Yesterday, I decided it was high time I paid a call on Petey at his Marion home.
Petey was the pet canary of President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence. This little white-and-grey songbird whose species originated in the Harz Mountains of Germany sang songs and performed mimicry from a cage in the Hardings’ private quarters of the White House. When Petey died in November 1928, a taxidermist prepared him for display. Ever since, Petey has been perched on a piece of wood under a glass dome, sitting on a dresser in the guest bedroom of the Harding Home.
Petey is just one of the thousands of original objects belonging to President and Mrs. Harding that you can see while touring their Victorian Queen Anne-style home.
In 1891, Harding built the home located at 380 Mount Vernon Avenue as a wedding present for his fiancé, Florence Kling, for $3,500. They were married at the foot of the staircase, between two carved banister posts that resemble the faces of owls.
The couple lived in the home while Harding worked as the editor and publisher of the Marion Daily Star, as state senator from 1899-1904 and as Ohio’s lieutenant governor from 1904-1906. The Hardings’ home took on real significance in 1920, when Harding ran for president of the United States. Instead of traveling around the country campaigning, Harding gave about 100 speeches from the large, rounded stone front porch that he added in 1903. During the campaign, over 600,000 people congregated on the Hardings’ front lawn to hear those speeches.
Harding’s presidential campaign was the first to incorporate Hollywood stars and business leaders, as Al Jolson, Henry Ford and other celebrities of the day posed for photos with the handsome Harding. It was also the first to receive widespread news coverage. To provide a headquarters for the reporters who covered the campaign, Harding ordered a $1,000 Sears Catalog Home kit and built the Press House in his back yard. Today, the building houses a small museum and gift shop.
About 98 percent of the furniture and objects on display in the home belonged to our 29th president and his wife. Downstairs, you can admire three Rookwood tile fireplaces; the 1921 movie projector that the Hardings used to show films in the White House; a collection of canes that were presented to the eighth Ohioan to serve as president; silhouettes cut of the couple during a 1907 trip to Paris; and the hand-carved, high-backed chair in which Laddie Boy, Harding’s famous Airedale terrier, sat during presidential cabinet meetings.
In the library, you’ll see the tuxedo that Harding wore to his inauguration, complete with a white pocket square embroidered “W.G. Harding.” Glass-fronted barrister bookcases house Harding’s personal library, including copies of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure; Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace; and Golf for Beginners—And Others, by Marshall Whitlatch. There’s also a copy of Pierre Curie, written by his wife, Marie Curie, who inscribed the copy, “To Mrs. Warren G. Harding, with my grateful remembrance of the reception at the White House in May 1921.”
On the kitchen stove sits a waffle iron, next to a quote from Harding about his favorite food: “You eat the first fourteen waffles without syrup, but with lots of butter. Then you put syrup on the next nine, and the last half-dozen you eat simply swimming in syrup. Eaten that way, waffles never hurt anybody.”
Some of the items on display upstairs include Harding’s cigar humidor from Cuba; dresser drawers filled with his silk ties; Mrs. Harding’s séance chair; and a cricket cage, reflecting the tradition that these orthopteran songsters bring good luck into a home.
Our tour guide was a high school history teacher who’s enjoying his first official day of retirement today. Throughout the home, he posed several “quiz questions” to us. “What significant event happened in 1922 that would have prompted someone to give Harding a cane that resembled an Egyptian scepter?,” he asked. I whispered the correct answer and he gave me an “A.”
Later, as we admired the buckeye design featured in one of the home’s three stained-glass windows, our guide pointed out the 17 buckeyes representing Ohio’s admittance as the 17th State of the American Union. The answer to his question, “In what year was Ohio admitted to the Union?,” was more enlightening than we thought.
Here was our last quiz question. Can you name the five presidents of the United States who aren’t buried in this country? Leave me a comment with your answer!
In the gift shop, you can purchase all sorts of clever things, like Mrs. Harding’s waffle recipe and the latest issue of White House History, the excellent journal of the White House Historical Association. You can also take home a free “Flat Laddie” of Laddie Boy that you can cut out, take with you and photograph at places you visit. My “Flat Laddie” went with me to work today.
The Harding Home is operated for the Ohio Historical Society by Marion Technical College. Throughout the year, it offers several special events, such as the Warren G. Harding Symposium, during which authors, historians and researchers discuss social and cultural aspects of the Harding era. “Scandals and the United States Presidency” will take place July 19-20, 2013 and will feature a presentation by John Dean, White House counsel for President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Click here for more information.
Read Pets of the Presidents, by Janet V. Caulkins, to learn more about Laddie Boy and other presidential pets, such as Thomas Jefferson’s mockingbird, Dick. Jefferson would open Dick’s cage and let him fly around his study, perch on his shoulder, sing along while Jefferson played his violin, and warble popular folk tunes while the president napped.