Wednesday, December 30, 2015

TR and the Myth of the Piranha

A few days ago we went to the Shedd Aquarium with my dad and step-mom as an after-Christmas treat. That would have been fun in itself, but everything's better when unexpected presidential trivia works its way in.

As we were admiring---if that's the word one would use---the piranha tank, a helpful Aquarium worker explained how piranhas aren't nearly as dangerous as we think, and how that erroneous perception is due largely to Teddy Roosevelt.

It all began during TR's trip to the Amazon. (Speaking of Amazon, make sure to shop there through my affiliate link! This post brought to you by shameless plugging!) Anyway, the locals wanted to make a big impression on the former president, so they dammed off a portion of the river and caught a bunch of piranhas to throw in. Then they starved the fish for several days.

Not eating for several days could make anyone cranky, and the piranhas were no exception. When Roosevelt got there, the locals pushed a live cow into the river, and rest is history...just like the cow was once the piranhas sunk their teeth into it.

The Aquarium person said that piranhas are omnivores, and as long as they're fed, they're pretty docile. My dad asked her what would happen if he jumped into the tank and she said they'd probably ignore him. We didn't test the theory.

So piranhas might not be as vicious as we've been taught, but it's more fun to think that they are, so I'm going to keep on believing that. Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 11

Ho ho ho! Welcome to this special Christmas edition of Separated at Birth!

A long time ago I wrote a post about Benjamin Harrison and how I have to struggle to remember he exists. My aunt commented that this surprises her because she "always think[s] of him as the most grandfatherly president." She pictures him "surrounded by little kids listening to him tell stories." Then she said he reminds her of Edmund Gwenn, the guy from Miracle on 34th Street.

The thing that surprised me the most about her comment is that she has actually given thought to Benjamin Harrison. I didn't know that was something anyone had ever done. Ever.

I already had a "Separated at Birth" planned for Benjamin Harrison, but on my aunt's suggestion, I did another.

First, B. Harrison and Edmund Gwenn (I guess...I admit I've never seen the entire movie. I know, I know!)

Second, B. Harrison and Andrew Carnegie, who generally isn't as beloved as Santa Claus, but who did give a lot of money to charity and built libraries and stuff.

Merry Christmas from Presidentress, and Benjamin Harrison!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Presidential Christmas Carol 2015

Last year I started the grand tradition of rewriting a popular Christmas song to give it a presidential theme. The other day I posted last year's masterpiece, Cleveland the Creepy POTUS, and now it's time to reveal this year's offering, about Warren G. Harding.

So curl up next to the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and this photo of Harding. Gaze into his eyes and sing this song about him, set to the tune of Frosty the Snowman.

Warren G. Harding 
Was a suave, determined guy. 
He carried on with a bunch of broads,
One who was a German spy.

Warren G. Harding
Was a ladies' man they say.
Forget Teapot Dome, he liked to roam
And bed all kinds of dames. 

There was a girl from his hometown
Whom he was keen to hit on. 
And that is how he got involved
With a mistress named Nan Britton. 

Oh Warren G. Harding
Should have been a bit more cautious
But his whole plan was to get with Nan
All around his senate office. 

Humpity hump hump
Humpity hump hump
Look at Warren go. 
Humpity hump hump
Humpity hump hump
Was she looking for some dough?

Warren G. Harding
Learned Nan was in a family way.
But he said, "That's great, don't bloviate.
I'll help you with our babe."

Down by the seashore
Nan gave birth to Harding's daughter. 
She accepted things like coats and rings
And the cash that he'd allot her. 

He was elected president
But kept their secret life. 
Nan looked forward to the moment when
She'd hear him call her "wife."

Oh, Warren G. Harding
Had to take a trip out west. 
He went and died; people'd say Nan lied
And the truth would be suppressed. 

Scribble and scrawl all,
Nan wrote a tell-all
To make a formal plea. 
She said it was unfair,
She put it all out there.
What return to normalcy?

First, that ornament(s) up there? That's the 2014 White House Christmas ornament featuring a train that Harding took (and got to drive for a few minutes!) when he took his fateful trip out west. The train later carried his body back after he died in San Francisco. Good times!

I actually got the idea to write this song shortly after finishing last year's song about Grover Cleveland. The names "Warren G. Harding" and "Frosty the Snowman" go so well together. At the time, I had planned on the song being more about Harding's affair with Carrie Phillips, the potential German spy, but that plan changed a few months ago when DNA testing showed that Harding really had fathered a child with Nan Britton.

In case you've forgotten from your high school history class, Teapot Dome is the name of a major scandal that took place during Harding's Administration. (It involved oil fields, not teapots or domes.) He probably didn't know about it, but since it happened on his watch, he gets the blame.

I wanted to work in the word "bloviate," one of Harding's favorites, and also the term "Return to Normalcy," Harding's campaign promise to help America get back to normal after World War I. (Dave Barry, in Dave Barry Slept Here, questions whether "normalcy" is even a real word. It is, but it sounds fake, doesn't it?)

Anyway, have fun singing this song while wrapping presents or baking cookies. If you go caroling this year, make sure you add it to your repertoire and see how people react!

As my New Year's Resolution, I promise to try to stop writing so much about Harding, because I know other people don't find him as fascinating as I do. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Presidentress Gift Guide 2015

Happy Holidays, everyone! If you're looking for the perfect gift for the strange presidential pseudo-historian in your life, you've come to the right place! Below is a list of things that I love, meaning they would make great gifts for the special historical nerd in your life.

Note that some of the links (namely, the Amazon ones) are affiliate links. Buying stuff through those links helps support this blog at no extra cost to you. All the other links are non-affiliate links that do absolutely nothing for me, but that shouldn't stop you from buying stuff.

First up, any book by Sarah Vowell. I've written before about how she's one of my very favorite authors, and she should be one of yours, too. Her writing is funny and intelligent, the best combination in my opinion.

Some artwork from Veeptopus. Nothing says "holiday spirit" like a Vice President with an octopus on his head. I have a few pieces of Veeptopus artwork, and I won't rest until every home in America does.

Presidential building blocks. I don't actually own these, but only because I can't justify the cost. But maybe someone in your life is worth $88 to you.

Another one of my favorite things is J.D. and Kate Industries, the people behind Hottest Heads of State and the amazing online novel Senator Dracula (still in progress). Now you can show your support for Senator Dracula with a fantastic bumper sticker!

Presidential Pez Dispensers. Prez Dispensers? The Kennedy one only goes back, not back and to the left. (Too soon?)

Feeling like being charitable or supporting a non-profit? Presidentress has gift ideas for that, too.

The annual Christmas ornament from the White House Historical Association, this year honoring Calvin Coolidge, would look amazing on anyone's tree. The ornament looks like a little Christmas tree and includes tiny ornaments representing details about the Coolidges. For example, there's a raccoon in honor of Grace Coolidge's pet raccoon, Rebecca. (I'm not making that up.)

If an ornament representing Rebecca the Raccoon isn't enough for you, the Association also sells plush Rebeccas. (Still not making this up.)

And if you still can't get enough of presidential animals, you can help Mount Vernon "Buy a Mule for George." They're raising money to, well, buy some mules. You can donate in any amount, but a $50 donation will get you a stuffed mule.

Go out and stimulate the economy! (Or just follow these links and stay home while you stimulate the economy, because that's easier and more comfortable.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cleveland the Creepy POTUS

Last year I gave my Facebook friends a very special gift: A Christmas carol about Grover Cleveland. Now, as the holiday season approaches once more, I share it with the rest of the world as well.

Stay tuned for another presidential Christmas song later in the month, too! (Presidentress: The gift that keeps on giving.)

With no further ado, here is Cleveland the Creepy POTUS, set to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

You know Taylor and Tyler and Arthur and Clinton
Wilson and Hoover and Truman and Nixon
But do you recall the most lowlife leader of all?

Cleveland the creepy POTUS
Had two very separate terms
And if you really knew him
It would likely make you squirm.

He date-raped a widowed woman 
Then she went and had his son.
He had her declared nutso
And locked away from everyone.

His best friend had had a kid. 
He watched her grow up. 
After the friend met his fate,
He wanted her to be his mate.

People thought he'd marry her mom
But he married her instead. 
Cleveland, the creepy POTUS
Your story cannot be unread. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thanksgiving with a Twist

Every once in a while, I encounter a story so amazing that I can't wait to tell everyone I know, to stop strangers on the street just to spew amazing facts at them. In a way, I guess that's kind of what blogging is---spewing stories to friends and strangers---and I'm going to take advantage of that now.

A few weeks back, I found one of those amazing stories. While I was on a plane on my way to a conference, I read an article in Mental Floss magazine about how Thanksgiving used to be more like Halloween, with kids dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door asking for food and treats.

At first I didn't believe it. I consider Mental Floss a credible source, but I had never heard of this practice and I suspected maybe they were planting the seeds of an urban legend. (People have been known to do that before. I'm still not entirely convinced the Billy Possum story isn't an elaborate hoax.) But when I got home I googled it and found several other sources, including the New York Public Library, confirming such a thing, and libraries don't lie.

So that's this all about?

Well, back in the 19th century, destitute people would go door-to-door asking for help for Thanksgiving. Some kids, being enterprising twerps, I guess, started dressing as beggars and doing the same thing. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, cities began hosting masquerade balls. Then in New York City, people just went crazy with the idea and held parades for Thanksgiving/Evacuation Day (commemorating the day British forces left Revolutionary New York), complete with costumes and drunken revelry.

Although adults would eventually stop participating with costumes, the tradition for kids was firmly in place. The "Ragamuffins" would dress up and walk around their neighborhood demanding food or money. In New York, at least, Thanksgiving was sometimes known as "Ragamuffin Day," and although the practice seems to have been concentrated there, kids in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities apparently participated in this tradition, too.

At first people thought this dressing up and begging was cute, but eventually it got to be a hassle in New York, with aggressive kids harassing people on the street. People would heat up pennies until they were red-hot, then throw them into the street to watch kids scramble to pick them up and then howl in pain. Ah, the goodwill of the holidays!

Eventually educational and civic organizations started sponsoring parties and parades so kids could still dress up but without the annoying harassment (and probably to protect them from molten pennies).

Then the Depression came, no one had spare food or change anymore, and the tradition started to die out. According to the Mental Floss article, the tradition basically ended there, but according to the New York Public Library account, the tradition stuck around a bit longer in certain boroughs of New York. Commenters on that article state that kids continued the practice in some areas into the 1950s and '60s. There are a lot of people saying they thought they were crazy because they'd tell stories about dressing up and going door-to-door on Thanksgiving, and people would tell them surely they meant Halloween. Another person tells of a friend who moved from New York to a wealthy Houston suburb in the 1960s. Because the family moved just prior to Halloween they didn't have a chance to go trick-or-treating in October, so the mom sent them out "as usual" dressed as beggars on Thanksgiving, causing their new neighbors a lot of confusion (and causing embarrassment for the family).

This is an amazing story that I'd share on this blog anyway, but I might have found a way to make it extra-presidential, too. Although kids initially dressed as beggars in tattered clothes, eventually the costumes expanded to include homemade or store-bought masks and costumes. These included patriotic masks like Uncle Sam, and things like police officers, clowns, and whatnot.

I found an old Martha Washington mask for cheap on ebay, so I bought it for my "random presidential crap" collection. Could this be a Ragamuffin Day mask? I have no idea, but I'd like to think so.

Now, when you gather around the table this Thanksgiving, you can regale everyone with the tale of Ragamuffin Day. If you really want to bring back an old tradition, throw on a costume, knock on your neighbor's door, and demand food.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cooking with the Presidents: JQA Pumpkin Bread

If you haven't noticed, fall is upon us. Like any good American, I've been craving pumpkin stuff, including pumpkin bread. Unfortunately, all the recipes I've tried lately have...been lacking in one way or another.

When I stumbled upon a recipe for John Quincy Adams' pumpkin bread, though, I felt like it was divine intervention, or at least worth a try.

Confession time: I've never used fresh-roasted pumpkin to make pumpkin everything. I've always used cans (of pumpkin puree---not pumpkin pie filling; I have some standards). I've been wanting to roast my own pumpkins, though, and I figured a John Quincy Adams recipe gave me the perfect excuse.

I guessed that one small sugar pumpkin wouldn't give me the two cups of mashed pumpkin I needed for the recipe, so I bought two. But then before I got around to making this, one of them went all gross and squishy on me, so I was down to one. In a way that was a good thing, because dealing with the slimy innards was a lot more time-consuming and disgusting than opening a can.

I wound up with about 1 1/4 cups of pumpkin, so I basically halved-plus-somed the recipe, meaning I halved everything then added a bit more. It was very scientific. I did stray a bit when it came to the ginger and sugar. I added the full amount of ginger, and didn't add any extra to the halved amount of sugar. That wasn't done for health reasons or anything. It just seems that recipes call for way more sugar than they needs. I felt bad second-guessing John, but whatever. I also didn't add more than the halved-amount of eggs because that would have been impractical.

Anyway, to make the recipe as I did, you'd need:

1 3/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 TBSP cinnamon
1/2 TBSP nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ginger
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
A little less than 1/2 c. water
1 c. pureed pumpkin (cooked or canned)

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Add the other ingredients and mix until incorporated.

Pour batter into one or two loaf pans, depending on how big you want your loaves.

Bake about an hour (probably longer for one large loaf), cool, and enjoy!

In the end, I had wound up with enough for two decent-sized loaves. I had planned on sharing one with relatives who live down the street, but...that didn't happen. (Sorry, guys.)

The end result? Really, really good. The bread was moist and flavorful yet mild. This is the pumpkin bread I've been looking for. Thank you, John Quincy Adams!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hamilton: The Musical

Several months ago, a friend told me about Hamilton, a largely hip-hop musical about, obviously, the life of Alexander Hamilton. The show debuted Off-Broadway in February and then on Broadway in August. I thought the idea sounded awesome, of course, but until I heard the soundtrack last week I didn't realize just how awesome it is.

I've listened to the soundtrack five or six times in the past week, and I keep finding various songs from it stuck in my head. The good news is that you can also get these songs stuck in your head---for free! They're all available on YouTube, or you can stream the soundtrack for free if you have Amazon Prime. Or buy it. But listen to it somehow, because the lyrics are intelligent, the music is fantastic, and the songs tell a thorough story on their own, without your needing to see the performance (which I'd love to do sometime, but that involves going to New York).

If you don't have time to listen to all 46 tracks right now, here are some of my favorites.

This is one of the first numbers, taking place on the eve of the Revolution. It's kind of long but it's catchy and sets up a recurring theme. Alexander Hamilton says, "I'm not throwing away my shot," in this case referring to his chance to take part in the uprising. But the idea of not throwing away one's shot recurs through the musical, sometimes figuratively and sometimes more literally, referring to the act of someone shooting his gun far off-target in a duel. (No spoilers!)

My favorite numbers might be the ones performed by King George III, who comes off as a jilted ex-boyfriend. This one, in a more pop-music style than the other songs, is a hilarious love letter to the colonies, claiming that they'll soon realize their mistake and return to him:

Finally (for this post, not for the musical), I like how this number does such a good job expressing the animosity between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Plus it actually makes interesting the debate about whether or not the federal government should assume the states' debt:

Seriously, if more of American history were presented as a rap battle, people wouldn't find it so boring.

Now go listen to the rest.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Honest Babe

A couple months ago I posted about how I wanted to dress as Sexy Abraham Lincoln for Halloween. It's obviously presidential, it's funny, and (although my mother doesn't believe me) it's a feminist statement on the "sexy everything" trend in women's costumes.

Well, the day has finally arrived!

The costume was really easy to put together. I found the lingerie for about $12 on some Chinese website that turned out to be legit. The stockings, beard, and top hat fascinator came from a costume shop (as did some black bike shorts because let me tell you, that tutu covers nothing). The shoes are unsexy, but they're the only black ones I have, so whatever.

These photos were taken a couple days ago in the relative privacy of my back yard. (And oh my gosh, my poor 4-year-old. He saw me from behind and thought I was wearing some kind of black fairy costume. Then I turned around and he saw the beard, and that might be the most terrified he gets this Halloween...or ever.)

As I write this, I haven't actually ventured out in public, and to be honest (Honest Babe) there's a good chance I won't. I'm not going to a Halloween party, just taking my kids trick-or-treating, and I do sort of care what my neighbors think of me. We'll see.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Stuff I Love: Sarah Vowell

In this installment of "Stuff I Love," I'd like to discuss one of my favorite writers, Sarah Vowell. She writes books about American history, and if you haven't read her work, you should. These aren't your typical history books. They include information, of course---lots of it---but with a healthy dose of humor and personal narrative as well. I've laughed out loud at her work many times.

I was also fortunate to hear her speak in person last night at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she discussed her new book about the Marquis de Lafayette. I'd seen her on various TV shows before, but she was even funnier in person.

There was a book signing afterwards and I'd hoped to get a picture with her, but alas, no photography was allowed. I did give her one of my Presidentress business cards, though. I handed it to her and said, "I have a presidential blog--" at which point she burst out laughing and put her head down on the table. I'm not sure if she was laughing with me or at me, but I don't really care because the bottom line is I made Sarah Vowell laugh!

If I may go slightly fangirl for a moment, I suspect that she and I were separated at birth. I know that sounds a little stalkerish, so for the record I should state that my love of Sarah Vowell is less Leon Czolgosz-loves-Emma Goldman than it is Roosevelt-loves-Taft-before-they-became-enemies. There have been so many times I've read her work and practically yelled out, "Me, too!"

For example, in her book Assassination Vacation, one of her friends comments that she's like the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" of presidential assassinations. She says that she has to constantly remind herself not to bring up McKinley at dinner parties. I can relate. One of the reasons I started this blog was to relieve some of the pressure that builds up trying to hold in anecdotes about Woodrow Wilson. In fact last week some colleagues and I were in Las Vegas on the High Roller, the world's tallest Ferris wheel, when someone spotted a sign down below for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Of course I had to blurt out, "The beer is called that because it won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World's Fair, the same fair where the Ferris wheel debuted!" My friends acted like I was interesting but I know they didn't mean it.

Another similarity? We both feel inadequate compared to Teddy Roosevelt, though to be fair, who doesn't? In an essay in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Vowell writes about TR: "My whole life, no matter how happy I am I've always had this nagging feeling that Teddy Roosevelt is looking over my shoulder whispering, 'Is that all you are?'" I know I've mentioned in the past that I want to make a bracelet with the letters "WWTRD?" woven into it. What Would Teddy Roosevelt Do? (Answer: probably kill a rhino.)

At the talk last night, a woman tried convincing Vowell to write a book about the Articles of Confederation. She declined, but she did say she understands what it's like to be interested in things no one else is interested in. Meanwhile I have more posts about Warren G. Harding than any other president. I get it, too!

Another example? Many years ago I found myself a little too upset about a real estate agent putting American flags in all the yards in my neighborhood for the Fourth of July. (My friend Brian can vouch for this. I complained to him about it because he seemed like the kind of person who would understand.) Later I read another of Vowell's essays, in which she is frustrated for the exact same reason, only instead of complaining to a friend she calls up the organization that sponsored yard-flags. "The whole point of that goddamn flag is that people don't stick flags in my yard without asking me!" she said. Exactly that! Don't tread on my lawn.

Lest anyone think that Sarah Vowell and I hate America just because we hate people forcing flags on us, nothing could be farther from the truth. I think we both believe strongly in the founding principles of the nation, and we are both oddly reverent about much of our history, historical figures, and institutions. (Otherwise why would she write a book about Puritans, and why would I spend hours creating a Chester Arthur coloring page? It's because we care so much.) But seriously, being patriotic doesn't mean waving flags around and chanting "USA! USA!" In fact, at last night's talk Vowell asserted that it's a privilege of independence that Americans are able to yell at each other. The constant bickering is kind of what makes the country great.

She also dismissed the common rhetoric that the country has never been more divided than it is now. ("Uh, Civil War?") She said, "That's why it's good to know about history. It makes you feel better about yourself." I love that. We have indeed come a long way from, say, the Sumner-Brooks affair, although it would be kind of awesome if modern-day Congresspeople started whacking each other with canes.

I'm not like Sarah Vowell in every way. She knows a lot about music and movies, and I don't. I've never even seen her favorite movie, The Godfather. (I know! Sorry.) But despite that, I'm sure that in real life we could be BFF's. (Again, Roosevelt-Taft, not Czolgosz-Goldman. I swear I'm not clinically insane, although the Arthur coloring page might be evidence to the contrary.) So, Sarah, if you're reading this: Hi! Drop me a line and let's have tea next time you're in Chicago.

The rest of you need to go read some of her books. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Presidential Travels

I haven't gone anywhere presidential for a few months, but my aunt and my dad each visited a presidential library recently. They also were kind enough to get me fun postcards from their travels.

My aunt visited the Kennedy Library and found these great cards of JFK with things in his mouth:

Then my dad went to the LBJ Library and got me Johnson on a horse:

They know me so well.

And although I didn't go to a presidential site per se, I was in Las Vegas last week and found myself at the pawn shop from Pawn Stars. It was kind of a letdown: mostly jewelry and coins. But they did have a presidential autograph. Taft!

Sadly I didn't have an extra $3,000 on me, so I didn't buy it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 10

It's former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and actor Jeff Daniels.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Chester Arthur Coloring Page!

Grown-up coloring books are all the rage these days (although I want to go on record as saying that my friend Kirstin and I were coloring together long before it was cool). But you can color only so many mandalas and paisleys before you start thinking to yourself, "I wish I had something more presidential to color." Or at least I do.

So, my friends, I have created a free coloring page to satisfy your needs. It also serves as a way of honoring Chester A. Arthur, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Chet!

I tried finding some fun facts about Arthur, but he doesn't seem to have been the most interesting guy. I did find several references to the fact that he really liked pants. The statistic I kept seeing was that he owned 80 pairs! I'm going to assume that was 80 pairs at once, because 80 pairs over the course of a lifetime doesn't sound quite as impressive, even back then.

Anyway, I present to you my artistic rendition of Chester Arthur and his many pants. Keep in mind I'm not an artist, so...sorry. I did try to incorporate some swirls and lines and stuff to make it more like those fancy coloring books you can order off Amazon. (Go ahead. Order some.)

Click here for a PDF of the lovely FREE coloring page of Chester A. Arthur and his pants. The PDF should print out close to 8.5 x 11.

If you have ideas for other presidential coloring pages I can make in the future, let me know. Keep in mind the level of talent you're dealing with though. Also, if you or your kids color Chet, post a photo to the Presidentress Facebook page!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 9

This one is only slightly presidential, but it's extremely current.

Pope Francis, who is currently in the U.S. meeting with President Obama, and Yogi Berra, who died today. It's like deja vu all over again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Follow Presidentress on Twitter @MsPresidentress

I made a Twitter account for Presidentress a few weeks ago when I learned there's a guy who tweets as Richard Nixon, just like Nixon would if he were alive and tweeting, though probably with fewer expletives.

I didn't do much with the account until a few nights ago when I time-delay-tweeted about the most recent Republican debate. But being a relative Twitter neophyte, I forgot to hashtag. Oh well.

I did get a couple retweets anyway, like about my observation: Marco Rubio is like the guy who looks like he'd be the life of the party, then turns out to be a major buzzkill.

Anyway, if you don't want to miss out on gems like that for future debates, follow Presidentress @MsPresidentress. (Someone had already taken @Presidentress and numerous variations thereof.)

And if you're on Facebook, make sure to follow there as well. I post lots of fun Facebook-exclusive content, like Abraham Lincoln sitting on a Coke bottle. Good times.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Sometimes I feel like I should rename this "The Taft and Harding Blog." Sorry (not sorry).

Anyway, today we celebrate the birth of one of my favorite presidents: William Howard Taft. I've written about him a few times before (and will again---wait until Thanksgiving!), but on this special day, I'd like to share with you what I guarantee is the catchiest song you'll ever hear about Taft. In fact, I'll guarantee it's one of the catchiest song you'll hear all year.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Harding's Mistress was Ahead of Her Time

It has been a few weeks since we learned that Warren G. Harding really did father a child with his alleged-and-now-confirmed mistress, Nan Britton.

Some people think I exaggerated my excitement over that news, but seriously, for days I felt like I was floating on rainbows with little cartoon bluebirds chirping merrily around my head. I imagined that must be how people felt when we walked on the moon. I was actually a bit worried about myself.

I also took advantage of some easy jokes, making and posting these pictures to the Presidentress Facebook page:

I mean, it's easy to joke, right? At the same time, there's a lot about this situation that's very un-funny, and if you'll excuse my posting of those two photos above, I'd like to get serious for a moment.

I've been thinking a lot about Nan Britton and what she must have gone through. So many people didn't believe her, and those who did thought poorly of her. She was a liar at best and a trollop at worst (or is that reversed?). Until the day she died, she knew that people---especially the people who mattered most (i.e., Harding's family, and possibly her own daughter)---thought she had fabricated the whole thing.

Not only that, she had to go through hell just to have and raise her child. Britton dedicated her book to single mothers and their children, and said that she hoped her story would bring them justice. Back in 1919, unwed mothers were not supposed to keep their children, nor was it even possible in most cases.

Nan Britton didn't have the support of society or the government; she just had the stigma, which she tried to avoid by pretending to be married, or by pretending the child was someone else's, or by marrying someone out of desperation to reclaim the child she was forced to give to her sister to raise. Most other women in similar situations were forced to walk away from their children permanently. Britton refused to do that.

As was so often the case then (and to a large degree still is now), Britton took all the burden while the father (in this case Warren G. Harding) got off scot-free. Yeah, his reputation might have suffered a bit, but only after he was dead. Britton had to deal with it for her whole life.

It's easy to paint Nan Britton as...well...easy. But she was more than that. She was a "New Woman," part of the wave of feminism that began in the late 1800s and continued into the 1920s. She was an independent woman during a time when it was only just becoming acceptable for women to be independent. She set off on her own several times, going to new cities, finding work, securing housing, supporting herself, and even embracing her own sexuality (gasp!). I'm not sure if Britton considered herself a feminist or was fully aware of the ground she was helping to break, but she certainly flouted social norms, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

I'll admit I initially felt disdain for Britton, back when I thought she had made up the story for fame or fortune. Yet how often is that still the general reaction when a woman steps forward with claims of sexual contact with a famous, powerful man? How quick are we to dismiss accusations of a beloved comedian or skilled quarterback raping someone? (To be clear, Britton didn't accuse Harding of any wrongdoing, but there are certainly similarities between the way she was treated and the way victims are today.) Yes, there will always be people who make up false accusations, but not nearly as many as the women who are afraid to come forward for fear of being ridiculed, scrutinized, and dismissed, as Britton was.

My opinion as an outsider, especially one nearly 100 years removed from the situation, doesn't matter much, but I do feel bad that I dismissed Britton's claims...though I also admit I held out a strange hope. For some reason I wanted the story to be true, which I suppose explains my excitement over the news that it was.

And of course, we can't forget about Elizabeth Ann, Britton and Harding's daughter. According to some accounts I've read, Britton's descendants always believed the Britton's claims. According to other accounts, they doubted it. My guide at the Harding Presidential Site said that Elizabeth Ann thought her mother fabricated the story, which led to an estrangement between them. Poor Nan had a daughter who thought she was a liar; poor Elizabeth Ann lived her life never knowing with certainty who her own father was. Far from claiming her rightful place as the child of a president, she and her mother were reduced to being viewed as oddities, punchlines, or cautionary tales.

I'm glad the truth is finally out; I just wish for Nan and Elizabeth Ann's sake it could have come a decade or two earlier.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

McKinley Still has a Mountain

Eight people sent me links about the Alaskan mountain's name change from Mount McKinley to Denali. I considered writing about it but try as I might, I just couldn't get interested in it. Sorry.

When I explained this to my friend Anne, she suggested I write about William McKinley's favorite pie or something, just to distract people. I don't know his favorite pie (note to self: find out) but I did recently take a trip to visit his tomb, and I've been meaning to write about that. What better time than now?

I visited McKinley's monument when I was in Ohio a few weeks ago. It was actually the second time I'd been, the first being last year when I was there with my husband and kids. My children, probably tired from traveling and climbing the 12,000 (or 108, but who's counting?) steps to the top, fought and yelled at each other when we got to the mausoleum part. I wanted to avoid being disrespectful to the dead, so I hurried them out and didn't have a chance to really absorb any of it. This time, though, I was alone and could take as much time as I wanted.

The McKinley Monument is located in a park in Canton, Ohio, just a few steps from a science/history museum with a room dedicated to McKinley. Even though I had gone to the museum with my kids the year before, I decided to go again for two reasons: 1) My Museum of Science and Industry membership got me in for free, and 2) I needed to take pictures of Ida McKinley's slippers. (That's another post for another day.)

I had planned on visiting the museum first, but since I arrived before it opened, and since the nearest Starbucks was 14 minutes away and required that I get back on the interstate, I decided to take advantage of my free time by taking in McKinley's tomb/monument/memorial.

If you've never been there, you need to understand that this thing is huge. The tons of stairs make it a popular spot among fitness buffs who run up and down for their exercise. Being less of a fitness freak, I panted my way up and stopped a couple times to take photos. When I got to the top I tried to block out the guy doing tai chi so I could read some of the information posted about McKinley and the monument.

One of the signs made me snort and inspired me to send this text to my friend Kirstin:
You know, the info at this memorial says that it's dedicated to a man "of simple and dignified life" and that the "funds were not to warrant a lavish display, even if that had been appropriate, which it was not." And yet this is the most effing elaborate presidential monument I've seen. 
Seriously, I get that this was built toward the end of the gilded age, when opulence was a given. I get that he was a president, and an assassinated one, no less. He became a martyr, and maybe people felt a need to honor him in a material way. But if this isn't a "lavish display," I don't know what is. And the current landscape isn't even as elaborate as the original: There used to be a waterfall and small river in the shape of a sword leading outward into the park from the base of the monument. Now it's just grass.

Given McKinley's legacy of the Spanish-American War---a war whose main goals were to obtain land and establish American superiority---I can't help but think of this building as not only as a monument to McKinley, but to American imperialism in general. It's big. It's foreboding. It's white. It's...apt. I meant for this to be a lighthearted distraction from the McKinley/Denali debate, but I guess it didn't quite end up that way.

Will my selfie with an animatronic President McKinley and First Lady lighten the mood?

And here, I just found this on the Mrs. Field's blog: "William McKinley was a very simple eater. No favorite desserts seem to be found." Bummer. 

Stuff I Love: Veeptopus

In my first installment of "Stuff I Love," I introduced you to Hottest Heads of State and Senator Dracula. That probably led you to wonder, "Jennie, what other intelligent yet humorous things do you love?"

I'm so glad you asked, because I tell people about this next one every chance I get (which admittedly isn't often).

I stumbled upon the Veeptopus store on Etsy one day, and until then I hadn't realized how badly I needed this artwork in my life: portraits of every vice president...with an octopus on (or in) his head. Let me repeat that: Every vice president with an octopus on his head.

The hardest part is deciding which one to get.

I wanted them all but instead of making a hasty decision, I sat on it for a few days. Then I wondered if I could commission Jonathan Crow, the artist behind Veeptopus, to make me some president/strange animal mash-up. He said he would, so I asked my kids for suggestions. I thought William Howard Taft riding an anteater would be fun. My oldest son wanted something about Teddy Roosevelt and a seahorse. My daughter suggested Abraham Lincoln with a flamingo's head poking out of his stovepipe hat.

I submitted all three ideas to Crow, and he said the Taft/anteater combo sounded the most appealing, so I told him to go for it.

A day or two later, he emailed me a draft of Taft on a badger and asked if that was okay. I had my heart set on an anteater, though, so I asked him to redo it. (Turns out we were both wrong and it should have been an opossum.) So he created a painting of Taft riding an anteater, and it now hangs proudly on the wall in our sitting room. ("Sitting room" sounds nicer and more historic than "this extra room without a clear purpose that came with the house")

I guess Crow liked Taft, because he went on to create a whole series of Taft/badger scenarios.

He also painted this picture of Taft and anteaters flipping someone off, and I can't help but wonder if he painted that after I told him to change the badger to an anteater. I'm gonna go ahead and take credit for this one.

Crow has also expanded his repertoire to include cyborg Supreme Court justices...

...and presidential candidates.

If you're looking for a unique gift for the marine biologist in your life or your favorite presidential blogger, a Veeptopus print would be perfect. Veeptopus also sells note cards, which would be great for impressing or terrifying your child's teacher.

I should state that these opinions are mine and I was not in any way compensated for this post. I send Veeptopus money, not the other way around. (Although if he ever pursues the Lincoln/flamingo thing, I'm demanding a copy for generating the idea.) I just wanted everyone to know the glory of cephalopods perched upon famous politicians. You're welcome.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Shaker Apple Pie

All right, so this isn't a presidential recipe per se, but a while back I posted a recipe for a Dolley Madison cake that called for rosewater as an ingredient. Intrigued by the idea of rosewater usage back in the day, I did some research and found that it was a common flavoring in sweets back then as vanilla wasn't yet a thing.

I also learned that the Shakers, a religious utopian community best known for their furniture, were also known for making high-quality rosewater. This further intrigued me because I'm from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a city named for a Shaker community that used to reside there (but was long gone by the time the modern-day city was incorporated). I also learned that the Shakers made an apple pie with rosewater, and I love pie. I mean seriously, I love pie.

It was only a matter of time, then, before I made a rosewater-apple pie of my own.

In true Shaker fashion, the recipe is very simple. Google Shaker rosewater apple pie and you'll find
tons of recipes, but most of them are exactly the same. You'll need:

Tart apples (I used 6 Granny Smiths)

2/3 c. sugar (I used a bit less because I like keeping it tart)

1 tbsp heavy cream (I used half-and-half because I didn't have any cream, and neither did my corner drugstore)

1 tbsp rosewater

You'll also need two pie crusts, of course. I cheated and used Pillsbury because, as much as I love to bake and as much as I love pie, I hate rolling things out.

Preheat oven to 350.

Core, peel, and slice the apples and dump into a large bowl.

Add the sugar, cream, and rosewater, and mix together.

Pour the mixture into the bottom crust, top with the top crust, and seal and crimp the edges. Slice a few vents into the top. I brushed a bit of cream (okay, half-and-half) on the top crust before venting.

Bake about 50 minutes. (You might want to set the pie on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any spills.) Cool, slice, and enjoy.

What does this pie taste like? It tastes like a garden. Like a lovely English garden or something.

If you have a hankering for a traditional, cinnamon-laden, thick and hearty apple pie, you might be disappointed. Instead, this pie is light and delicate. The word that kept running through my head as I ate it was, "Delightful. Delightful. Delightful." This isn't a pie you'd serve at Thanksgiving (I mean, you can. I don't want to stop anyone from eating pie at Thanksgiving--or ever), but if you're having an elegant outdoor tea party in June...oh my god, make this pie. Or anytime. Even at Thanksgiving. Like I said: eat pie.

I'm actually going to recommend against topping it with whipped cream like I did. My 6-year-old said the whipped cream made the rosewater flavor disappear, and I agree. The flavor is so delicate that the whipped cream sort of overwhelmed it. But the whipped cream would melt at the tea party anyway.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Presidentress' Night at the Museum

The Presidentress Family decided to end the summer with a bang, by visiting South Bend, Indiana.

South Bend had not been on my extensive and mostly unvisited list of destinations for this summer, but my dad (you'll remember him from the Barry Bostwick debacle) was there a couple weeks ago and raved about its Studebaker museum. He said that besides old cars, they had an exhibit about Lincoln's death, carriages that belonged to several presidents, plus an exhibit about the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League. It definitely sounded like something I needed to see, so I moved South Bend to the top of my list.

The visit was...interesting. (If you want to learn about presidential carriages, keep reading. If you want to get to the part where we wind up trapped in the museum, scroll down under the terrible photo of us "dressed" as female baseball players.)

First, I screwed up. We got off to a late start because we didn't even decide to go to South Bend until after our late breakfast. Even so, and even after stopping for lunch, I figured we'd make it by 2:30, giving us plenty of time to take in the museum before it closed at 5:00. Except I forgot that most of Indiana---including South Bend, apparently---is in the Eastern time zone, meaning we lost an hour on the way and didn't really arrive until 3:30.

I also didn't know that the museum was actually two museums in the same building. The cars and presidential carriages were in one museum; the baseball stuff was in the other. That meant I had to decide whether to just see one museum (and if so, which?), or pay extra for both. The guy at the admission desk said people usually need an hour and a half just for one museum, but we could get through each one in 45 minutes if we didn't stop to read everything. With three kids in tow, I figured we'd be lucky if we got to read anything, so we opted for both.

We motored (see what I did there?) over to the Studebaker side first. I'd like to tell you all about the history of the Studebaker company and all their many innovative vehicles, but since we were short on time and not allowed to read anything, I skimmed and skipped over most of the descriptions. There were some cool things, though. Trust me.

The exhibit on Lincoln's death mainly consisted of blown-up photographs and masks of his face (i.e., stuff I've seen before), but there were some less-common artifacts, like John Wilkes Booth's ticket stub to Ford's Theater.

The pièce de résistance, of course, was a carriage that Lincoln took to the theater that fateful night. The carriage was later painted over several times, but restoration work has brought back its original color and Lincoln's initials on the side.

Just a few steps away were three carriages belonging to other presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. As far as carriages go, they look like pretty much any other: black and...carriagey. McKinley's is distinctive not in style, but in the fact that he took it to the train station in Canton, Ohio, where he caught the train that took him to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where he met his doom. Yes, the Studebaker museum has two carriages that presidents rode to their deaths!

After looking at some cars, we scurried over to the history museum. We started with an exhibit about transportation on the first floor, then went down to the basement to see the more-local stuff and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League exhibit.

We took this awful photo (Mr. Presidentressor said that he looks like a corpse from one of those Victorian death photos where they prop up dead people and pose them in normal situations). Then we wandered through the rest of the exhibits.

At one point I looked at my phone and saw it was 4:40, meaning we had 20 minutes left. I was fairly sure we were toward the end, so I felt confident we would make it. Around that same time, my 6-year-old told me she couldn't wait to step through the "time portal." She was pointing at a tunnel-like entrance into the next room, and I decided she was my favorite child of the day.

Anyway, about five minutes later, just as Anna had finally stepped into the time portal, we were suddenly plunged into darkness. Anna freaked out, wondering if she really had gone into a portal. The 11-year-old, who doesn't handle change well, started freaking out, and the 3-year-old was MIA.

Mr. Presidentressor and I activated the flashlights on our phones and located all the kids. We also realized the museum was very quiet, indicating we were the only people in the basement. I checked my phone again, wondering if somehow it was already 5:00, but saw that it was only 4:46. We assumed there was a power outage.

I wasn't sure if it would be quicker to go back the way we had come or to continue the way we had been heading. Feeling adventurous, we plunged into the unknown, through the time portal. I'm not entirely sure what was in that next room since it was completely black, but my flashlight/phone did pass over a few old-fashioned baby carriages, which are some of the most horrifying things one can find in a strange, dark room.

The next couple rooms contained other items randomly illuminated by my phone, including a plow and an old-fashioned bathtub. I'm sure there were tons of other things, too, but we didn't get to enjoy them. Because we couldn't see.

We finally made it back to the baseball room. But, in true horror-movie fashion, there was no way out. Seriously, the stairs we had come down were gone. The only way out appeared to be an elevator but we didn't attempt to use it because, remember, we thought the museum had lost power. I looked around in confusion, then remembered that the first thing I had seen upon coming down the stairs was that cut-out-photo-thing. I looked opposite it and saw a set of solid double doors, closed tight. I gave one a push and luckily it opened.

When we got upstairs, Mr. Presidentressor asked if there had been a power outage. One of the employees nonchalantly said, "No, the lights are on a timer and sometimes they go off early."

We thought that was a pretty lame answer. I confirmed with him that the museum doesn't close until 5, and he said yes but kind of shrugged it off and said our tickets were good for the next day, too, if we wanted to come back. We told him we were only in town for the afternoon. He offered to have someone turn the lights back on, but by that point it was almost 5:00, plus we now had three terrified kids to deal with, so we decided to pass.

I'm not sure I buy his explanation about the timer. If that's really the case, they should probably set it for a time well after closing so they can, you know, make sure no one is trapped in the building. It's more likely someone was too lazy to check the basement before closing up. Or maybe we can blame it on the ghost of William McKinley.