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Oval Office Decor Through The Decades: All the Presidents' Desks

Eighteen U.S. presidents have conducted business in the Oval Office since it was first constructed in 1909, but in all that time, only six desks have been used. Here are the stories behind those desks—and some of the historic events that happened behind them.

1. THE RESOLUTE DESK

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In 1852, a Royal Navy vessel called the HMS Resolute was sent to look for John Franklin’s North West Passage expedition, which left in 1845 and hadn’t been heard from since. The Resolute became stuck in an ice floe in 1854, but the men aboard were able to safely abandon it. In 1855, the captain of an American whaling ship discovered the Resolute, about 1200 miles from where the crew had left it.

Congress purchased the ship, then had it refurbished and returned to Queen Victoria as a token of goodwill and friendship. The Queen put the Resolute back into service, but when the ship was retired in 1879, she had three desks made from its timbers. One was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 “as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the Resolute,” according to the plaque on the front of the desk.

Nearly every U.S. president since Hayes has opted to use the desk, whether in the private residence or in the Oval Office. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s President's Study desk—he requested the addition of a front panel bearing the presidential seal to conceal his legs. You can see the panel in the famous picture above, showing John F. Kennedy, Jr., peeking out from behind it.

Jimmy Carter also used the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, as did Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Barack Obama continues to use it today, and in 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented Obama with a pen holder made from the Resolute’s sister ship, the HMS Gannet.

2. THE ROOSEVELT DESK

Teddy Roosevelt commissioned this mahogany desk during his presidency. Taft used it after him, as did Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt (some presidents used more than one desk), Eisenhower, and Nixon. Nixon preferred to conduct business not in the Oval Office, however, but in the nearby Old Executive Office Building. Former Nixon staff member Stephen Hess suggests this was one of the desks Nixon had altered to conceal recorders that caused the Watergate scandal.

Dick Cheney used the desk during his tenure as Vice President. Here he is participating in the tradition of signing the inside of the top drawer.

3. THE WILSON DESK


Though Nixon used the Roosevelt Desk in his working office, he kept the Wilson Desk in the Oval Office—and also had it wired to record conversations. He referred to the desk in his famous “Silent majority” speech, saying, “Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world."

Except... it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson’s. A researcher at the White House discovered that the desk actually belonged to Henry Wilson, Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president. It fell to one of Nixon’s speechwriters, William Safire, to tell the president about the error. Safire wrote a memo in which he also extolled all of the virtues of Vice President Henry Wilson. Nixon never mentioned the memo.

The thing is, though, it probably wasn’t Henry Wilson’s desk, either. White House records [PDF] show that the desk was purchased by Garret Hobart during his brief stint as William McKinley’s vice president from 1897 to 1899. Henry Wilson died in 1875.

4. THE HOOVER DESK

On Christmas Eve of 1929, a fire swept through the West Wing of the White House, damaging President Herbert Hoover’s desk, among other things. The Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturer’s Association offered to make him a new one, and in 1930, the Hoover Desk was installed in the Oval Office.

FDR used it during his tenure. In fact, he was sitting at it when he signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, the GI Bill, and the declarations of war with Japan and Germany—but perhaps because of Herbert Hoover’s reputation as one of our less beloved presidents, the Hoover Desk hasn’t gotten much love since.

5. THE JOHNSON DESK

Lyndon B. Johnson chose to bring in a desk that no president had used before, and picked this mahogany desk built by Senate cabinetmakers sometime between 1906 and 1926. The desk is now featured in the Oval Office exhibit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

6. THE C&O DESK

Created for the owners of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Co. in 1920, George H.W. Bush was particularly attached to this desk. He had used it during his tenure as vice president, and had it brought over to become his Oval Office desk when he became president. The move apparently ruffled a few feathers—people wondered if there was a political motive for replacing the Resolute desk that had become so associated with Kennedy. Bush’s press secretary eventually had to make a statement on the desk, saying, “He had it as vice president, and he got used to it, found it comfortable, thought it was attractive.”

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13 Fascinating Facts About Abigail Adams
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Abigail Adams refused to be a footnote. Born on November 22, 1744, she would go on to become the wife of one President and the mother of another. But it’s Adams’s first-rate political mind that has secured her place in history. The celebrated First Lady was, in several respects, years ahead of her time. 

1. THERE'S A BIT OF CONFUSION ABOUT WHEN SHE WAS BORN.

Biographies often cite November 11, 1744 as the day Abigail Adams (née Smith) was born. This is both true and false. While John Adams was 9, his future spouse was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts to Elizabeth and Reverend William Smith, a Congregationalist minister. Back then, Britain’s American subjects still used the Julian calendar. Originally implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, it remained standardized throughout Europe for more than 15 centuries. Unfortunately, his calendar was about 11 minutes a year out of sync with the earth’s rotation. This might not seem like a big deal, but over time, it became one: By 1582, the calendar was a full 10 days off course. Obviously, some adjustments were needed.   

So, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar—one that was designed to eliminate this growing problem. At his command, ten October days were completely skipped over (October 4 was directly followed by October 15) and measures were taken to make leap years happen less frequently. We still use the Gregorian calendar today.

While Catholic countries converted to it more or less immediately, Britain and her colonies didn’t do so until 1752. At that point, the Julian calendar had become 11 days off schedule. So according to this outdated metric, Abigail Adams was born on November 11, 1744. In contrast, our modern Gregorian calendar tells us that she came into the world on November 22.  

2. SPELLING WASN'T HER STRONG SUIT.

Like most New England girls in the 18th century, Abigail and her sisters were homeschooled (most likely by their mother). At the Smith residence, available reading material ranged from Shakespeare to the Bible to local newspapers. Over time, Abigail would become a voracious bibliophile and a terrific writer. However, because standardized education was unavailable to those of her sex, Abigail’s numerous letters were frequently plagued with such typos as “perticular,” “benifit,” and “litirary.” And while it’s true that standardized spelling was still in its infancy in the Colonies, Abigail was particularly self conscious about it, even ending one of her letters with “You will escuse this very incorrect Letter.”

3. DURING THE REVOLUTION, ADAMS MADE BULLETS FOR THE AMERICAN CAUSE.

On June 17, 1775, Adams and her 7-year-old son, John Quincy, watched as the Battle of Bunker Hill erupted near Charlestown, Massachusetts. The brutal clash and its aftermath claimed over 100 American lives. Among those slain was Joseph Warren, the Adams’ family doctor and general of the Revolution. “Our dear friend,” she wrote her husband, “ … fell gloriously for his country—saying better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously in the gallows.” Enraged, Adams seized her precious pewter spoons and melted them down into musket balls, which she then distributed to rebel forces. She also sheltered numerous patriot troops and Boston refugees at her Braintree home. 

4. JOHN AND ABIGAIL EXCHANGED OVER 1100 LETTERS.


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Their correspondence offers an intimate look at early American life—and a truly remarkable marriage. Before the war, John’s law practice regularly brought him to Boston. As a member of the Continental Congress, he toiled in Philadelphia throughout much of the Revolution. Diplomatic duties would later whisk him off to Europe and, during his presidency, he spent prolonged periods away from his beloved wife.

Through it all, John and Abigail diligently wrote each other. Their discourse includes eyewitness accounts of the vote for independence, Washington’s inauguration, and countless other moments that helped shape their young nation. Some letters even gush with romance. “I look back,” Abigail reminisced in 1782, “to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time—nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my Heart.” 

While these two made up oodles of pet names (he’d sometimes call her “Miss Adorable,” for instance), they’d usually refer to each other as “My Dearest Friend” or “Much Loved Friend.”

5. SHE WAS AN EARLY WOMEN'S RIGHTS ADVOCATE.

Abigail penned what’s arguably her single most famous letter on March 31, 1776. “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she informed John. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Her husband’s response was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he replied. The matter was dropped shortly thereafter. Still, Abigail never gave up: She’d later speak out in favor of women’s property rights and education. 

6. ABIGAIL AND THOMAS JEFFERSON HAD A ROCKY PERSONAL HISTORY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their friendship blossomed in Paris, where the men who would become America’s second and third presidents began working as diplomats during the summer of 1784. Tired of writing her husband from afar, Abigail made the transatlantic voyage. 

At first, Jefferson and Mrs. Adams bonded over their shared love of gardens and songbirds. When John was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, Abigail and her new acquaintance reluctantly parted ways (“I shall regreet [sic] ... the loss of Mr. Jeffersons Society,” she wrote). They became international pen pals, exchanging gossip and even shipping each other the occasional gift. In Jefferson’s mind, she was—as he once confided to James Madison—“one of the most estimable characters on earth.”

Sadly, their relationship grew cold when Jefferson handed Mr. Adams a bitter electoral defeat in 1800. Four years later, when the new President’s daughter, Polly, passed away at age 25, Abigail wrote a delicately-worded letter of condolence. Jefferson was both touched and impressed by the letter. “[S]he carefully avoided a single [expression] of friendship towards myself,” he observed, “and even concluded it with the wishes ‘of her who once took pleasure in subscribing herself your friend.”

Things didn’t thaw out between them until Jefferson and her husband began corresponding on friendly terms again in 1811. Abigail and the Sage of Monticello would subsequently resume their letter-writing.

7. SHE MISSED JOHN'S INAUGURATION.

When President Adams was sworn in on March 4, 1797, John’s mother was dying in Massachusetts. A particularly brutal New England winter kept Abigail away from Philadelphia (which was then the nation’s capital), much to the new Chief Executive’s dismay. “The times are critical and dangerous,” he wrote her, “and I must have you here to assist me.” She joined him in the City of Brotherly Love that spring. 

8. JOHN AND ABIGAIL REALLY HATED ALEXANDER HAMILTON. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury had a knack for making powerful enemies, including Jefferson, James Monroe, and (of course) Aaron Burr. Then there was John Adams, who once referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” No love was lost between them. In 1800, Hamilton circulated a very critical pamphlet that amounted to a full-on character assassination aimed at our second commander-in-chief. Ultimately, Hamilton’s sharp words helped destroy Adams’ re-election bid.

Abigail shared her husband’s disdain for his political rival. “Beware that spair Cassius,” she warned John in 1797. “O, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”

9. SHE VEHEMENTLY OPPOSED SLAVERY.

“I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province,” she wrote in a 1774 letter to her husband. Though Abigail’s father had been a slaver, she remained firmly against the practice throughout her life. In March 1776, Abigail slammed the sheer hypocrisy of slave-owning American rebels, stating, “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be eaqually [sic] strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”

10. ADAMS ONCE PERSONALLY TAUGHT A YOUNG BLACK MAN THAT SHE BARELY KNEW.

By the standards of her period, she also had a progressive attitude toward integration. Shortly before John took the oath of office, Abigail informed the president-elect about a free black servant boy whom she’d personally given reading and writing lessons. Afterwards, she enrolled him into a local school. Without warning, a neighbor then approached her and bemoaned this new pupil’s presence there.

Irate, Abigail replied that the boy was “as much a Freeman as any of the [other] young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him to both read and write.” 

Just like that, the neighbor backed off and no further objections were raised. 

11. SHE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL WIFE TO LIVE IN THE WHITE HOUSE. 

During most of his administration, John Adams—like his predecessor—lived at the Presidential mansion in Philadelphia.  Located at the intersection of 6th and Market Streets, it would serve as the headquarters of the government’s executive branch until May 1800.

Abigail and John moved into the White House on November 1 (between the two dates, the President stayed at a local tavern). At the time, their new mansion was—to the First Lady’s chagrin—still under construction. “Not a chamber is finished of a whole,” she complained. The building suffered from poor insulation. An awkward White House Christmas party did little to lift Abigail’s spirits. As one witness put it, she was “distressed and embarrassed because it was still cold. The guests sat around trying to look comfortable and hide their gooseflesh, but they left early.”

12. A LIGHT INFANTRY COMPANY ONCE NAMED ITSELF AFTER HER. 

In 1798, a Massachusetts volunteer regiment asked for Abigail’s permission to rechristen themselves as “Lady Adams Rangers.” Flattered, she happily consented. 

13. SHE WAS A DOG LOVER.

Through the years, the Adams family included several dogs. Their two best-known pooches, however, were some mutts that they dubbed Juno and Satan. While the devilishly-named canine was regarded as John’s dog, Juno really took a shine to Abigail. After leaving the White House, she could often be seen with the animal padding along at her side. In an 1811 letter to her granddaughter Caroline Smith, Adams declared that “As if you love me proverbially, you must love my dog. You will be pleased to know that Juno yet lives, although like her mistress she is gray with age.”

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Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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