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Andrew Jackson's Big Block of Cheese

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On January 29th, the White House is holding "Big Block of Cheese Day." Inspired by Andrew Jackson (and Aaron Sorkin), "dozens of White House officials will take to social media for a day long 'open house' to answers questions from everyday Americans in real-time." Here's the story of Jackson's big cheese.

There’s a great scene in The West Wing's episode “The Crackpots and These Women” in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) tries to invigorate his exasperated team with a story about how Andrew Jackson kept a two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of the White House. According to Leo’s story, Jackson left the cheese there as a populist symbol; anyone who was hungry could pop in to the White House for a quick bite to eat.

While the notion of Jackson operating a free federal snack bar is appealing, the story told by Leo isn’t totally accurate. However, it’s not all that far from the truth. Andrew Jackson did own a monstrous block of cheese.

This is its story.

How did Andrew Jackson end up owning a big block of cheese?

The people loved Jackson. Jackson loved cheese. What better way to celebrate Jacksonian democracy than by sending Old Hickory himself an enormous wheel of cheese? Dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, hit on this notion in 1835, and he had the know-how to craft a titanic cheddar. The fruit of Meacham’s labor was a wheel that was four feet in diameter and two feet thick, weighed nearly 1400 pounds, and was wrapped in a giant belt that bore patriotic inscriptions like, “The Union, it must be Preserved.”

This cheese was actually the crown jewel of a larger collection of ten cheeses that appeared at an 1835 patriotic celebration in Oswego, NY. After the locals all got a good look at the cheese and felt themselves well up with national pride, the wheel was loaded onto a schooner and set sail for its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Meacham sent off two other 750-pound wheels in the same shipment, one to Vice President Martin Van Buren and one to New York Governor William L. Marcy.

At some point, we’ve all received a thoughtful, touching, impractical gift and wondered, “What the hell am I going to do with this?” Jackson apparently had the same reaction when the cheese finally arrived at the White House. According to 19th-century biographer James Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, the old general gave giant chunks of the cheese to his friends, but he was still left with an absurdly outsized block. Jackson could conquer the Bank of the United States, but he was helpless against such a massive wheel of cheese.

By 1837 Jackson’s second term was winding down, and he wasn’t about to haul a two-year-old mountain of cheese with him when he left office. So he decided to make the famed fromage a featured player at his last public reception at the White House. It was an astute move; there’s nothing people love more than free food. The reception’s 10,000 visitors attacked the wheel of cheese with such fervor that the entire thing was gone within two hours.

The reception took care of the cheese-disposal problem, but the cheddar certainly wasn’t forgotten. There are certain downsides to sending a big honking block of cheese to a warm climate like Washington and having it sit around for a couple of years. Namely, the cheese starts to get a bit fragrant, and a block that massive can give off some serious cheese-stink. Washingtonians could allegedly smell the cheese, which one dubbed “an evil-smelling horror,” for several blocks around the White House before the big party.

Of course, if a cheese has sat in a room long enough, its aroma can permeate into the fixtures. Jackson’s successor, Van Buren, apparently found this out the hard way. The Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 13 from 1912 reprinted a letter written by former Senator John Davis’ wife, Eliza, in 1838. Mrs. Davis wrote:

The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved – (Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.

While Jackson’s reception cleared the White House of one smelly wheel of cheese, there’s some evidence to suggest that he left at least one other hulking block around as a housewarming gift for Van Buren. According to Gilson Willets’ 1908 book The Inside History of the White House, Van Buren eventually held a charity auction in 1839 to get rid of the last remnants of Jackson’s old dairy holdings, a 700-pound wheel of cheddar that also came from Meacham’s New York farm.

Bonus Fact

In that West Wing episode, a young Nick Offerman ("Ron Swanson") played a man lobbying the White House to build a $900 million wolves-only roadway. Work that into conversation at your next cheese party.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images
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8 Surprising Facts About the Presidential Yacht
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Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

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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Courtesy Sotheby's
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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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