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Stacy Conradt

You Could Once Buy “Memento Kits” Made of White House Scraps

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Stacy Conradt

The White House may be rather gilded these days, but when Harry Truman moved into the Executive Mansion in 1945, the place was anything but luxurious—in fact, it was literally falling apart.

Truman often wrote letters to friends and family romanticizing the creaks and drafts in his new home, imagining they were his feuding predecessors: “The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth. I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin," he wrote to his wife Bess in 1945.

But the problems went well beyond creaky floorboards. By 1947, the First Family noticed chandeliers swinging and entire floors swaying “like a ship at sea.” In 1948, the leg of one of Margaret Truman’s pianos broke through the floor. Not long after, the Trumans moved across the street to Blair House while the White House was completely gutted, leaving only the original walls remaining. But Truman was exceedingly careful about keeping the integrity of those walls: Though the demolition of the interior required the use of a bulldozer, Truman forbade engineers from cutting a hole in the walls big enough to allow the machinery through. Instead, the bulldozer was disassembled and moved inside in pieces, then reassembled.

A black and white picture of a pile of debris inside of the White House, with a bulldozer, workmen and metal beams among it.

Abbie Rowe, National Park Service // Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

As you may imagine, the demolition phase produced literally tons of debris, which the public wanted a piece of—the White House was inundated with more than 20,000 requests for various bits and pieces, including wallpaper, burned wood, and doorknobs. In response, the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion decided to make 13 different “authenticated memento kits” available to the public, an endeavor that netted an extra $10,000 toward renovations.

An order form for a White House memento kit that details the prices and shipping for the various pieces available.
Stacy Conradt

Souvenir-hunters could request everything from a “small piece of old metal” to “enough stone for a fireplace”—and all they had to pay were the shipping and processing costs. At $2.00, kit #1 (“Enough old pine to make a gavel”) was one of the most popular requests, with 5059 sold. “One brick, as nearly whole as practicable,” was $1.00, though this customer still had to pay 23 cents for shipping upon arrival.

A weathered brick and the cardboard box the brick was shipped in, both under a display case.
Stacy Conradt

“Two pieces of stone to make bookends” were $2.00; 2208 of them were purchased. This particular set, seen at the Truman Library and Museum, was made from two plaster cornice moldings.

Two pieces of architectural scrollwork, painted white and mounted on wooden pieces to create bookends.
Stacy Conradt

For those interested in making White House remnants a larger part of their homes, 1600 pounds of stone suitable for a fireplace went for a mere $100.

Harry Truman himself was able to snag a chunk of fireplace memorabilia, though his was certainly worth more than $100. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt decked out the State Dining Room with a stone mantel, a piece designed to complement the big-game trophies displayed on the walls. The mantel featured intricate carvings of buffalo heads, and in 1940, a prayer written by John Adams during his first night at the White House was added to the front.

A large stone fireplace mantel with intricate buffalo carvings, on display on top of a large wooden block. A black and white photo of the mantel in its original setting at the White House sits behind the piece.
Stacy Conradt

Because it didn't fit the American-Georgian aesthetic of the reconstruction, the historic piece of architecture was “thrown out on the junk pile,” according to Truman. Official records, however, show that the mantel was never on the "junk pile"—it had been carefully placed in storage. Whatever the case may have been, Truman requested that the Buffalo Mantel be moved to Independence, Missouri, for inclusion in his Presidential Library. In 1962, during her quest to return historical furniture and other items to the White House, Jackie Kennedy wrote to the former president and requested that the mantel be returned home. Truman declined to send it back.

To this day, the original Buffalo Mantel remains at the Truman Library, and a replica adorns the State Dining Room fireplace at the White House.

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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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