Susan Vaughan here. I grew up learning the salient facts—and some myths—about presidents of the United States. Rather than rehash that, I delved into little-known or strange facts about some of our presidents. But first, a brief background about this official federal holiday that falls on the third Monday in February.
Presidents’ Day is also known as George Washington’s Birthday, although he was born on February 22, this year a Saturday. In the 1700’s, Washington’s birthday was celebrated while he was still alive. In 1885, February 22 became a federal holiday honoring our first president, and in 1971, the law was changed to create the Monday holiday. Some states still call it Washington’s Birthday. The tradition of Presidents’ Day sales began in the 1980’s. There have been four presidents born in February—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William Harrison, and Ronald Reagan. Most celebrate Presidents’ Day in honor of the first two. Now for the trivia, or not, depending on your outlook.
George Washington’s teeth. Despite our first president’s physical strength and legendary strong constitution, he suffered from dental troubles his whole adult life. According to MountVernon.org, letters and diary entries make regular reference to aching teeth, inflamed gums, lost teeth, and ill-fitting dentures. He tried various tooth powders and brushes. At age 24, he began having teeth pulled. He saved some of his extracted teeth, hoping they could be used in new dentures. There’s no record of that. But his dentures were never made of wood. He used at different times partial and full dentures constructed of various materials, including human and probably horse and cow teeth, ivory, and lead-tin, copper, and silver alloys. It’s possible that some of his dentures, after becoming stained, took on a wooden appearance, thus the myth of the wooden teeth.
One positive aspect of our first president’s dental troubles influenced the end of the American Revolution. He kept his tooth problems secret, so was horrified to learn that a mail packet including a personal letter requesting dental cleaning tools had fallen into British hands. The letter to his dentist said that he had “little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon…” and asked for tooth scrapers to be sent to him by mail. The British commander took this to mean that the American and French forces encamped around New York City would not be marching south to threaten Lord Cornwallis’s isolated command. But Washington and the French commander Rochambeau were indeed planning to head south. They trapped Cornwallis, defeating the British at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
John Quincy Adams, swimmer. While secretary of state in James Monroe’s administration and while serving as our sixth president, Adams swam in the Potomac River during hot weather. According to historian Shannon Selin, like other river bathers, Adams swam in the nude, though he was spotted floating, with a black cap on his head and a pair of green goggles on his eyes. He swam often in company with his valet. While trying to increase his stamina and distance, he sometimes got into trouble when the tide turned. In one instance, his valet had to come to his rescue in a canoe. Finally in his later years, his wife persuaded him to cut back on the length of his time in the water.
Abraham Lincoln, Athlete. Lincoln swung a mean axe, and was a gifted debater, politician, and speech writer, but he excelled at sports as well. Our sixteenth president stood six foot four and weighed about 180 pounds, so his long legs and arms and strength gave him an advantage. According to the LogCabinSage.com., even his debate opponent mentioned Lincoln’s athleticism—“He could beat any of the boys wrestling, or running a foot race, in pitching quoits (SV: a ring-toss game) or tossing a copper…” Many stories have been told of “Old Abe’s” strength, such as picking up a wooden barrel full of whiskey and raising it over his head, even at age 56.
Lincoln was known as a fierce competitor who hated to lose at anything. But there was one sport in which he did not do well, bowling. Apparently he liked bowling anyway. Dr. Samuel Busey, who took his meals in the same boarding house in the District of Columbia when Lincoln was a congressman, wrote in his memoirs that Lincoln “was a very awkward bowler, but played the game with great zest and spirit… He accepted success and defeat with like good nature and humor….” It seems Lincoln knew his limitations in bowling.
I’ve spent my post today on only three of our presidents, and early ones at that. I’ll save others for another Presidents’ Day. If anyone has trivia or little-known facts about other presidents, don’t hesitate to share.