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16 Facts About U.S. Presidents From the Reconstruction Era to WWII

Melissa loves learning about history, and also enjoys learning about the people making history today. She is always reading something new.

When you are installed as President of the United States of America, you are part of a history that now spans back 230 years. As of 2019, 44 fascinating men have taken up that mantle, ushering the country into the future with wisdom and grace.

Between the Civil War's end and the end of World War II, America rose to become a great and powerful nation. The borders of the nation finally stretched "from sea to shining sea," yet new inventions such as the telegraph, the automobile, and eventually the airplane made the distance feel small. Here are some facts about the 16 presidents of this era in American history, from Andrew Johnson to Harry S. Truman.

1. Andrew Johnson Took Care of a Family of Mice in His White House Bedroom

After his failed impeachment, Andrew Johnson couldn't really do much to affect public policy. So what did he do for his last year of presidency? He took care of a family of mice that lived in his bedroom. His "little fellows" had a constant supply of food and water, since the president put fresh water next to the fireplace for them and kept a basket of flour for them on the floor. Johnson probably felt really alone and shunned by Congress, so it was good that he had some company.

2. Ulysses S. Grant's Real Name Is Hiram Ulysses Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was actually born as Hiram Ulysses Grant. When he applied to West Point at the age of 16, the congressman who wrote his letter of recommendation, Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer, got his name wrong.

Grant kept trying to set the record straight, but the name stuck, and he ended up deciding to keep his name as Ulysses S. Grant because he didn't particularly like having his initials spell "hug". He also liked the fact that U. S. could stand for the United States or Uncle Sam.

He wrote in a letter to his future wife Julia, “Find some name beginning with “S” for me. You know I have an “S” in my name and don’t know what it stands for.”

3. Rutherford B. Hayes Started the Tradition of the White House Easter Egg Roll

The White House Easter Egg Roll is a popular annual event, but before 1878, egg rolling was not allowed on Capitol grounds because Congress was worried about it affecting the landscaping.

Rutherford B. Hayes decided in 1878 that the South Lawn, previously reserved for the First Family's private Easter activities, should be opened to the public and hosted an event where children could come and roll eggs there. Ever since, it has been a popular tradition that has allowed the president to connect with citizens in an enjoyable setting.

4. James A. Garfield Was Fluent in Greek, Latin, and German

The highly intelligent James A. Garfield taught Greek and Latin in Hiram, Ohio, where he had previously attended school at the Eclectic Institute, now Hiram College. Garfield was ambidextrous; his favorite party trick was to have people ask him questions, and he would write the answer with one hand in Latin while simultaneously writing with the other hand in Greek.

He was also fluent in German, which he used on the campaign trail to speak to German-American immigrants; this combined with his stellar oratory skills may have helped to secure the dark horse candidate's bid for the presidency.

5. Chester A. Arthur Held the First White House Yard Sale to Fund Its Redecoration

Chester A. Arthur brought back the old-fashioned tradition of entertaining in the White House that had not happened much since before the start of the Civil War. The elegant president had a sense of style that was quite different from the stoic, practical presidents before him, and he decided that the White House needed a new look.

President Arthur hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to help him redesign the White House's interior, and sold 24 wagons full of historical items on the White House lawn to anyone who would buy them. Some may have thought these items were priceless pieces of history, but to President Arthur, they were ugly and they had to go. One of the items sold was a pair of Abraham Lincoln's pants that were left in an unused closet.

Because of the renovations, Arthur did not move into the White House for three months after he became president.

6. Benjamin Harrison Has the Oldest Surviving Recording of a Presidential Speech

It may seem weird now that we're in the age of presidential tweets, but there was a time when hearing from the president was very rare. In 1889, Benjamin Harrison had a speech about the first Pan-American Congress recorded by an Edison phonograph wax cylinder, and he became the first president to have his voice recorded and archived. It is the oldest surviving recording of a U.S. President’s voice. Rutherford B. Hayes is said to have recorded a speech once, but the recording was never found.

7. Grover Cleveland Was the First President to Marry in the White House

Grover Cleveland is most famous for serving two non-consecutive terms, something that is unique to him, but he is also the only president to enter the White House single and get married while he was president.

Cleveland knew Frances Folsom from the time she was born (he was 27, and a family friend). When she was fully grown and in college, his feelings for her changed, and they married in 1886 during his first term as president. Their daughter Esther was the first child born at the White House.

8. William McKinley's Pet Parrot Was His Official White House Greeter

William McKinley had a yellow-headed Mexican parrot named Washington Post that was so smart that he appointed him to the position of White House Greeter. Washington Post (possibly named after the newspaper which had recently started at the time) could whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy and would exclaim "Look at all the pretty girls!" whenever women walked by his cage.

9. The Teddy Bear Is Named After Theodore Roosevelt

In 1902, Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino invited President Roosevelt on a bear hunting trip. After three days of hunting, they had yet to see a bear, so their guides found a black bear and tied it to a tree for the president to come and shoot.

When Roosevelt saw the defenseless bear, he thought it would be unfair to shoot it, so they let it go. Political cartoonist Clifford Berryman heard about what happened and drew a cartoon for the Washington Post showing how Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. The bear was used in political cartoons throughout Roosevelt's presidency.

With the president's permission, Morris Mictom, a Russian immigrant and Brooklyn candy shop owner, put two stuffed bears in his shop window that his wife had sewn and called them "Teddy's bear". The toys quickly sold out, and Mictom got a license to mass-produce them across the country, founding the Ideal Toy Company.

10. William Taft Would Fall Asleep During Meetings and Conversations with Guests

William Taft may be the president most famous for getting stuck in the White House bathtub, but his enormous girth also caused another problem: sleep apnea. Taft would fall asleep anywhere, from presidential briefings to the dinner table, from playing cards with friends to starring in a parade. Taft's tendency to snooze randomly bothered his wife more than it bothered him:

"The President had a strange habit of falling asleep when the First Lady was not there to keep after him. ... He fell asleep at the most peculiar times, even once at a funeral. Guests would be embarrassed when he would fall asleep in the middle of their stories, and poor Mrs. Taft would have to cover for him. Sometimes, when they were alone, she would scold him for this bad habit. ... "Now, Nellie, you know it is just my way," he would reply," according to My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks.

11. Woodrow Wilson Kept a Flock of Sheep on the White House Lawn

Like Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson kept some unusual animals at the White House: a flock of sheep. Unlike President Johnson, his reason was more practical. World War I took place during Wilson’s presidency, and he wanted to support the troops in every way possible.

The wool sheared from the sheep was auctioned off periodically, earning $52,823 for the Red Cross over their stay at the White House. They also kept the grass trimmed, cutting down on lawn maintenance costs.

12. Warren Harding Cheated on His First Lady and Fathered a Child out of Wedlock

Warren Harding, our 29th president, had a 4-year term plagued with many scandals. One of the biggest scandals in his term involved a woman named Nan Britton, who claimed that the president fathered her daughter Elizabeth while he was in the Senate, a year before he ascended to the presidency.

Nan had been obsessed with Harding, a friend of her father, as a teenager, and they began an affair after she graduated from high school and moved to New York City to become a secretary. In 1927, she released a book called The President's Daughter exposing her affair, which lasted from 1914 to Harding's death in 1923.

For almost 90 years, historians and defenders of President Harding questioned her claims, but Britton's grandson, James Blaesing, connected with Peter Harding, Warren Harding's grandnephew, on Ancestry.com and they decided to do a DNA test. The test results came back with a 99.9% certainty that they were related, proving that Elizabeth was indeed Warren Harding's daughter.

13. Calvin Coolidge Was Sworn In After Midnight Under the Light of a Kerosene Lamp

When Warren Harding died in office in 1923, his Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his parents at their homestead in Vermont, which did not have electricity or a telephone. Coolidge only found out that he was the new president when a messenger, followed by a throng of reporters, arrived on his parents' doorstep after midnight and told him the news. Coolidge had answered the door in his pajamas and had to run back upstairs to dress and say a prayer before coming downstairs to take his oath of office.

Calvin's father John was a notary public and justice of the peace, so he administered the oath of office at 2:47 AM to the new president in the parlor, by the light of a kerosene lamp. Coolidge later had to swear a second oath of office upon returning to Washington because the Supreme Court was unsure if the first oath was valid, being administered by a state official instead of a federal one.

14. Herbert Hoover Was a Member of Stanford University's Inaugural Class

Leland Stanford established Stanford University on March 9, 1885, with his wife Jane as a memorial for their deceased son, Leland Jr., who died of typhoid fever as a teenager.

The university opened for students in 1891, and the very first student to be admitted was Herbert Hoover. Hoover failed the entrance exam, but the professor giving the exam noticed his "remarkable keenness" and had him admitted on the condition that he improved.

Hoover originally wanted to be an engineer but ended up majoring in geology, where he met his wife, Lou. Hoover was poor as a student, living for a time in the construction workers' barracks as the school continued to be built, but he stuck it out and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1895.

15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Was an Avid Stamp Collector

FDR became a lifelong stamp collecting enthusiast when his mother introduced him to the hobby at the age of 8. He loved stamps for the history behind them and not their monetary value. When he was bedridden and recovering from polio he had his stamps brought to him to look at. Even as president he would spend time every day organizing his stamp collection and annotating where each one came from.

When Roosevelt died, he had over 1,200,000 stamps in his personal collection, 80% of which was of little value to anyone other than himself. The collection was sold in a public auction for $228,000.00. Stamps that were given to him officially by foreign governments were not sold and remain in the archives of the Roosevelt Library.

16. Before He Was President, Harry S. Truman Was a Haberdasher

Before he was president, Harry S. Truman worked many different jobs, including farming, working as a bank clerk, and eventually joining the military during World War I. Perhaps one of the most interesting was his haberdashery business that he started with a military friend named Eddie Jacobson after the war. The two had had tons of fun operating their regiment's canteen and decided that they worked well together, so they opened their store in Kansas City, selling men's accessories and suits.

At first, the store was very successful and became a meeting place for men around town. Lawyers would even bring their law books to the store to study after work. Truman filed for incorporation of Truman and Jacobson in 1921, but soon afterwards a recession started, and 19 months later the two friends had to close their store. Both men were financially wiped out. Jacobson declared bankruptcy, but Truman refused to; it took him 15 years to pay back the creditors.

At a loss for what to do next, Truman decided to ask around for local jobs that may hire him. A friend's uncle suggested he run for an administrative judge position in Jackson County, Missouri, and so Harry Truman's political career began, advancing next to U.S. senator, and finally president. Jacobson decided to give menswear another try, becoming a traveling salesman. As a Jewish man, he helped to persuade Truman to grant diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel on May 14, 1948.


© 2019 Melissa Clason


Liz Westwood from UK on August 31, 2019:

This is a fascinating collection of facts.