52 Astonishing Facts You Never Knew About U.S. Presidents
Which president enjoyed skinny-dipping? Which one befriended his burglar while in office? Presidents are people too, and they have been wild, wonderful, and just plain weird.
Abraham Lincoln turned down the chance to host elephants
In 1861, the King of Siam offered to gift President Lincoln “several pairs of young male and female elephants,” which were indigenous to his country (today we know it as Thailand). The elephants could be bred to multiply, the king suggested, and the herds could be used as “beasts of burden” that could work alongside the military during the Civil War. The president politely declined the offer, opting to use steam power instead of animal labor. If you’re curious, here’s what a president’s handwriting reveals about them.
Gerald Ford modeled on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine
Before he became our nation’s 38th president, Gerald Ford had a side gig as a model. In 1942, shortly after joining the Navy, he landed an uncredited spot on the cover of Cosmopolitan in his uniform. Another fun fact? It was during this time that he met and went on to marry a fellow model, Elizabeth Bloomer. She became known to Americans as First Lady Betty Ford. Here are the first jobs of all the U.S. Presidents.
John Quincy Adams approved a real-life journey to the center of the Earth
Back in the 1800s, little was known about our planet. In the absence of scientific evidence, some people believed in some pretty kooky theories—like the idea that planet Earth is actually hollow. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was on board with this one. The commander-in-chief even signed off on a proposed expedition by a fellow Hollow Earther and would-be explorer to the Earth’s “empty” core. But when Andrew Jackson was voted into office four years later, he put the kibosh on the journey that never was.
William Howard Taft took a custom bathtub on a trip to Panama
The legend goes that our 27th president once got stuck in a bathtub and had to be pulled out by six men. Although President William Taft did weigh 340 pounds at his heaviest, this story is wholly false. But it probably stemmed from Taft’s (very true) affinity for baths. In fact, he ordered a 7-foot-long tub that weighed a literal ton to be built and placed aboard the USS North Carolina, so he could luxuriate in it on his way to Panama. However, there are things presidents have to pay for on their own.
Herbert Hoover’s White House staff hid from him
In a very diva move, 31st president Herbert Hoover insisted that his staff never see him around the White House—and he didn’t want to see them either. This caused quite the charade, of course, as the staff felt pressured to hide from the president whenever he was present. According to White House journalist Kenneth Walsh, staffers would “pile into closets” and “hide behind bushes so the president couldn’t see them.” See if you can match the president to the U.S. currency.
Lyndon B. Johnson proposed to Lady Bird with a $2.50 ring from Sears
In 1934, Lyndon B. Johnson, then 26, proposed to Claudia Alta “Ladybird” Taylor, 22, on their first date. Though she declined his offer, Johnson continued to woo her from afar, sending his sweetheart 90 letters in the span of about 90 days. Impatient, Johnson traveled from Washington, D.C. to Texas to arrive at her door with an ultimatum—marry me now or forever hold your peace. She accepted his proposal and the $2.50 engagement ring that came with it. Find out more fascinating trivia about America’s first ladies.
John Quincy Adams loved to skinny-dip
While in office, sixth president John Quincy Adams often swam in the Potomac River, and he preferred to do so in the buff. Adams was an early riser, and in his diaries, he wrote of waking at about 4 a.m. and taking a morning dip—nude. Though it sounds risqué now, skinny-dipping was apparently common in the 1800s.
George Washington grew cannabis
Before you start thinking the nation’s first president was a stoner, you should know that George Washington grew hemp, not marijuana (they both belong to the cannabis family). He cultivated the hemp at his estate in Mount Vernon for industrial uses, like rope- and canvas-making.
George W. Bush is cousins with Hugh Hefner
It turns out our 43rd president and the founder of Playboy are distant cousins. More specifically, they’re ninth cousins twice removed, sharing the same pair of great-grandparents. Another cousin shared by the two is former presidential candidate John Kerry. Check out these rare, candid photos of U.S. presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its name
Though the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is painted white, it was known as The Executive Mansion and The President’s Palace until October 1901, when then-president Theodore Roosevelt referred to it as The White House. The 26th president made the moniker official when he had it engraved on his stationery.
Warren Harding lost the White House china in a poker game
Warren Harding, our 29th president, loved a game of poker—and apparently, he was a high roller. During one of his bi-weekly poker games, Harding gambled away a set of china that had been in the White House since President Benjamin Harrison’s tenure six terms prior. He bet it all on one ill-advised hand. Check out these secret quirks of all 45 presidents.
Thomas Jefferson kept pet grizzly bears
During his tenure as our third president, Thomas Jefferson became the happy recipient of a wild gift: a pair of grizzly bear cubs. He kept them in a cage on the front lawn of the White House for a few months before deciding they were too dangerous to keep and bequeathing them to a museum. These are the 13 presidents with the highest IQ scores.
Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding—on a horse
A noted equestrian, our 18th president was quite confident on a horse—perhaps too confident. While driving his horse and buggy at a furious pace during his presidential tenure, Grant was pulled over twice within the span of 24 hours. The second time, one bold police officer decided to arrest the commander-in-chief, who was ultimately given a fine. Legend has it that the officer and the president eventually became friends.
The first White House bowling alley was a birthday present for Harry Truman
In 1947, 33rd president Harry Truman became responsible for having a bowling alley installed in the West Wing in celebration of his 63rd birthday. He became the first person to ever throw a bowling ball down the White House lane, and one of the seven pins he knocked down is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Bill Clinton is a My Little Pony Expert
During a segment on the NPR show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” 42nd president Bill Clinton was quizzed about the animated movie My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. To the amazement of his hosts, he nailed all three questions and won a prize on behalf of the listener for whom he was playing.
Clint Eastwood was almost Vice President under George H.W. Bush
While running for office in 1988, then-presidential nominee George Bush was not feeling lucky, so he considered bringing on the “Dirty Harry” actor to help breathe life into his struggling campaign. Clint Eastwood had been mayor of Carmel, California, but Bush famously chose Dan Quayle as his running mate instead. Here are more things you probably don’t know about the vice presidency.
James Garfield could write in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other
The ambidextrous James Garfield could write in two languages simultaneously: Latin and Greek. He taught both languages while attending the acclaimed Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was later named president before going on to be elected as the 20th president of the United States.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to name a woman to his cabinet
In 1933, our 32nd president became the first one to hire a woman by naming Frances Perkins as secretary of labor in 1933. She had previously worked for him when he was governor of New York.
Abraham Lincoln allowed seances in the White House
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly invited mediums to the White House to call on departed spirits through seances during Abraham Lincoln’s tenure. While there’s no definitive evidence, the president was said to have attended some of the events. He was also thought to believe in the occult to an extent.
Three presidents are Grammy winners
It may sound odd, but Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Jimmy Carter have each won a Grammy. No, they’re not singers or songwriters, but they did nab prizes for Best Spoken Word Album for the audio versions of their biographies. Check out more impressive hidden talents of U.S. presidents.
George Washington’s teeth were made of something more disturbing than wood
It’s a popular misconception that our first president’s teeth were made of wood. In fact, they were made of something even more horrifying: other people’s teeth—likely those of slaves or impoverished people. The dentures apparently also contained ivory.
Two rival presidents died on the exact same day
Thought friendly in their personal lives, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were political competitors. On his deathbed, Adams is believed to have uttered, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” in a final act of rivalry. Little did he know that Jefferson had actual died hours earlier.
America’s eighth president was the first to be born stateside
There were seven official U.S. presidents before Martin Van Buren, the first president to actually be born in the states, took office. Van Buren was the eighth U.S. president. In fairness, the United States was not even founded until 1776, two years before George Washington took office, but facts are facts. Don’t miss these presidential trivia facts that simply aren’t true.
Two of 10th President Tyler’s grandchildren are still alive
How is it possible that two grandchildren of our nation’s 10th president, born one year after George Washington took office and elected to office himself in 1841, are still alive as of this story’s publication in 2019? The president was 75 when his last child was born in 1928, and the two living grandsons are descendants of that son.
No one could dance in the White House during James Polk’s tenure
The wife of 11th president James Polk was a strict Presbyterian and looked down upon dancing, so it was banned in the White House while her husband was in office and at the Inaugural Ball. She also disapproved of horse racing and the theater. Here are 14 of the most gorgeous inaugural gowns worn by First Ladies.
Ulysses S. Grant’s middle initial stood for nothing
You might know who is buried in Grant’s tomb, but do you know what his middle initial stood for? Well, neither did he. Apparently, it came from a typo on his application to West Point.
Rutherford B. Hayes was the first American to own a Siamese cat
The First Cat during Hayes’s presidency was literally the first cat—as in the first Siamese cat to be owned by a U.S. citizen. She was a gift to the president and First Lady. They originally named her Miss Pussy, but eventually simplified things by calling the cat Siam. Check out these funny words that were made up by U.S. presidents.
James Garfield’s spine was on display at a museum
At the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C., the spine of President Garfield was displayed along with other medical oddities in 2000. A bullet hole from his 1881 assassination is clearly visible.
Chester Arthur held a White House yard sale to finance a redecorating project
In what was probably the first White House yard sale, the 21st president sold two dozen wagon loads of presidential merchandise including a pair of Abraham Lincoln’s pants and John Quincy Adams’ hat. He then used the money to hire an interior decorator. Don’t miss these hilarious quotes from past presidents.
William McKinley’s red carnation might have saved his life
The 25th president was known for wearing a red carnation on his lapel for good luck. The boutonniere probably was a good luck charm after all. While greeting a little girl at an event in 1901, he decided to give his lucky flower to her. Moments later, he was assassinated.
Herbert Hoover had his own sport
To keep our 31st president fit, his physician invented a sport that was later called Hoover-ball while Herbert Hoover was in office. It’s a combination of tennis and volleyball and uses a medicine ball. The sport is still played competitively in Hoover’s hometown of West Branch, Iowa.
Dwight Eisenhower ordered the assassination of squirrels
Our 34th president, an avid golfer, got sick and tired of squirrels messing up his game by digging up the green to bury their acorns. He ordered his valet to shoot the rodents, but the Secret Service forbade the use of guns on the White House grounds, so groundkeepers trapped and released the animals instead. Check out these other things presidents have tried to have banned from the White House.
Four presidents were cheerleaders
What did Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, and George W. Bush have in common? They all served as cheerleaders either in high school or college. Talk about squad goals!
John Adams skipped school a lot
A lifelong outdoorsman, Adams often chose to hunt and fish rather than go to school as a child. Despite his truancy, he made it into Harvard at age 15 and went on to become the second president of the United States. Don’t miss these other 15 fascinating facts about America you never learned in school.
Andrew Jackson taught his parrot foul language
What the heck? Andrew Jackson’s pet parrot began shouting obscenities at the 7th president’s funeral and had to be carried out. The president was a former war hero known for his tough exterior, so it surprised no one that he had taught the bird its colorful language.
Benjamin Harrison was afraid of electricity
When the Edison Company installed electrical wires into the White House for the first time in 1891, 23rd president Harrison and his wife refused to touch the light switches for fear of getting electrocuted.
Ronald Reagan did standup comedy
When movie roles began drying up in the mid-1950s, Ronald Reagan decided to try his hand as a stand-up comic in Las Vegas. He later became a TV host, which led to the biggest role of his life: 40th president of the United States. Check out the most hilarious jokes told by 23 U.S. presidents.
Calvin Coolidge befriended a man who tried to rob him
When Calvin Coolidge woke up to find a burglar rifling through his belongings, he managed to calmly talk down the would-be thief. The president found out the man was desperate to pay his hotel bill and buy a ticket back to his college campus, so Coolidge willingly gave him the contents of his wallet—$32—and snuck him out of the room and past Secret Service. These are the Secret Service’s most clever code names for U.S. presidents.
Franklin Roosevelt wore dresses as a child
Long before non-gender-specific clothing became a thing, Franklin Roosevelt’s parents clothed him in dresses as a child. But it turns out some cultural norms happen in cycles; gender-specific clothing was not invented until about the time of World War I. Everything old is new again. See if you can name these U.S. presidents based on their baby photos.
Jimmy Carter believed in UFOs
In 1973, four years before becoming the 39th president of the U.S., Jimmy Carter filed a report of a UFO sighting in 1969 in Georgia. He called it “the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen.” He promised, if elected president, to disclose government information about UFOs, but backpedaled while in office.
Abraham Lincoln was a licensed bartender
Before he became the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln was a bartender and bar owner. He partnered with a friend to buy a bar in Illinois but gave it up to become a lawyer shortly thereafter. He remains officially the only president to be a licensed bartender.
John Adams named his dog “Satan”
Plenty of U.S. presidents have had dogs as pets in the White House, but only one had a dog named after the devil himself. Satan was one of the dogs that belonged to the second president. No word on whether the animal lived up to its name. These are the 10 everyday things no U.S. president can do while in office.
We had a 24-hour president
Ever hear of President David Rice Atchison? If the answer is no, that’s probably because he was only “president” for a day. In 1849, the inauguration of Zachary Taylor landed on a Sunday, and the religious incumbent refused to be sworn in on a holy day. He had Atchison stand in for him.
James Monroe attacked his rival with red-hot tongs
After backing down from running against James Monroe in the presidential election, William H. Crawford accepted a position as his Secretary of the Treasury. During a fight between the two men, the fifth president chased the politician out while brandishing a set of tongs from his fireplace.
Thomas Jefferson had a comically positioned bed
Jefferson famously served out his tenure at his estate, Monticello. Though his home was vast in size, he preferred to squeeze his bed into a tiny alcove that provided zero room at the foot and head of the bed. He’s thought to be the originator of the alcove bed design. Try your hand at these U.S. presidential trivia questions everyone gets wrong.
Presidents’ Day is technically called Washington’s Birthday
Presidents’ Day has a more complex history than one would think. After George Washington died in 1799, his supporters recognized his birthday as a day of remembrance. In 1885, his birthday became a federal holiday for the whole country. Later, in 1968, a new bill made certain federal holidays on Mondays and combined birthday celebrations for Washington and Lincoln for a “Presidents’ Day.” According to the United States Code, however, that holiday is technically still called Washington’s Birthday and never officially changed to Presidents’ Day. Federal code permits local governments and private businesses to name federal holidays whatever they want, so most states call it Presidents’ Day.
Three Presidents married while in office
President John Tyler remarried in 1844 after the death of his first wife. Woodrow Wilson also remarried after the death of his wife in 1915. And before his wedding, Grover Cleveland was one of two White House bachelors. (The other was James Buchanan, who never married.) Cleveland is also the only president to marry in a White House ceremony.
Martin Van Buren made “OK” popular
Experts don’t definitively know the origin of “OK.” People argue it has origins in Native American language or Sub-Saharan Africa language, among other possibilities. They do know that Martin Van Buren helped popularize the expression. One of his nicknames was “Old Kinderhook,” the town he was from in New York. During his election campaign in 1840, people held signs with and chanted, “OK.” These are the 8 perks U.S. presidents get to keep after they leave the White House.
“Billy Possums” was meant to replace “Teddy Bears”
President Theodore Roosevelt inspired the name “Teddy Bears.” Roosevelt chose not to shoot a bear on a hunting trip, asking to put down the already injured bear humanely instead. Newspapers made cartoons of the event and Morris Michtom, a candy shop owner, asked Roosevelt’s permission to sell stuffed bears in his shop and call them “Teddy Bears.” Once William H. Taft became president, toy makers worried that the bears wouldn’t be as popular. They came up with an alternative toy to name after Taft—”Billy Possums.” In 1909, the president ate possum in Georgia, inspiring this rival toy that never came close to the popularity of the Teddy Bear.
Ronald Regan consulted with an astrologist while in the White House
Joan Quigley was Ronald and Nancy Regan’s astrologist while in the White House. Quigley only met the president once, but she did communicate regularly with the first lady. Quigley was reportedly responsible for timing conferences, speeches, and take off and landings, as well as the State of the Union address. The president kept a color-coded calendar based on good and bad days according to astrological rules and circumstances based on information from Quigley. In her book, Quigley even claims she could have predicted the assassination attempt on his life—but at the time she hadn’t drawn up his charts. Here are dramatic before-and-after photos of how presidents have aged in office.
George H.W. Bush inspired a Japanese slang word
In 1992, George H.W. Bush vomited on the prime minister of Japan at a state dinner in Tokyo while in Asia for a 12-day trip. After the incident, the term Bushu-suru—”do a bush”—became a popular Japanese slang word for vomiting.
John Quincy Adams kept a detailed, 51-volume diary
Adams began keeping his 14,000-page journal in 1779 at the age of 12. He continued until shortly before his death in 1848. People can read the whopping 51 volumes online. For more impressive facts, read up on these 22 surprising presidential firsts you never knew about.