No person in the world is more recognizable than an American president. These men are larger than life, and as the leader of the free world they have the opportunity to shape history in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Some objects, such as the Resolute desk, Air Force One, or the presidential seal, are symbolic of the position itself, but each president has at least one artifact that largely defines his life and his presidency. For example, George Washington’s ill-fitting dentures plagued him for most of his life, affecting the very image of his face that we have all come to recognize. Millions of Americans were comforted by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” as he spoke into a radio microphone during the Great Depression and World War II. John F. Kennedy memorialized a coconut husk, with a message he wrote after his PT boat was destroyed in the Pacific Ocean, into a paperweight he kept on his desk in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton appeared on late night television playing the saxophone to appeal to younger voters.
Exploring the American Presidency through 50 Historic Treasures brings together significant artifacts from the lives of the men who have led our nation through times of great prosperity and terrible tragedy. When we look at our presidents through the lens of the material culture they left behind, it humanizes them and creates relevance to our own lives. This book features full-color images of 50 artifacts that were chosen by the very people who work at presidential sites and historical museums, stewarding the legacies of our presidents.
Kimberly A. Kenney became Curator of the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in October 2001 and was promoted to Executive Director in 2019. She appeared on The Daily Show, First Ladies: Influence & Images, and Mysteries at the Museum. Her program “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic” was featured on C-SPAN’s series American History TV. Kimberly lives in Canton, Ohio.
It's easy to find books about the presidents. However, while biographies teach us about presidents, only artifacts "have a unique power to convey the immediacy of history." Only material culture, the examination of artifacts, conveys the raw, "uninterpreted story of our past." This engaging catalog presents one notable object for each president, along with a detailed historical-background essay and color photo, from Washington's notorious teeth (which were not made of wood) to a vial of the COVID vaccine for Joe Biden. Also covered is a decapitated Andrew Jackson figurehead, just nose to crown, angrily sliced from a wooden bow figurehead on the USS Constitution in 1834. Other artifacts include the bullhorn used by George W. Bush to speak to 9/11 first responders at Ground Zero, the microphone used by Franklin Roosevelt for his comfortingly informal fireside chats, and Lincoln's hauntingly bloody chair from Ford's Theatre. This collection of historic treasures deserves a spot in the browsing section of school and public libraries.
Kenney presents material-culture objects selected by historic-site staffers that epitomize aspects of U.S. presidents. Similar in format and approach to Harold Holzer’s The Civil War in 50 Objects and Richard Kurin’s The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, this narrative details the provenance of many otherwise mundane articles. Among those chosen are many similar talismans—desks of John Adams, James Monroe, and Martin Van Buren—and the expected—Washington’s dentures, Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theater; FDR’s microphone; Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign; Reagan’s piece of the Berlin Wall; Clinton’s saxophone; George W. Bush’s 9/11 bullhorn; a pen that Obama used to sign the Affordable Care Act; and Trump’s MAGA hat. Somewhat unusual artifacts receive the author’s helpful explanations—Jefferson’s friendship gift of a walking stick to Madison, a piano that Tyler’s wife gave him to mark his transition to the presidency, and a replica of the original Hungarian crown which Carter repatriated. These iconic pieces provide the opportunity to share little-known stories. Perfect for history buffs.—
“From George Washington’s dentures (not made of wood), to James Madison’s gold-capped cane (Thomas Jefferson's lovely gift), to Ronald Reagan’s piece of the Berlin Wall (a well earned souvenir), 50 historic treasures indeed they are. The photographs are striking, and Kimberly Kenney’s interesting narrative gives them life, depth, and relevance with unusually revealing insights about the presidents who owned them.”
"What makes a president? Kimberly Kenney’s vignettes of the men elected to lead our nation use carefully chosen objects—some famous like Washington’s dentures and others unknown—that connect these, sometimes towering figures, to the ordinary challenges of human beings. Through their possessions we are privy to their triumphs and their failures. Open the book to your favorite President and discover him anew."
50 full-color photographs and 2 full-color timelines
Chapters on each of the American presidents
6/26/23, The Canton Repository: Author Kimberly Kenney is interviewed in this feature article about the book.