15 of History’s Most Amazing Gifts
Do you have a pal who always leaves you scratching your head when it comes to gifts? Perhaps something here will inspire the perfect present for that person in your life who has everything (except a 196-carat diamond or a unicorn horn).
1. The Statue of Liberty
The official dedication ceremony for France’s gift of the “New Colossus” was in 1886, but the idea had been in the works since 1865 when French politician Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye decided France should do something to honor the U.S. after the Civil War. The statue was built overseas and shipped to the U.S. in pieces.
2. Savannah, Georgia
General William T. Sherman had been working his troops hard to secure ports from the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After he captured Atlanta in September 1864, Sherman and some of his men disappeared for about six weeks. When the White House received no communication from the general, President Lincoln feared the worst. Then, on December 22, Sherman sent Lincoln a telegraph with the message: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
3. A White Elephant
In 1514, King Manuel of Portugal presented Pope Leo X a rather unique gift: An albino elephant. Leo was so enamored with the pachyderm (which was named Hanno) that he commissioned Raphael to paint its portrait. Sadly, believing that gold was the answer to everything, Leo supposedly instructed Hanno’s handlers to feed him gold-laced medicines, which proved to be fatal for the poor elephant.
4. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Legend has it the Hanging Gardens were brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife Amytis, who was terribly homesick for Media (Iran). To help Amytis get over it, the Babylonian king created a mini-paradise containing all her favorite Median plants. Some say the gardens aren’t around today because they were destroyed in an earthquake in 2 BCE, while others speculate written descriptions of the place were simply a bit of flowery imagery.
5. The Trojan Horse
Though the Trojan Horse was designed as a gift from the Greeks to the city of Troy, it really wasn’t much of a present at all. Thinking the mammoth statue was a victory trophy from their enemies, the citizens of Troy gladly pulled the horse into the city to celebrate. They surely regretted accepting the gift later, when a number of Greeks jumped out of it and opened the city gates, allowing the rest of the Greek army to waltz right in.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus had hoarded fire for the gods’ exclusive use. Since Prometheus had created humans out of clay, he was pretty annoyed that Zeus was being so stingy. He stole fire from Zeus’s hearth and gave it to his little clay people, and was immediately and severely punished for his good deed. Zeus had him chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten from his body by a giant eagle. But he probably received a very warm thank-you note from mankind!
7. Las Meninas
In 1656, to thank his kingly patron, painter Diego Velázquez created Las Meninas, a painting that depicts the Infanta Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting, a dog, Velázquez himself, and King Philip IV and Queen Consort Mariana of Austria. The masterpiece can now be found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
8. A Carpet With Cleopatra Inside
Cleopatra needed an audience with Julius Caesar, but the only way she could get one was to sneak in. She had her servant roll her up in a carpet—though some historians believe it may have been bed coverings—and deliver her personally to Caesar. It worked: Cleo got her audience with Caesar, received his support in her battle for the Egyptian throne, and eventually gave him a son.
9. The Orlov Diamond
What do you even say when your former flame presents you with a 196-carat diamond? If you’re Catherine the Great, you say, “We’re still never getting back together.” Catherine’s ex, Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, purchased the massive gem with hope that it would rekindle their romance. Though Catherine kept the diamond and even named it after him, Orlov’s attempt at reconciliation ultimately failed. The jewel was later mounted in the Imperial Sceptre, which is still on display at the Kremlin.
10. The World’s Most Valuable Egg
In 1885, Tsar Alexander III of Russia wanted to give his wife, Empress Maria Fedorovna, an Easter egg to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a royal couple. The Tsar hired jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé to create something special, and the resulting ornate, jewel-encrusted gold egg was so gorgeous, an entire luxury industry was born. Alexander III kept up the tradition of giving his wife a new Fabergé egg each year, and in 1895 his son Nicholas II began commissioning annual eggs for both his mother and his wife.
11. Plate and Purple Garments
After defeating Darius III in the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great gathered up all of the plate and purple garments from the vanquished Persians and had them sent home to his mother. As a mom, she probably would have appreciated a simple letter just as much.
12. A “Unicorn” Horn
Since giving an entire unicorn as a gift presents some challenges (chiefly that they don’t exist), a unicorn horn seems like a more manageable item to add to your gift registry. Or at least that’s what Pope Clement VII must have thought when he presented King Francis I with a “unicorn” horn mounted on a gold pedestal. At the time, people thought unicorn horns were able to detect or expel poison, so Francis kept it by his plate during meals. The “magical” artifact was actually a narwhal tusk.
13. Petit Trianon
It’s no Taj Mahal, but getting a small palace as a gift is certainly nothing to turn one’s nose up at. When King Louis XVI took the throne in 1775, he gifted his wife Marie Antoinette a “little” getaway where she could escape from the masses. Originally built for the former king’s mistress, Marie had the place completely overhauled, especially the gardens, which were given streams, hills, paths, and even a mock farming village.
14. A Mile-Long Fur Coat
Even a small palace seems like a relatively conservative gift by the standards of French monarchs. When Louis XIV married his cousin Maria Theresa, it’s said that he had a fur coat made for her that featured a nearly mile-long train so that when she went for walks in the gardens of Versailles, her servants could spread the train out in front of her so she could walk barefoot on top of it.
15. The Telegraph
In 1838, Samuel Morse made the Republic of Texas an incredibly generous offer: the rights to the telegraph. Not only did Texas never send Morse a thank-you note, the state never even responded! Morse was patient, but in 1860 he finally grew tired of waiting. He wrote Sam Houston a polite letter to “respectfully withdraw the offer then made, in 1838” and to point out, “Although the offer was made more than twenty years ago, Texas, neither while an independent State, nor since it has become one of the United States, has ever directly or impliedly accepted the offer.” After taking care of that bit of business, Morse then donated the rights to the telegraph to the United States.