Clark has since lost track of whom he was communicating with back in 2014. Ludwig, too, says he was able to locate the company via the barcode and exchanged emails with someone who said they could do nothing about his intellectual property rights complaint. Today, the barcode doesn’t appear to trigger any company of origin. The Evilstick seemed to swoop in, terrorize a small group of children, and then disappear without a trace.

Sevakis no longer has one. Clark rebuffed several offers to buy his before “renting” it out to an episode of the syndicated series The Doctors, which was eager to report on the morbid toy. He subsequently sold it to a buyer in Canada. “Obviously,” he says, “she’s been cursed, too.”

Today is National Necktie Day in Croatia—Birthplace of the Necktie

Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images
Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images

If you're wearing a necktie to work today, you can thank (or blame) the Croatians for this stylish invention. The necktie's predecessor, a short knotted garment called the cravat, is a source of pride in this Western Balkan nation—so much so that they celebrate Cravat Day each year on October 18.

It's unclear when exactly the necktie was invented, but Croatian soldiers wore red cravats as part of their uniform during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). According to The Atlantic, Croatian mercenaries carried it to Western Europe that same century, and the French borrowed the idea and dubbed it the cravate. It became even more stylish when Louis XIV of France started wearing a lace cravat in 1646 at the tender age of 7, according to The Dubrovnik Times. The English eventually helped spread the accessory around the world, and it morphed into the elongated form we're most familiar with today.

In 1997, a nonprofit organization called the Academia Cravatica was founded to promote the cravat as a symbol of Croatian ingenuity. "By spreading the truth about the cravat, we improve Croatia's image in the international public," the organization states. "The fact that Croats invented the Cravat makes us proud to be Croats." (According to Time Out, Croatia also invented the first MP3 player, the zeppelin, the parachute, and fingerprint identification.)

The cravat is also tied up with national identity. The words Croat and cravat are etymologically linked, and were once different spellings of the same word. One sample sentence by David Hume in 1752 reads, "The troops are filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, and Cossacs."

The holiday isn't normally a big to-do, but the county's capital city, Zagreb, occasionally gets pretty festive. In 2003, when the holiday first debuted in Croatia, the Academia Cravatica wrapped an oversized red necktie around Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater. It took two years to prepare and five days to install—and at 2650 feet long, it ended up being the largest necktie in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records.

Cravat Day was formally declared a holiday by Croatian Parliament in 2008, and it's been a hallmark of Croatian culture ever since. A few events were planned in Zagreb today, including a march featuring the "city's famous Cravat Regiment." So if you happen to be in the Croatian capital, now you know why more than 50 historic statues are looking dapper in their red cravats.

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