These Remarkable Historical Photos Capture Life In The White House In All Its Glory

Presidents come and go, but there’s been one constant in American politics for the last 220 years: the White House. It’s seen many pivotal historic moments in its time, such as the signing of peace treaties and key meetings with foreign leaders. But lighter moments shine out as well – a birthday cake for a dog, a visit from Deadwood Dick and Mr. T playing Santa, just to name a few. Read on to find out more about the magnificent mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

40. The very first photograph

It might not be the sharpest photo you’ve ever seen, but this image from 1846 is fascinating nonetheless. That’s because, as far as we know, it’s the very first photo of the White House. It was captured by a Welshman called John Plumbe Jr. during the first year of James K. Polk’s presidency.

39. A first lady and a queen

You could say that both of the characters in this 1976 image are first ladies in their own right. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, making her the longest reigning monarch in her country’s history. Betty Ford, on the other hand, was first lady from 1974 for a mere three years.

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38. Princes Di and John Travolta

Here, British royalty meets – and dances with – Hollywood royalty. The principals in this image from 1985 are, of course, John Travolta and Princess Diana, with Nancy and Ronald Reagan consigned to bit parts in the background of the photo. Travolta and Diana are perhaps the only people who could effortlessly upstage the Reagans in their pomp.

37. A White House cat

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Benjamin Fink enjoyed a brief moment of fame in 1924 thanks to this wandering White House kitty. Tiger was President Calvin Coolidge’s cat, one he was said to have been especially fond of. So, when the footloose feline deserted its post at the White House, a plea for its return was broadcast on local radio. Fink found the cat nearby and returned it to its rightful place.

36. Remodeling the White House

The history of the White House as a presidential residence dates back to 1800. That’s when the second U.S. president John Adams moved into the as-yet unfinished building. So, it’s hardly surprising that President Harry Truman decided in 1950 that it was time for a major remodeling. By then, the building’s dilapidation was beyond a joke. At one point a piano leg belonging to Truman’s daughter Margaret crashed through a floor.

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35. Presidential laughter

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These two men seem very happy to enjoy a laugh together as they stand in front of the White House in 1913. In fact, the man on the right is outgoing president William Taft and to the left is new president Woodrow Wilson. The occasion is the latter’s inauguration. It does the heart good to see two political rivals apparently happy to share a joke.

34. Marie Curie at the White House

There’s been a veritable parade of famous men and women who’ve crossed the White House threshold over the years. But one of the most distinguished was the double Nobel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie. Here she is in 1921, arm in arm with President Warren Harding. Madame Curie’s reputation rests primarily on her outstanding work on radioactivity.

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33. Ronald Reagan and Indira Gandhi

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It’s the summer of 1982, and President Ronald Reagan is hosting the Indian president Indira Gandhi. By then, she was two years into her fourth term in the post. And according to The New York Times, Gandhi was in an expansive mood at the time. As the paper reported, she declared, “Every journey is an adventure. And I can say that this one is an adventure in search of understanding and friendship.”

32. Wild West comes to the White House

In this image from 1929 – which was when Herbert Hoover was in the White House – Richard Clark looks every inch the Wild West frontiersman. So, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that he was, in fact, born in Yorkshire, England, in 1847. Known as Deadwood Dick, Clark featured in a series of yarns about his exploits fighting Native Americans and riding shotgun for gold consignments in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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31. Sammy Davis Jr. meets Nixon

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Here, Sammy Davis Jr. and President Richard Nixon stand deep in conversation in the White House’s Yellow Oval Room in 1973. It seems the two were close and a bear hug between the singer and the politician in 1972 remains controversial to this day. In 2020 British newspaper The Daily Mail reported a claim that Nixon had promised to help Davis Jr. with a large amount of back taxes owed to the IRS – hence the hug. The truth of this tale remains entirely unconfirmed.

30. Churchill in overalls

Here’s revered British wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill visiting President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in January 1942. By that time the U.S. had joined World War II, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous month. Churchill sports his “siren suit,” a one-piece overall which could supposedly be put on in just 60 seconds. Handy when the air raid alarms went off in London.

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29. Nixon meets Pelé

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Soccer may not be America’s top sport by a long chalk, but almost everyone’s heard of legendary Brazilian wizard Pelé. It certainly seems that President Nixon was well aware of the man’s fame. Pelé earned his place in the pantheon of soccer greats by playing a key role in three Brazilian World Cup wins. With 77 goals to his name he remains his national team’s record scorer.

28. Royalty at the White House

John and Jackie Kennedy welcomed the glamorous European royal couple Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco to the White House in June 1961. By the time she married Rainier in 1956, Grace Kelly was already a household name thanks to her movie career. She’s perhaps best remembered for her performances in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most accomplished movies including Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

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27. Sheep on the lawn!

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No, your eyes do not deceive you. Those four-legged balls of wool munching grass on the White House lawn are, indeed, sheep. It was President Woodrow Wilson who decided a flock of sheep was a good idea for the White House grounds. It was during the First World War, and Wilson wanted to show solidarity with his public during the conflict. So, he brought in the sheep to maintain the length of the property’s grass, saving on manual labor. And when the sheep’s wool was sold at auction, it reportedly raised over $52,000 for the war effort.

26. A pope at the White House

In 1979 Pope John Paul II dropped in on the White House for an audience with President Jimmy Carter. Up until then, no leader of the Catholic Church had ever visited the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mansion. Carter even managed a phrase in John Paul’s native Polish to celebrate the occasion. He said, “Niech bedzie bog Pochwalony.” If your Polish is a tad rusty, that means, “May God be praised.”

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25. Defending the White House

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White House security is tight nowadays, but not necessarily in expectation of an invading army. Things, however, were different in 1861, as the Civil War raged. Back then, military defense of the presidential residence was considered essential. Here, the Union Army’s impressive Cassius M. Clay Battalion stands guard with bayonets fixed, ready to repel all comers. President Lincoln must have felt reassured.

24. Mother Teresa visits

The scene is the Oval Office in 1985, and the principals are Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Mother Teresa. After her death in 1987, Teresa was sanctified by the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. During her visit to the White House the president awarded her with the Medal of Freedom. She’d already won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work with poverty stricken people in India.

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23. Native American delegation

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It’s 1863, and even though the U.S. is convulsed by the violence of its bitter Civil War, this delegation of Native Americans has made it to the White House. For reasons that are unclear, these Indigenous people have congregated with various White House staffers in the conservatory. Among those sitting in the front row are Standing in the Water, Yellow Wolf of the Kiowas and Lean Bear of the Cheyenne people.

22. Nancy and Mr. T

This photograph surely calls for a witty remark of some kind. But for once, we are comprehensively dumbfounded. In any case, this shot from December 1983 shows Nancy Regan ensconced on the lap of Mr. T, seasonally garbed in a Santa Claus outfit. In 2018 The Washington Post described this image as, “The most shocking first lady photo ever.” And we can’t do better than that.

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21. Mourning a president

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The mood is somber here as people gather to mourn the death of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In one of the most shocking episodes in presidential history, actor and pro-slaver John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. Sadly, it wasn’t to be the only time that a president was murdered.

20. Elton John and Ronald Reagan

With his Hollywood background, Ronald Reagan was far from averse to sprinkling the White House with a little stardust. And in this case, that stardust came in the shape of a grinning Elton John, seen here in the Oval Office in 1982. Often noted for his flamboyant outfits, John has toned down hugely with this conservative suit and tie. Although the ’80s shoulder pads are a wonder to behold.

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19. White House bedroom

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Here, we see a White House bedroom in the late 19th century. It features an electric light fitting, a relative rarity at the time. The books on the table at the center and the two rocking chairs make the room look thoroughly lived in. But who exactly slept here? According to the Architect’s Digest, this was the room used by President William McKinley and First Lady Ida.

18. Taft and Coolidge

A gaggle of men in the stiff, formal dress of the 1920s stroll across a sunny White House lawn. It’s the fall of 1924, to be precise, and the two men at the head of the phalanx are Calvin Coolidge with William Taft on his arm. Coolidge was president at the time and Taft was his chief justice.

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17. President and vice president

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President John F. Kennedy strides purposefully along the White House driveway with his vice president Lyndon Johnson at his side. It’s 1961, and the two leaders are on their way to launch the Workmen’s Compensation Commemorative Stamp. Launching a four-cent postage stamp maybe isn’t the most demanding moment in either man’s career, but it nevertheless demanded presidential gravitas.

16. An inauguration

Roll back the years to 1885, and here we have a presidential election. It’s the turn of Grover Cleveland to assume the position of commander in chief. The ceremony in those days was held in front of the White House rather than the Capitol, as it has been since 1981. Cleveland stands center-shot in an impressive top hat.

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15. Presidential kitchen

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This White House kitchen photo was taken sometime between 1891 and 1893 by Frances Benjamin Johnston. William Harrison was president at the time, and the Business Insider website claims that his favorite food was squirrel stew. The identity of the woman in the kitchen is a mystery, as is the dish she’s holding. Maybe some sort of squirrel-based delicacy?

14. Eggs at Easter

Here’s the famous White House Easter egg roll in 1908, by then already a 30-year-old tradition. Lucy Webb Hayes, first lady to President Rutherford B. Hayes, established the ceremony in 1878. Although it seems to be mostly adults in this photo, in truth the egg rolling is mainly for children. In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison added to the merriment by ordering the United States Marine Band to perform.

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13. Head to head

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This extraordinary image captures what looks like a tense moment in a conversation between Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson in the White House Cabinet Room. At that time in late July 1968, Johnson was president and Nixon was standing for the presidency on the Republican ticket. Johnson had already announced that he wouldn’t stand for re-election. In the event, Nixon beat his Democrat opponent Hubert Humphrey.

12. The first horse

This fine steed – pictured in 1903 – belonged to Edith Roosevelt, first lady to President Teddy Roosevelt. The horse is tethered outside the White House stables. At one time these stables could house up to 25 horses and a dozen carriages. Sadly, progress overtook the horses. A few years after this photo was taken the stables were repurposed as a garage for the White House automobile fleet.

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11. Driving in luxury

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President Woodrow Wilson, resplendent in a tall top hat, sits in the presidential automobile of 1923. This elegant vehicle is a Pierce-Arrow Limousine, which is a far cry from the bullet proof monsters that president’s habitually travel in today. Wilson, it’s said, was so keen on the deluxe car that well-wishers bought him one after he left the White House.

10. Nixon goes country

When you remember the days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, you probably don’t immediately think “country music!” But Nixon did actually invite Johnny Cash to the Oval Office in 1972. It has to be said that Cash looks far from impressed by his president in this shot. According to the White House Historical Association’s website, however, the country singer was in fact a firm supporter of Nixon.

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9. A special desk

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One of the most treasured objects in the White House is the Resolute Desk, seen here in 1886 in the Yellow Oval Room during Grover Cleveland’s presidency. Queen Victoria gifted this unique piece of furniture to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. It’s made with the timbers of British Royal Navy ship HMS Resolute, and it’s been used by most presidents. Joe Biden now sits behind the desk in the Oval Office.

8. Scouts on bikes

It’s the summer of 1921, and these Boy Scouts have arrived at the White House to pay their respects to President Warren Harding. Nothing especially unusual about that, you might think. Except that these lads have cycled all the way to Washington from Columbus, Ohio. According to Google Maps, that’s a ride of 456 miles that would take around 42 hours. Impressive.

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7. Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran

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President Jimmy Carter shares a lectern with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in November 1977. Carter is wiping his eyes because of the tear gas in the air, deployed by security to repel angry demonstrators opposed to the Shah. Just two years after this White House visit, the Iranian leader would be forced into exile by a popular uprising led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

6. A doggie birthday cake

“Laddie Boy’s Birthday Cake, Nine Years Old,” says the card on this pooch’s treat, which looks like it’s been built with dog biscuits. Lucky Laddie Boy, pictured here in July 1922, belonged to President Warren G. Harding. In a 2009 article, the Smithsonian magazine went so far as to describe the Airedale terrier as the first White House hound to achieve celebrity status. Apparently, regular press reports followed the first dog’s career.

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5. LBJ meets MLK

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Distinguished civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and two colleagues – James Farmer on the far right, with Whitney M. Young, Jr. next to him – meet President Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s 1964, and the meeting is in the Oval Office. During his presidency, Johnson was to oversee the passage of legislation that strengthened civil rights for African-Americans.

4. Coolidge with the army

There’s probably never been a U.S. president who didn’t welcome the chance of a photo opportunity that showed him surrounded by military personnel. After all, it’s an easy way to underline any politician’s patriotism. And on a less cynical note, it’s only right that a president should show his support for the armed forces that defend the nation. President Calvin Coolidge stands in the center of this 1924 White House photo.

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3. Johnson and Marcos

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Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird look far from relaxed in this 1966 shot with the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his spouse Imelda. Marcos ruled over the Philippines for two decades from 1966 with an authoritarianism that became increasingly harsh in the face of popular discontent. Matters came to a head in 1986 when Marcos was forced to flee to Hawaii, where he lived out his days.

2. Signing a peace treaty

Over the years there have been many key historic moments that played out inside the White House – and this is one of them. It’s February 1899, and the French ambassador Jules-Martin Cambon acts for Spain as he signs a peace treaty while President William McKinley looks on. The agreement brought an official end to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The treaty saw Spain losing most of its colonies and the U.S. taking effective control of various territories.

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1. Iced treat delivery

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One of President Warren Harding’s passions, it seems, was the chocolate covered ice cream treat Eskimo Pie. In fact, he liked it so much that he had it trucked in some 700 miles to the White House from Chicago. And this 1922 photo is the proof. But no president will ever eat Eskimo Pie again. In 2020 the company that owns the brand today decided to recognize racial sensitivities by renaming it Edy’s Pie.

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