The History of Christmas at the White House (1901-1953)

President Theodore Roosevelt and First Ladies Alice and Edith 1901-1909

As the youngest man ever to take the oath of office, Theodore Roosevelt came to the White House with a large, vivacious young family. With him were his wife, Edith, and his six children aged three through seventeen. While there is no record of the 26th President sending any official White House Christmas cards, there is much written about how the Roosevelts would spend their holiday celebrations.

President Roosevelt posing for a portrait photograph with the entire Roosevelt clan

President Roosevelt posing for a portrait photograph with the entire Roosevelt clan

For the first couple and their children, Christmas would begin at seven in the morning, when all the children and their terrier would bound into their parents’ chamber to claim the gifts which filled each of their stockings. After a hearty Christmas breakfast, the family would move to the library, where the children’s larger gifts were set out on tables. The President reveled in the sheer joy on his younger children’s faces when the library doors were thrown open and all their newfound treasures were lain out before them, “like a materialized fairy land.”

2004 American President Collection Theodore Roosevelt Ornament

2004 American President Collection Theodore Roosevelt Ornament

The most frequently told story regarding President Roosevelt and Christmas deals with the infamous White House Christmas tree ban during the early years of his presidency. Roosevelt, a famed outdoorsman and environmentalist, took office at a time of growing public concern over the feared destruction of forests due to damaging lumbering practices. The cutting down and displaying of Christmas trees was viewed, in some quarters, as one of the more blatant examples of deforestation due to unnecessary commercial causes. Many newspapers of the day took to publishing articles denouncing the use of live trees and promoting the purchase of artificial “wire” trees, which could last a generation and spare these gifts of nature from a premature and inglorious end.

An ornament featuring former US President Theodore Roosevelt is hung on the official White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room in 2008

Burnishing his environmental credentials, Roosevelt refused to display a Christmas tree in the White House, fearing that to do so would be sending the wrong message to the public and be fodder for his political opponents. In 1901, the Roosevelt’s’ first treeless Christmas in Washington passed uneventfully. In 1902, however, Roosevelt’s two youngest sons, Archie and Quentin, cut down a small tree on the White House grounds and smuggled it into the closet of the room where the family opened gifts. The boys hung gifts for their parents from the branches and enlisted the help of the staff electrician in decorating the tree with tiny lights wired to a switch outside the closet.

1902 Washington Post illustration depicting the famous “Teddy Bear” incident, coining the term for the popular Christmas gift

1902 Washington Post illustration depicting the famous “Teddy Bear” incident, coining the term for the popular Christmas gift

On Christmas morning, while the family opened gifts, Archie surprised his family by opening the closet door and throwing the switch. Amused by his boys’ ingenuity, Teddy nevertheless took them to his friend and environmental adviser (and later the first Chief of the United States Forest Service), Gifford Pinchot, to explain to them the negative effects of killing trees for decorative use. To his surprise, Pinchot went into a lengthy explanation regarding how sometimes, cutting down some larger trees was in the best interests of forests, as it allowed a larger number of smaller young trees to receive the sunlight they need to flourish. While there is no public record of any other Christmas tree being displayed in the White House during Roosevelt’s presidency, a number of environmental acts and reforestation laws had been passed by the end of his term, and the public controversy over the use of live trees for decorative and traditional use had subsided for the time being. While on a hunting expedition, he famously refused to shoot a bear cub, spurring a toy manufacturer to create the teddy bear, a fad which became one of the hot-selling Christmas gifts in 1902 and still echoes to the current day.

Teddy Roosevelt Visiting Neighbors on Christmas 1917


President William Howard Taft and First Lady Helen 1909-1913

On the subject of William Howard Taft and Christmas, more than a few presidential historians have likened the large, jovial Taft to a Santa Claus-like figure. Few would deny that the burly Ohioan was a warm, generous and good man, but it was this very nature which made him a relatively ineffectual politician and led to a mostly forgettable presidency, which avoided any major catastrophies, other than the political ones inflicted on Taft’s party and his electoral career.

During his time in office, Taft’s famously generous nature was apparent in the scope and number of Christmas gifts he sent out. The president believed more in the act of giving than in the essential value of the gifts themselves. As did not limit his gifts to family and friends, his Christmas list often climbed into the hundreds. He would send out presidential Christmas cards to accompany the gifts. Oftentimes, his aides would have to scramble to acquire more White House cards as the list grew to ungainly lengths. Mr. Taft would usually devote several days of his own time to going Christmas shopping from store-to-store.

Flyer from the Election of 1908. Taft defeated opponent William Jennings Bryan in the election shortly before Christmas.

Flyer from the Election of 1908. Taft defeated opponent William Jennings Bryan in the election shortly before Christmas.

Among his favorite items to send were books and jewelry, and he always made his own selections. On each of the books he sent, he would write a personal sentiment inside the cover, lending these objects a lasting historical value. In addition to friends and relatives, President Taft presented Christmas gifts to all of the White House clerks. He also sent a Christmas turkey to all married White House employees – usually just over 100 turkeys for a total cost of $350 – $400. He would also give a personal holiday remembrance to each of the Secret Service men assigned to protect him.

The Taft’s were also the initial First Family to display the White House Christmas tree and hold the presidential Christmas party in the Blue Room, a location previously considered sacred to official entertaining.

President Woodrow Wilson and First Ladies Ellen and Edith 1913-1921

Woodrow Wilson had the first Christmas tree put up and decorated in the White House when he was President of the United States. Wilson was accustomed to having gatherings with the attendance of many intellectuals and family. As President he also wanted to have a national Christmas tree lighting ceremony and in 1913, the first year the president was in office, he was able to have a celebration with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Christmas Eve at the Capital.

President Wilson and second wife Edith Galt, whom he married around Christmas of 1915

President Wilson and second wife Edith Galt, whom he married around Christmas of 1915

President Elect Wilson received a letter from a young eight-year-old correspondent, Charles Conroy, right before Christmas in 1912. Charles’ father told him that Mr. Wilson was Santa Claus, so he sent his letter to Governor Wilson at the state house in Trenton. Wilson told his stenographer to delay the typing of letters and go shopping and see that she got everything that Charles and a few other children had asked for. Thus Charles got his Christmas presents from President Santa Claus.

The White House also had its first Christmas tree that year, although it did not become a national tradition until Calvin Coolidge became president and First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission to put a tree on the Ellipse.

President Wilson asked that a community Christmas tree be placed at the Capitol in 1913, requesting a national tree lighting event to be started. A U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers, and a costumed group re-enacted the Nativity on Christmas Eve. Wilson also planted an elm tree outside the North Portico of the White House a few days before Christmas to symbolize peace and serenity. A night view of this tree would become a watercolor done by Robert H. Laessig that graced the 1966 White House Christmas cards of President Lyndon Johnson.

President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence 1921-1923

Warren G. Harding would only live to see two Christmas seasons after being elected the 29th President of the United States. President and Mrs. Harding were able to escape the stresses of Washington D.C. and their political and social obligations their first Christmas in the white house by traveling to North Carolina during the holidays.

President Harding passed away suddenly several months after celebrating what was to be his second and last Presidential Christmas in 1922. Unfortunately, Harding’s marital indiscretions were not his only shortcomings, many of which did not come to light until after he passed away.
The President sent a gift to his sister, Abigail, a former school teacher of one of Harding’s several known mistresses. Accompanying the gift was a Presidential Christmas card of sorts, a handwritten note on White House stationery. Dated December 23, 1922, the letter read:

Dear Sister Abigail, Enclosed find a little Christmas gift, a token of a brother’s loving regard. I shall think of you at Xmas time, and I shall have a real regret that I can not celebrate in the atmosphere of home and amid the surroundings of family and friends. My love and good wishes to you. Yours affectionately, Warren G. Harding

President Harding buying seals for his White House Christmas cards from a young girl with tuberculosis in 1923

President Harding buying seals for his White House Christmas cards from a young girl with tuberculosis in 1923

In addition, President Harding sent a Christmas gift of $250.00 to his mistress, his sister’s former student. His mistress purchased a diamond and sapphire bracelet with the money she received.

In the year of his death Harding was photographed buying Christmas seals from a young girl suffering with tuberculosis. The President would reach his untimely death prior to the holidays that year and would not be able to use the Christmas seals he had purchased for his official White House Christmas cards. Harding and John F. Kennedy are the only two presidents to have predeceased their fathers.

President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace 1923-1929

As the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge was the first to truly extend a White House Christmas celebration to the American people. During his first Christmas in the White house in 1923, he initiated the tradition of the National Community Christmas Tree. A 48-foot Balsam Fir from his native state of Vermont was erected on The Ellipse, and an electric button enabled the President to light the tree on demand for the first ever National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.

During the summer of 1924, Coolidge’s youngest son, Calvin, Jr., died of staphylococcus septicemia, an event that was said to have changed “Silent Cal” forever. That same year, the White House received a record setting 12,000 Christmas cards from the American public.

The Coolidge's 1927 Christmas tree

The Coolidge's 1927 Christmas tree

The Coolidges were known to send out Christmas cards, but only to family and close friends. Still mourning the loss of his son, Coolidge had told the American Forestry Association (AFA) that he was against cutting down a tree for the National Community Christmas Tree. However, the AFA managed to get Coolidge to accept a donation of a 35-foot live Norway spruce, which was planted in Sherman Plaza. The National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony officially became an annual celebration, but the donated tree would only last for five years due to wear and tear from decorating.

In 1925 after the National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, 2,000 people were welcomed to the White House grounds for caroling led by the choir from the President’s church. And on New Year’s Day, almost 4,000 people were invited to line up and shake the hands of the President and First Lady.

Silent Cal” received his nickname from his stoic and serious demeanor. But in 1926, after receiving so many heartfelt gifts and Christmas cards from the American people, Coolidge was so emotionally affected that he gave a gift of a gold coin to all of the White House officials and staff members.

The Coolidges - 1927 signed  Christmas message

The Coolidges - 1927 signed Christmas message

1927 was a momentous year for Christmas in the White House. After receiving countless requests to address the American people with a Christmas message, Coolidge finally agreed. On Christmas morning, a short hand-written message from the President appeared in every major newspaper, making this the first Christmas greeting to be given to the American public from a president.

In 1928, Coolidge decided not to run for re-election, making this his last Christmas in the White House. At the National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, Coolidge spoke to the large crowd of spectators and to the American people listening on their radios, “In token of the good-will and happiness of the holiday season and as an expression of the best wishes of the United States toward a Community Christmas Tree, in behalf of the city of Washington, I now turn on the current which will illuminate this tree.”

President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou 1929-1933

Herbert Hoover took office as the 31st President of the United States in March of 1929. Several months later on Tuesday, October 29, the stock market crashed triggering the onset of the Great Depression. Americans were reluctant to spend money on holiday gifts and Christmas cards, but this didn’t stop the President and First Lady Lou Henry from doing so. The First Lady had an impressive collection of old photographs of the White House and gave five different etchings of these photographs to over 200 White House staff members. Some were mounted and personalized with the greeting, “Best Wishes of Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover.” Additionally, President Hoover gave his personal staff a photo of himself on his horse, Billy, at his Rapidan Camp in Shenandoah Nation Park, Virginia.

The Hoovers - Christmas notecards from 1929

The Hoovers - Christmas notecards from 1929

Despite the poor economic climate, the White House received a surprising number of Christmas cards and gifts that year. In response to this overwhelming generosity, the President and First Lady sent out 3,100 engraved notecards with four variations of the following greeting: “The President and Mrs. Hoover cordially reciprocate your holiday greetings.

The Hoovers carried on the tradition set by the Coolidges of lighting the National Christmas Tree. The original living Norway spruce donated to Coolidge in 1924 by the AFA (American Forestry Association) had to be replaced due to wear and tear from decorating and trimming. Another living Norway spruce was donated by the AFA from Amawalk Nursery in Westchester County, New York and planted in Sherman Plaza. During the tree lighting ceremony, the President addressed the crowd and the listeners on their radios, “I want to have the privilege of wishing you all, and all the unseen audiences, a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Aftermath of the Christmas Eve fire in the old West Wing, 1929

Aftermath of the Christmas Eve fire in the old West Wing, 1929

On Christmas Eve of 1929, an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing of the White House…the third fire in the White House since 1814. The following year, the Hoovers had the building remodeled and the roof replaced. The remodel produced heaps of wood scraps, which the Hoovers had made into gifts for their staff members. Some of these items included bookends, ashtrays, paper cutters, and boxes. Each gift was accompanied by a poem written by the First Lady.

Additionally, each gift was accompanied by an engraved card with a personalized greeting that read, “The President and Mrs. Hoover take Christmas pleasure in presenting this historic bit of pinewood with their greetings.” Mrs. Hoover also had framed photograph prints distributed to additional staff members and aides.

The Hoovers - 1932 Christmas card featuring side-by-side photographs of the executive couple

The Hoovers - 1932 Christmas card featuring side-by-side photographs of the executive couple

For Christmas in 1931, the Hoovers gave out more prints to family, staff members, and aides. Some of these included photo etchings done by J.C. Claghorn of the Washington Monument, the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, and Mount Vernon. They also gave a etchings of the Capitol building done by well known etching artist Don Swann. All of the prints were either framed or matted. Additionally, the Hoovers gave out four different matted, framed, and signed photographs of the Washing Monument to White House staff members.

In 1932, for the Hoovers last Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they gave a gift of a leather folder that included photographs of the President and a separate photograph of the First Lady with two White House police dogs. A personal note accompanied the folder that read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Herbert Hoover and from Lou Henry Hoover and Weegie and Pat 1932 – 33.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor 1933-1945

Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first term as the 32nd President of the United States in 1933. That year, the White House received a record 40,000 Christmas and holiday cards from the American public; the number was so large that a staff had to be hired to handle the influx of mail. The Roosevelts sent Christmas cards to close family and friends. The card they ordered was single-sided and featured an etching of the White House, hand engraved by A.B. Tolly. That same year marked the 10th anniversary of the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. 5,000 people attended the ceremony, during which Roosevelt gave the longest speech to date. Roosevelt’s speech established the tradition of the president speaking directly to the American people during the tree lighting ceremony.

2004 American President Collection Franklin D. Roosevelt Ornament

2004 American President Collection Franklin D. Roosevelt Ornament

For the following holiday season, FDR gave to each executive staff member an autographed copy of his book, On Our Way, which explained his basic ideas and notions for reconstruction. The President and First Lady ordered 400 single-sided Christmas cards to be sent to family and friends, in which a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt was inserted in a panel at the top of the card.

Tensions overseas continued to augment with the onset of the following year. Nazi forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, and Germany created an alliance with Italy. France and Great Britain also created an alliance and declared war on Germany while the Soviets signed an armistice with Japan and removed all military support from China.

The Roosevelts - Christmas Card from 1935

The Roosevelts - Christmas Card from 1935

That same year, the national tree lighting ceremony was moved to Lafayette Square in order to accommodate more people. Two live Fraser firs from North Carolina were planted in the square; the trees were to be alternatively decorated each year to reduce wear and tear. 10,000 people gathered in the square for the ceremony. Roosevelt’s speech reflected the patriotism and courage of Andrew Jackson, whose statue stands at the center of the square.

In 1935, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt purchased gifts for White House staff members from Val-Kill Industries, a workshop she established with several lady friends to help low-income families supplement earnings by crafting furniture and metalware. Each pewter gift was accompanied by a single-sided Christmas card that featured a photograph of the President and First Lady. The White House that year received over 6,000 Christmas cards, and the Roosevelts sent out 400 Christmas cards to family and friends.

The following year, the First Lady again purchased metal gifts from The Forge for the White House staff. The card design featured a lithograph of a bucolic red farmhouse and barn flanked by two evergreen trees. At the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, 3,000 people were present to hear FDR’s annual speech, in which he discussed Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s renewed sense of self from the lessons he learned. With the reforms set into motion from the President’s First New Deal, the economy was on an up swing for the first time since the onset of the depression years.

1940 Christmas gift from the President was a key chain depicting his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala.

1940 Christmas gift from the President was a key chain depicting his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala.

Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term during the election of 1940. Promising to keep America out of the fighting overseas, he received 55% of the popular vote. With the closing of The Forge, FDR’s secretary ordered over 200 Scottish terrier key chains from Hammacher Schlemmer. The key chains were very near and dear to the Roosevelts, as the gifts immortalized their own beloved Scottish terrier, Fala. FDR’s secretary also ordered money clips and key chains from Cartier to be gifted to White House staff and associates.

Once America was officially at war, the Treasury Department began promoting and encouraging Americans to purchase defense bonds and stamps. Appropriate for the occasion, the Roosevelts’ Christmas gift to their White House staff was a black leather stamp album. A copy of the previous year’s Christmas speeches by Churchill and the President were given to cabinet members, heads of the executive office, family, and friends.

FDR enjoyed receiving Christmas cards as much as he enjoyed sending them. He established his own private collection of Christmas cards, and by 1940, the collection contained over 3,000 designs. The National Christmas Tree was decorated sans lights that year because electric lights were being rationed while America was at war.

For the 1943 holiday season, it was recommended that the National Community Christmas Tree not be resurrected because of the continuation of war time rationing of electricity and other commodity resources. First Lady Roosevelt insisted that the tree lighting ceremony take place because it was the one thing that Americans needed during the war-causing lackluster holiday season. And so the 20th annual National Community Christmas Tree was decorated with ornaments made by children in local schools, but similar to the year prior, the tree was without lights.

1944 Christmas gift from the President - a copy of his D-Day Prayer

1944 Christmas gift from the President - a copy of his D-Day Prayer

On the evening of the invasion of Normandy, the President issued the D-Day prayer; a copy of the prayer was given to each member of the White House staff. For close friends, FDR has the prayer made into a slip cased limited edition book. The last Christmas cards that FDR sent out maintained the same single-sided design, featuring an etching of the White House and a holly leaf with the imprinted greeting:
With Christmas Greetings and our best wishes for a Happier Nineteen Forty-five, The President and Mrs. Roosevelt

The Roosevelts spent Christmas at their home in Hyde Park again. FDR delivered his Christmas message to the American people and the troops overseas via radio broadcast from his personal library.

In April of 1945, the President left for his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he sought comfort for his paralysis in the town’s warmed mineral springs. He died on April 12 at the age of 63. Although the war wasn’t over, peace was very near thanks to his efforts.

President Harry S. Truman and First Lady Bess 1945-1953

Harry S. Truman had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President for only 82 days before Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Just weeks after Truman took over the Executive office as the 33rd President of the United States, the Allied forces defeated the Axis Powers and World War II came to an end. May 8 was declared as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day), which was also Truman’s 61st birthday. Writing to his mother, he remarked, “Isn’t that some birthday present?” He held a press conference announcing the victories in Germany and Italy and the end of World War II. For Christmas that year, he gave each White House staff member a scroll of his speech from the news conference. He also sent out official White House Christmas cards, which featured a lithograph design of holly and berries along with a standard gold imprint. The back of the envelope was also imprinted in gold with the Presidential Seal.

Official 1946 White House Christmas cards from the President and First Lady

Official 1946 White House Christmas cards from the President and First Lady

For the following Christmas, as a gift to all 575 members of the White House staff, Truman gave an autographed copy of a photograph of him and First Lady Bess boarding the President’s private plane, the Sacred Crow. “Christmas 1946” was etched into the bottom of each photograph. The Trumans also had 800 Christmas cards engraved from Brewood Engravers that featured an etching of a jeweled Christmas candelabra and standard Christmas imprint.

For the 1949 Christmas gift to their White House staff (or rather the Blair House staff), the Trumans gave a leather key holder. Each holder contained a snap closure and was imprinted with a brief Christmas greeting. To a small few of the President’s closest executive team members, he gave the same paperweight from the year prior, and to his Cabinet members, he gave the bound book, Selected Speeches and Statements on Foreign Affairs by Harry S. Truman.

Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the south lawn of the White House in 1947

Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the south lawn of the White House in 1947

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea, triggering the onset of the Korean War. Only five years after the end of World War II, global peace had been disrupted again. For Christmas that year as a gift to his White House staff, the President gave frameable copies of his Christmas Greetings 1950 message, which reflected upon his appreciation for those who whole-heartedly cared for his needs while he tended to the needs of the country. For his Cabinet members, Truman gave a set of six crystal glasses engraved with the Presidential Coat of Arms.

Christmas gift print from Truman to his staff given in 1952

Christmas gift print from Truman to his staff given in 1952

For Christmas of 1952, having decided to not run for re-election, Truman opted to spend his last holiday season as our country’s President in Washington. With renovations to the White House finally complete, the President and First Lady gave to each member of their staff a reproduction of a photograph of the White House. Each reproduction contained a gold Presidential Seal along with the greeting, “Christmas Greetings from the President and Mrs. Truman, 1952”. For the first time since 1947, the President was physically present to light the National Community Christmas Tree.

2004 American President Collection Harry S. Truman Ornament

2004 American President Collection Harry S. Truman Ornament

In his Christmas greeting to the American people, he spoke of the Korean War and re-establishing peace worldwide: “Our efforts to establish low and order in the world are not directed against any nation or any people. We seek only a universal peace, where all nations shall be free and all peoples shall enjoy their inalienable human rights.”

Harry S. Truman went back to Independence, Missouri in January of 1953 to enjoy a simpler life that didn’t involve the heaviness of politics he experienced while in Washington.

A special note of thanks goes to our friends at White House Christmas Cards, for allowing us to use some of their outstanding research material as part of this presentation. If you are interested in a more in-depth study of Christmas in the White House, we highly recommend you visit their site.

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Filed under Art, Children, Christmas, Christmas at the White House, Culture, Dancing, Entertainment, First Daughters, First Sons, Hanukkah, History, Holidays, Kwanzaa, Media and Entertainment, Military, Music, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents, Toys for Tots, Uncategorized, United States, US, Video/YouTube, Washington, DC, Women's Issues

6 responses to “The History of Christmas at the White House (1901-1953)

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  5. Roy Leatherby

    I am curious how Alice Roosevelt is considered Alice Roosevelt can be considered a First Lady being that she died in 1884 of kidney failure.

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