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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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Gary Knapp // Getty Images
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Inside the Quest to Save 42 Giant Presidential Statues
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Gary Knapp // Getty Images

In 2004, Presidents Park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a huge open-air museum containing 42 two-story-high busts of the presidents to date at the time. Visitors could perambulate among the presidents, reading plaques about them. (Note: There are only 42 busts in total because of Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms.)

In 2013, local builder Howard Hankins was hired to remove and destroy the busts, after the attraction itself went bust. Hankins had another idea. He carefully transported all the busts to his family farm. This cleared the way for an Enterprise Rent-a-Car facility now located on the former grounds of Presidents Park. It also left him with 43 giant statues, many of them slightly damaged, to deal with.

Over the ensuing years, Hankins has walked among the busts, weeding the grounds and struggling to figure out what to do with these "giants of men." He loosely envisions a similar attraction, this time called The Presidential Experience. Ideally it would have a better location to attract tourists. But Hankins lacks the funding to make it a reality. Since the original haul, he has managed to secure a tiny template for an Obama bust, but couldn't afford to purchase the full-size version. No word yet on a Trump bust.

In the short film All the Presidents' Heads directed by Adam Roffman, we meet Hankins, see the busts, and learn about the possible second coming of a presidential roadside attraction. Enjoy:

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9 Fascinating Facts About John Quincy Adams

Today marks the 250th birthday of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States (and son of our second POTUS, John Adams). Born on July 11, 1767 in a part of Braintree, Massachusetts that is now known as Quincy, the younger Adams was a pretty interesting guy. From his penchant for skinny-dipping to his beloved pet alligator, here are some things you might not have known about the skilled statesman.

1. HE WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT DESPITE LOSING BOTH THE POPULAR AND ELECTORAL VOTES.

The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams face off against Andrew Jackson, is the only presidential election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, as neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. Despite losing both the popular and electoral vote, Adams was named president by the House.

2. HE LOVED MORNING CARDIO.

When it comes to personal fitness, early birds have an edge. Studies have shown that morning workouts can curb your appetite, prevent weight gain, and even help you get a good night’s sleep later on. Nobody understood the virtues of morning exercise better than Adams. As America’s foreign minister to Russia, Adams would wake up at five, have a cold bath, and read a few chapters from his German-language Bible. Then came a six-mile walk, followed by breakfast. 

3. HE WAS AN AVID SKINNY-DIPPER.

As president, Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac … naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., he would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. Sadly, the most famous swimming anecdote likely never happened. The story is that when Adams refused an interview with reporter Anne Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. But modern historians tend to agree that this story was a later invention. That’s not to say, however, that Adams never talked about Royall. In his diaries he wrote “[Royall] continues to make herself noxious to many persons; treating all with a familiarity which often passes for impudence, insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books.”

4. HE ENJOYED A GOOD GAME OF POOL.

Adams installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams accidentally presented the government with the $61 tab (in reality he had paid for it himself). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

5. HE WAS AN AMAZING ORATOR, BUT TERRIBLE AT SMALL TALK.

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he was terrible at small talk. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it.”

6. HE KEPT A PET ALLIGATOR IN A BATHTUB AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Adams had a pet alligator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room of the White House for a few months, supposedly claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.”

7. WHEN IT CAME TO POLITICS, HE PLAYED DIRTY.

The presidential election of 1828—when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson—is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams’s side said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” They also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson’s side retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia.

8. HE’S RESPONSIBLE FOR ACQUIRING FLORIDA.

Next time you find yourself soaking up some rays in the Sunshine State, take a moment to thank Adams. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to acquire Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right: Walt Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the sixth president.

9. HE KIND OF HATED BEING PRESIDENT. 

Adams once reportedly stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 17 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the House floor.

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