The Surprising Story Behind George Washington's Inaugural Bible

When we witness the inauguration of the next President of the United States in about a year, the incoming POTUS will likely be sworn in using a special Bible. Some, like Lyndon B. Johnson, have chosen family Bibles. Others have selected a Bible used by a former president, which is what Barack Obama did in 2009 when he was sworn in with Abraham Lincoln's sacred tome.

A few have even chosen to use the Holy Grail of presidential Bibles—the one George Washington placed his hand on when he was sworn in on April 30, 1789. But that Bible, which is now a cherished relic of the United States, was originally nothing more than an afterthought.

Washington’s inauguration took place not in D.C., but at Federal Hall in New York, where Congress met at the time. Everything else had been prepared for the ceremony when someone realized that no one had brought a Holy Bible for Washington to swear on. Jacob Morton, a Mason and the Master of nearby St. John’s Lodge, offered to run and grab the Bible from the altar at St. John’s. With no other options readily available, Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston gladly took him up on it. During the ceremony, Washington placed his right hand on the text, which was open to Genesis 49:13. (Don’t search too hard for any meaning—the Library of Congress says it was “opened at random due to haste.”)

Once the inauguration was over, the Bible was returned to St. John’s Lodge No. 1, and it still belongs to the Lodge today. When the Masons are not using it, they often display the George Washington Inaugural Bible at Federal Hall. They’ve also allowed it to be used in inaugurations for Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush hoped to use it at his inauguration in 2001, but it was raining and no one wanted to risk damaging such a precious artifact.

Appropriately, the Bible was also used in Washington’s funeral procession and the dedication of the Washington Monument.

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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