The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

President Barack Obama turns 48 on Tuesday. While the First Family encourages you to send contributions to your favorite charity in lieu of the White House, if you insist on doing some last-minute birthday shopping for 44, you might consider a pair of jeans or a case of Bud Light. For some historical precedent, here's a look back at some of the more interesting presidential gifts.

1. George W. Bush: Raw Lamb

President Bush and his family received about 1,000 gifts per month during his two terms in office. Bush's haul included an iPod from U2 lead singer, Bono, a Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and vocabulary-building game from the Sultan of Brunei, and an electric harp with a speakerphone from Vietnam. The most unusual gift Bush received may have been the 300 pounds of raw lamb meat from the president of Argentina in 2003. The lamb, like all gifts from overseas, was accepted by the Office of the President on behalf of the nation, and passed along to the General Services Administration. Most non-perishable gifts of state end up in presidential libraries or the National Archives.

2. Bill Clinton: Portraits "“ On a Carpet

We'll say this for Heydar Aliyev's gift to President Clinton: it was unique. The president of Azerbaijan wanted his gift to be representative of Azerbaijani craftsmanship, so he called upon Kamil Aliyev, a renowned carpet portrait artist. Kamil Aliyev's design featured the First Couple inside a heart-shaped medallion, the first double portrait he ever attempted. "I wanted to convey their lives as one beating heart," he said. While Aliyev designed the carpet and dyed the yarn, 12 young women were employed to help complete the portrait in 10 weeks. Heydar Aliyev presented the carpet to the Clintons in August 1997.

3. George H.W. Bush: Komodo Dragon

 In 1990, the president of Indonesia presented a Komodo dragon to President Bush. Perhaps worried that the venomous, flesh-eating lizard wouldn't play nice with First Dog Millie, Bush donated the dragon, named Naga, to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Naga, who sired 32 offspring, died of an abdominal infection at the age of 24 in 2007. During his stay in Cincinnati, Naga was a star attraction, drawing about one million visits each year.

4. Ronald Reagan: Embroidered Saddle

President Reagan, who was gifted 372 belt buckles while in office, received enough tacking equipment during his time in Washington to outfit an entire stable. Of the several dozen saddles presented to Reagan, few were more ornately decorated than the one above, which was a gift of the president of Algeria in 1985.

5. Jimmy Carter: Metamorphic Portrait

Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo commissioned Octavio Ocampo to paint a portrait of President Carter in Ocampo's trademark metamorphic style, which juxtaposes various images within a larger image to create an optical illusion. While it's difficult to see here, Carter's image in the portrait is created out of national symbols, including buildings, flags, sailing ships, and truck convoys. Portillo presented the portrait to Carter in 1979.

6. Richard Nixon: Edible Portraits

A Pakistani man's gift to President Nixon required an unusual accessory to fully appreciate. S. Nabi Ahmed Rizvi provided a magnifying glass inside a plush blue velvet box, along with two snapshots of himself and two grains of rice. One grain of rice featured a portrait of Nixon as president; the other featured a portrait of a young Nixon in the Navy. The gift was displayed as part of the National Portrait Gallery's "To the President: Folk Portraits by the People" exhibit.

7. John F. Kennedy: Carved Peach Pit

What better way to show your president you admire him than by carving his likeness into a peach pit? R.J. McErlean's remarkable ode to JFK features a portrait of Kennedy and the inscription "President John F. Kennedy of the United States." An eagle on a shield is carved on the left side of the pit, above a depiction of St. Christopher.

8. Harry Truman: Bowling Alley

A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn't bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman's home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn't use the alley much himself "“ he was more of a poker player "“ but the addition was a big hit with Truman's staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Giant Cake

The birthday cake presented to FDR on the occasion of his 59th birthday was 5 feet high and weighed 300 pounds. The cake was a gift of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union of America. Along with the cake, the union donated $500 to FDR's "Fight Infantile-Paralysis" campaign.

10. Rutherford B. Hayes: Carved Lemon

When life gives you lemons, make pigs. A lemon carved to look like a pig was presented to President Hayes and later featured in an exhibit at the Herbert Hoover presidential library titled, "Weird and Wonderful: Gifts Fit For a President." Museum director Richard N. Smith said at the time, "It looks a little like you'd expect a 110-year-old lemon to look." While she may or may not have been the inspiration for the bizarre gift, Hayes' wife, Lucy, was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy" because she banned alcoholic beverages at state functions.

11. Abraham Lincoln: Clothes

While he donated most of the wine and liquor he received to military hospitals, President Lincoln made good use of many of the other gifts showered upon him throughout his presidency. He was inaugurated in a suit donated by Titsworth and Brothers of Chicago, and, according to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, is reported to have told his wife, "There is one thing to come out of this scrape anyhow. We are going to have some new clothes!"

12. Thomas Jefferson: Cheese

One of the earliest recorded gifts of state was the mammoth cheese presented to President Jefferson by the Republican Baptists in Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802. To celebrate Jefferson's election, town elder John Leland inspired his Baptist congregation to manufacture a 1,235-pound cheese to give to the president. When it was finished, the cheese was filled with milk from the town's cows, save for those owned by the hated Federalists. The cheese was inscribed with the phrase "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God" and presented to Jefferson after a month-long journey to Washington on New Year's Day 1802. Jefferson, who had a policy not to accept free gifts, insisted that he pay $200 for the cheese.

13. George Washington: A Federal Holiday

In 1880, Congress created "Washington's Birthday," the first federal holiday to honor an American-born citizen. The holiday was celebrated on February 22 until 1968, when Congress moved it from its fixed day to the third Monday in February as part of the Uniform Monday Holidays Act.

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

11 Absurdly Awesome Inventions

Google Patents/Erin McCarthy
Google Patents/Erin McCarthy

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but some of these are making us think twice.

1. “Animal-trap”

Don't mess with this mousetrap.Google Patents

Mousetraps can be so anticlimactic, but this one, patented in 1882, goes off with a bang. The frame is designed to hold your favorite peashooter. When a rodent steps onto the treadle, a spring yanks on the trigger and sets off the firearm. The inventor, James Williams, suggested it would make a good burglar alarm.

2. “Flatulence Deodorizer”

Confidently cut the cheese with this 2001 invention, which masks the smell of your personal potpourri. A simple charcoal pad clings to the back of your underpants, stopping the aroma before it reaches your boss’s nose. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.

3. “Apparatus for preventing collisions of railway trains”

This contraption was meant to scare cattle off of train tracks.Google Patents

It’s like a scarecrow—but for trains. Patented in 1888, J. W. James’s invention features an electric dummy riding in front of the train. The dummy is “made to throw up both hands at each revolution of the wheel and strike the gong with a hammer for the purpose of frightening cattle from the track and to announce the approach of the train,” James wrote.

4. “Fresh-air breathing device and method”

Take a deep breath.Google Patents

Smoke inhalation causes most fire-related deaths. Knowing that, William Holmes found out how to keep you conscious while you wait for rescue—as long as you can handle having toilet breath. In 1981, Holmes patented a snorkel-like device that supplies fresh air from your sewer. Just feed the tube past your throne’s water trap. Although you won’t die from a lungful of smoke, you might get woozy after huffing all that sewer gas.

5. “Wearable device for feeding and observing birds”

The ultimate accessory for bird watchers.Google Patents

As long as you’re okay with hanging a few birdfeeders from your dome, you can get a front row seat to all the action. David Leslie patented the contraption in 1999. Apparently, it’s also handy for butterfly hunting.

6. “Graffiti prevention apparatus”

Henry Hunt called graffiti “an assault on the visual pleasures of man.” So in 1997, he patented a system [PDF] that could kill the career of any wannabe Banksy. When a vandal approaches a potential canvas, a sensor embedded in the wall activates a magnetic field to repel the paint. There was one issue, though: Spray paint isn’t magnetic.

7. “Motorcycle Safety Apparel”

Dismayed by how dangerous motorcycle crashes can be, Dan Kincheloe patented an inflatable safety suit in 1987. Basically an airbag for your body, the suit has an “umbilical cord” that connects to a supply of compressed gas. When a biker flies off, a shorter pull cord snaps that rapidly inflates the suit. Pro? It could save your life. Con? You’ll look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

8. “Process for the utilization of ruminant animal methane emissions”

This contraption collects cow emissions.Google Patents

Forget windmills and solar panels. Harness the beautiful power of cows! Ruminant animals—which have four stomachs—account for 20 percent of the world’s methane emissions. (Most of that methane doesn’t come from their behinds, actually. They exhale and burp it out.) To harness all that lost gas, Markus Herrema patented a bovine gas collector in 2006. The gas is channeled to a chamber full of methane-loving microorganisims, which can be used later in “nutritional foodstuff or … other useful products, such as adhesive or cosmetics.”

9. “Improvement in Vehicles”

If cow power isn’t your thing, go to the dogs. In 1875, Parisian inventor Narcisse Hueet patented the “cynophere,” a dog-powered velocipede. Hueet wrote, “My invention contemplates the employment of dogs or other animals, working within a cage or cages, forming part of the wheels of the vehicle to be propelled.” 

10. “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”

What can you say but "yikes"?Google Patents

If the thought of childbirth makes you dizzy, look away. This will make it worse. In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky patented a turntable that gives pregnant women an, um, extra push. The mother-to-be is strapped onto the turntable, which spins fast enough that G-forces help ease the baby out. A “pocket-shaped reception net” catches the newborn and triggers the machine to stop. (But in case that doesn’t work, there’s a handbrake!)

11. “Double Bicycle for looping the loop”

You can never have too much bike.Google Patents

“I heard you like bicycles, so I put a bicycle on a bicycle so you can stay upright while you go upside down.” Patented in 1905 by Kael Lange.