The Overlooked Paleontologist Who May Have Inspired 'She Sells Sea Shells'

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the summer of 1844, King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony and his royal entourage were walking down Broad Street in the coastal town of Lyme Regis when they were drawn to the window of a cottage. Treasures lay on the other side of the glass: Coiled ammonite shells—long since turned to stone—were arranged in an appealing display, and in the center sat the petrified skull of a long-snouted sea reptile with pointed teeth and impossibly huge eyes.

A sign above the door read Anning's Fossil Depot. The King and his party stepped inside.

There were Jurassic-era fossils throughout the small, unassuming shop, and yet, the single most fascinating thing in the store may well have been its proprietor, Mary Anning. She'd spent a lifetime simultaneously providing for her family and unlocking the secrets of Lyme Regis's ancient past. Born into poverty in a society famed for its class consciousness, the 45-year-old businesswoman had defied the odds to become one of the world's most important scientific figures.

Though Anning didn't receive her due credit from the male naturalists who reaped the benefits of her labors, word of the fossil-hunter's many achievements still managed to spread far and wide during her lifetime. So it was with complete honesty that this daughter of a poor carpenter casually told the King's physician, "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe." And years after her death, her legacy would live on in the English language's most famous tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

A Dirty, Dangerous Job

The seashore where Anning's shop was located was on the English Channel in southwestern England, in a town called Lyme Regis. With its towering cliffs and tannish-white beaches, Lyme Regis has long been a prime vacation destination. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, affluent Britons made it their seasonal home away from home. Meanwhile, the poorer citizens who lived in Lyme Regis year-round struggled to make ends meet.

Many supplemented their income by cashing in on the area's natural history. Around 200 million years ago, the Lyme Regis area lay at the bottom of a Jurassic sea. In Anning's time—and today—fossilized remains of marine animals from this period can be found protruding from the cliffs and scattered along the beaches that surround the coastal town. Realizing that rich tourists would pay a pretty penny to take home one of these natural curiosities, fossil hunters started selling their finds throughout Lyme Regis.

One of them was Mary's father, Richard Anning, a carpenter by trade. But even with two revenue streams, he struggled to provide for his family, and their life was marked by tragedy. Richard's wife, Molly, gave birth to their first child, Mary, in 1794, and a son, Joseph, in 1796. Mary died when she was just 4 after her dress caught on fire; Molly was pregnant with her third child at the time, and when she gave birth six months later, on May 21, 1799, she named the newborn girl Mary. A year later, the second Mary almost died as well when she, her nurse, and two female companions were struck by lightning while walking on the beach. All three women died, but Mary survived.

Of the Annings' 10 children, only Mary and Joseph reached adulthood. As they grew up, Richard taught them everything he knew about the fossil-collecting business, and he even made Mary a rock hammer so she could excavate small fossils for herself.

Fossil hunting was a perilous job, and over the years, the Annings had many close calls with rockslides and rapidly flooding shorelines. That's how Richard himself died in 1810. Out on an excursion that winter, he lost his footing and fell off a cliff. Months later, injuries sustained from the accident—coupled with a serious case of tuberculosis—claimed his life. He was 44 years old.

Following his death, Molly took charge of the family fossil shop, which basically consisted of a display table that the Annings would set up in front of their modest cottage near the River Lym. Keeping this business afloat was an economic necessity for Molly and her children—Richard had saddled them with a large debt.

"These Valuable Relics of a Former World"

Drawing of Ichthyosaurus from The American Museum Journal, circa 1900.
Drawing of Ichthyosaurus from The American Museum Journal, circa 1900.
American Museum of Natural History, Wikimedia Commons // No Restrictions

The family struggled for a year until, in 1811, Joseph—who was working as a part-time upholsterer's apprentice—discovered the 4-foot-long skull of an ancient marine reptile. Joseph and a hired team excavated the head, but Mary thought more bones might still be found. The following year, she returned to the site and proceeded to expose an entire spinal column, a set of ribs, and other bones.

Thrilled by her discovery, Mary recruited an excavation team of her own. As the creature's remains were slowly removed from the rock, the group realized that they had a genuine sea monster on their hands: When it was reunited with its skull, the specimen measured an amazing 17 feet long.

The remains belonged to a dolphin-like animal that would later be called Ichthyosaurus, which means "fish-lizard." Although the Annings did not discover the first known specimen of this genus (as some sources wrongly report), theirs was the most complete skeleton known at the time and therefore became the first to attract interest from Great Britain's scientists. The fossil was sold to Henry Hoste Henley, the Lord of Colway Manor, for £23. That's the equivalent of more than £1600 or $2000 in today's money—enough to purchase six months of food for the Anning family.

The Annings' ichthyosaur subsequently made its way to the British Museum, where, according to Hugh Torrens, a history of science professor at Keele University, "it aroused great interest as a denizen of the new world that the embryonic science of paleontology was beginning to reveal" [PDF]. When news of the sea dragon spread, the Annings—particularly Mary—became household names in Lyme Regis and beyond.

But fame has never guaranteed fortune. Even after the sale of Mary and Joseph's ichthyosaur, the family remained in dire economic straits for nearly a decade. Thankfully, an 1820 charity auction thrown in their honor by the wealthy fossil-collector Thomas Birch helped give the Annings some much-needed financial stability.

In 1824, Mary Anning met Lady Harriet Silvester, a rich London widow who was blown away by the self-taught beachcomber's paleontological expertise. "The extraordinary thing in this young woman," Silvester wrote in her diary, "is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved … It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

As the 1820s unfolded, Mary took over the reins of the shop from her mother—and running the shop was just one of her obligations. She was also primarily responsible for acquiring its new fossils. Molly had never been one for collecting, and Joseph's upholstery career was taking off. Combing the beaches, Mary came across many astonishing new specimens—including a few more Ichthyosaurus skeletons. As the Bristol Mirror reported in 1823, "This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world." The publication also noted that it was "to her exertions we owe nearly all of the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections."

Pride, Prejudice, and a Plesiosaurus

An 1823 letter by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus.

An 1823 letter by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 10, 1823, Mary made the discovery of a lifetime. While scouring the beach in the shadow of Black Ven cliff, she came upon a fossilized skull that was like nothing she'd seen before. The majority of the skulls she had found belonged to ichthyosaurs; they were long and narrow, a bit like the heads of dolphins or crocodiles. This skull, on the other hand, was small, beady-eyed, and had a mouthful of strange, needle-shaped teeth.

Working with some nearby villagers, Anning unearthed the rest of the mystery creature's body, which looked even stranger than the skull did. Attached to a stout torso and broad pelvis were four flippers and a diminutive tail. But the most peculiar thing about the animal was the long neck that accounted for nearly half of the 9-foot creature's length.

Anning contacted one of the only men in Europe who might fully appreciate her find: the paleontologist Reverend William Buckland. In conversations about the newborn science of paleontology, she could hold her own with anyone, experts like Buckland included. The 24-year-old devoured every scrap of fossil-related news published in the scientific journals of her time; this autodidact even taught herself French so that she could read articles published in that language. This is how Anning knew that some paleontologists—including Buckland and Reverend William Conybeare—believed that a few fossil bones previously attributed to Ichthyosaurus really belonged to an as-yet-unidentified kind of marine reptile. Conybeare had even come up with a name for this new beast: Plesiosaurus.

In her letter to Buckland, Anning provided a detailed sketch of her newest discovery. "I may venture to assure you that it is the only [Plesiosaurus skeleton] discovered in Europe," she told the scientist. This wasn't an empty boast: Anning had indeed found the first articulated Plesiosaurus remains known to science. Prior to that, nobody had any idea about what this mysterious animal looked like. Once he finished reading Anning's description, Buckland talked Richard Grenville, the first Duke of Buckingham, into buying the skeleton.

The animal's proportions were so bizarre that some scientists cried foul. Upon seeing a copy of Anning's sketch, the legendary French anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier was worried that the fossil was a hoax. In a letter to Conybeare, Cuvier suspiciously noted that "This discovery … surpasses all those that have been made so far [in Lyme Regis] and there is nothing more monstrous that one could expect to see" [PDF]. How could an animal with such an absurdly long neck possibly exist? The Baron felt that it didn't. Intensely skeptical of the find, Cuvier accused Anning of affixing a fossil snake's head and vertebrae to the body of an Ichthyosaurus. However, when it later became clear that her specimen had in no way been tampered with, the anatomist was forced to eat his words.

Famous, but Underappreciated

At an 1824 Geological Society of London meeting, Conybeare stole the show with a well-received presentation on the nearly complete Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis. That same year, he published a paper on the specimen featuring detailed original illustrations. Neither his presentation nor his paper mentioned Anning by name.

Conybeare was just one of many scientists who furthered their own careers by writing papers about fossils that Anning had found. They rarely gave her credit, and to make matters worse, she couldn't publish her own findings in reputable journals because their editors didn't accept submissions from women. (One man who did give her credit when it was due was—perhaps surprisingly—Cuvier. "I see, however, that a skeleton discovered by Mademoiselle Marie Anning on the coast of the county of Dorset, although only five feet long, has not been allowed to be related to this species," he wrote in 1824.)

Nonetheless, institutionalized sexism didn't prevent Mary from continuing to make major discoveries. In 1824, she unearthed the first pterosaur skeleton that had ever been found outside of Germany. Anning was also probably the first person to identify fossilized poop, or a coprolite. (Sadly, Buckland—a frequent correspondent of hers—would subsequently take credit for this scatological breakthrough.) By 1826, she had earned enough money from fossil sales to relocate her family to a cottage on upper Broad Street. The main room on the ground level became the Annings' new store, complete with an attractive storefront window. It quickly emerged as a major tourist attraction, particularly for geology buffs. It hosted such celebrity visitors as Gideon Mantell, who, in 1825, had announced the discovery of Iguanodon, the first herbivorous dinosaur known to science.

But she was deprived of the formal recognition she longed for and deserved. Allegedly, when a young admirer penned a letter to Anning, she replied, "I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone" [PDF]. Anning would often confide in her good friend Maria Pinney, who once observed, "She says the world has used her ill and she does not care for it, according to her account these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

Through it all, Anning never stopped fossil-hunting, even though it remained a perilous business. Once, in 1833, Anning was nearly killed by a sudden landslide that crushed her beloved black-and-white terrier, Tray, who liked to accompany her on the beaches."“[The] death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me," Anning told a friend. "The cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate."

By the mid-1830s, Anning's fortunes had begun to falter because of a bad investment. In 1835, Buckland, moved by her plight, talked the British Association for the Advancement of Science into granting Anning a £25 yearly annuity in honor of her outstanding contributions to paleontology. This kind gesture essentially amounted to the first significant acknowledgement by professional scientists of her achievements. Her bottom line in these lean years was bolstered by the occasional big purchase made by such fossil shop patrons.

The scientific community once again came to Anning's aid when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1846. As soon as the Geologic Society learned of her diagnosis, its members began raising money to cover her medical expenses. Anning died on March 9, 1847. Her funeral was paid for by the Geological Society, which also financed a stained-glass window dedicated to her memory that now sits at St. Michael's Parish Church in Lyme Regis.

Her amazing deeds were commemorated by Charles Dickens nearly two decades later. Though he probably never met Anning in person, the author of A Christmas Carol wrote a moving essay about her 18 years after she died. "Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder" ran in the February 1865 edition of his literary periodical All The Year Round. "Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science," Dickens wrote. "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it."

She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

You might not be familiar with Anning's name, but you've certainly heard of her, even if you didn't realize it. In 1908, songwriter Terry Sullivan—who penned a number of catchy ballads for British music halls—wrote a song widely believed to be about Anning's life whose lyrics have since been recited by just about every English-speaking person on Earth:

"She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I'm sure she sells sea shore shells."

And today, Anning—long overlooked by her contemporaries—is finally getting her due. The self-taught paleontologist is now a revered figure in paleontology circles. "More than anyone else at the time," Hugh Torrens said, "she showed what extraordinary things could turn up in the fossil record." The late evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould shared this esteem for her. In his 1992 book Finders Keepers, Gould wrote that "Mary Anning [is] probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology."

This story was republished in 2019.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

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