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The fascinating history of the U.S. Presidents’ desks

US & Canada

The fascinating history of the U.S. Presidents’ desks

Here is a history of the desks, their users, a minor diversion into 19th Century naval history, and even a picture of Nicolas Cage.

The Oval Office is a relatively recent feature of the White House, and a central part of the room is the desk. Here is a history of the desks, their users, a minor diversion into 19th Century naval history, and even a picture of Nicolas Cage.

The room known as the Oval Office where the presidential desk sits was only added in 1909 by President William Howard Taft, yet Taft was only adding to a White House that had already been extensively refurbished by Roosevelt. Thus perhaps it was only fitting that the first desk in this new room in the White House shall be the desk named for man who had led the renovation of most of the building – the Theodore Roosevelt desk.

Theodore Roosevelt sitting at his desk

Made in 1903 using Mahogany, the desk is 90” (228cm) wide and is extraordinarily deep at 54” (138 cm) and was made by Boston-based furniture marker A. H. Davenport & Company, famous for the Davenport-style chair.

President William Howard Taft was the first user of the desk in the Oval Office. Woodrow Wilson, Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover followed.

The Theodore Roosevelt desk

Yet during Hoover’s presidency, and perhaps a good metaphor for his time as President, the Oval Office caught on fire. The first incident stared in the attic of the White House at approximately 8pm on Christmas Eve 1929, but luckily the desk drawers were removed from the room quickly by a number of secretaries.

George Akerson, appointed earlier that year as the White House’s first Press Secretary (under Hoover), draped the desk in a tarpaulin to prevent water damage from firefighters hoses.

The Oval Office showing extensive fire damage

While the desk remained largely unscathed by the fire, it was placed in storage by Hoover and replaced with the Hoover desk – part of a wider 17-piece office suite given to the White House by the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association. Compared to Theodore Roosevelt’s desk, Hoover’s is only 82” (210cm) wide and 42” deep (110cm). It was designed by J. Stuart Clingman and constructed by The Robert W. Irwin company. Today, a set of four Clingman chairs will cost you over $4,000 (£3,000/€3,500).

Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would additionally use the desk for all of his 12 years in office – an odd choice considering his fifth cousin was Theodore Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Upon President Truman’s ascension into the Oval Office, the Hoover desk was shipped to what is now the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in the state of New York, where it remains to this day. It’s at this point where The Roosevelt Desk emerges from the darkness and retakes it place centre-stage in the Oval Office for Truman’s administration. It also survived the election of Eisenhower.

Fun fact: Notice Truman’s “The buck stops here” desk sign – “the buck stops here” is a phrase that was popularised by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. It refers to the notion that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions (take note, Trump).

President Truman using The Roosevelt desk

And now we move onto the election of Kennedy, which brought the end of the Roosevelt desk’s time in the sun. It was removed from the Office and has not been chosen by a U.S. President since. In it’s place came the best named desk – the Resolute desk.

It’s important to remember that the Kennedy’s were hugely instrumental in the redecoration of the White House following the Truman renovation. As part of this, Jackie Kennedy moved the Resolute desk into the Oval Office. The desk was a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and its history is the best of any office desk.

President Obama sitting behind The Resolute Desk

Here’s the diversion into 19th Century naval history we promised: The year is 1852, and a five-ship squadron, of which HMS Resolute was a part of, has been sent from Great Britain to search for lost explorer Sir John Franklin who was seeking the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic.

After three years of searching for clues of Franklin’s whereabouts with little success, the crew of HMS Resolute instead found and rescued the crew of a ship separate to their own party – one from an earlier expedition to also find Franklin. However, this led to HMS Resolute becoming frozen in the ice but still seaworthy. In total, four of the five ships were abandoned on orders, with HMS Resolute being one of these abandoned four.

18 months later, HMS Resolute was found hundreds of miles from where she was abandoned by American whaler James Buddington who split his crew between the ships and sailed them both back to New London in Connecticut. The British government waived all rights to the ship upon hearing of this development.

HMS Resolute

The ship arrived in America during a period of high-tensions between America and the U.K., in fact they were at the brink of a third war with diplomatic relations non-existent as America had closed the British embassies.

Senator James Murray Mason proposed the American government buy the ship from James Buddington and refurbish her, to give to Great Britain as a present. A bill was written, passed, and signed into law by Franklin Piece which meant HMS Resolute was given a $40,000 refurbishment and then sailed to Britain.

The engraving below is the presentation to Her Majesty Queen Victoria (in green). HMS Resolute stayed in British waters for 23 years, a symbol of friendship between these two great powers, until she was taken to a dock for disassembly in 1879.

It was at this time Queen Victoria asked that four desks be made from her timbers: a small lady’s desk (given to the widow of Henry Grinnell, who played a large part in securing support for the refurbishment of HMS Resolute), two desks for the Queen herself (a small writing table currently on loan to National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and a smaller writing table for her yacht), and the final desk and reason for this large segue – the Resolute desk which was given to President Hayes on November 23rd 1880.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria visiting HMS Resolute

An important note here for fans of the National Treasure films – while desks were made for both the President and the Queen from HMS Resolute, they are not twins. Sorry, Nicolas Cage.

Walt Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Back to Kennedy. Before JFK’s election win, the Resolute desk had lived in the White House for almost 80 years, yet it was (as mentioned earlier) Jackie who moved the desk into Oval Office for her husband, however, it’s occupancy was short-lived. With the assassination of JFK in 1963 came the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson who found the desk too small, thus he permitted the desk to go on a touring exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library after which it went on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Robert Knudsen

The departure of the Resolute desk in 1963 means the arrival of our fourth desk: the Johnson desk. A desk so boring, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. For the record, there are Wikipedia pages for “List[s] of animals with fraudulent diplomas” and “Buttered cat paradox,” yet the desk of a President who signed the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts, appointed the first black Supreme Court Justice, and who created the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities does not get its own page.

The desk was made by the Senate Wood Shop in the early 20th Century and was used by Johnson during his time in the Senate. Upon moving into the White House, he brought it with him. It currently resides in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas and was not used again.

The Johnson Desk

Is the image below a photograph of the Nixon desk? No, it’s the Wilson desk named after President Woodrow Wilson, or maybe it was named after Vice President Henry Wilson. Actually, we have no idea who it is named after.

Richard Nixon sitting behind “the Wilson desk”

Allow us to explain. During his time as Vice President between 1897 and 1899, Garret Augustus Hobart purchased a number of pieces of furniture, including Persian rugs, a silk robe to match his office sofa cushions, and an 80” (203cm) by 58” (147cm) mahogany desk. This desk stayed in the office of the VP and was used by such future Presidents as Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

President Nixon liked this desk as he believed it had been used by Woodrow Wilson during his time as President. Nixon referred to the desk as Woodrow Wilson’s hundreds of times to visitors, dignitaries, and in speeches including his famous “Silent majority” speech.

Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world.

Fun fact: Five microphones were hidden in “the Wilson desk” which were a catalyst for the Watergate tapes, while the Resolute desk in Nixon’s other office in the Old Executive Office Building was also suspected of holding a number of microphones.

With the election of Jimmy Carter, we change desks once more and now find the Resolute desk back in the Oval Office. “The Wilson desk” moved back to the Vice President’s Room in the Capitol building where it has been used by every Vice President from Walter Mondale to Joe Biden. We’re not sure which desk Pence is using, but it doesn’t look to be the same.

Jimmy Carter using the Resolute desk

With the election of George H. W. Bush to the Presidency, our sixth and final desk moves into the Oval Office. The Resolute desk moves out and the C&O desk, which was commissioned by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway as a set of four desks for the company’s owners, moves in.

It was donated to the White House sometime during the 1970s and used by Ford, Carter, and Reagan in the Oval Office’s study – a separate room and not the official desk of the Oval Office. George H. W. Bush started using the desk in his Vice President’s office in 1985 and, upon his inauguration, moved it into the Oval Office. Bush’ spokesperson at the time claimed he “got used to it, found it comfortable, [and] thought it was attractive.”

The C&O desk

With the end of his presidency, the C&O desk was removed from the Oval Office and the Resolute desk was quickly returned President Clinton. It’s remained in place since, having been used by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald J. Trump.

George W. Bush using the Resolute desk

Barack Obama using the Resolute desk

Donald J. Trump using the Resolute desk


Interested in more fascinating history?

You can listen to the Podcast series by Jack P. Taylor here or on iTunes (free) by clicking here.


 

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