[Image is a work of the US Government - public domain.]
Do you find office desks boring? Try looking at them from a different perspective – you could be famous someday, and your most humdrum of office desks could be enshrined in a museum, with gawkers wondering how such a humble piece of furniture allowed you to come up with such glorious ideas.
Or you could find yourself in a powerful office where the desk is almost as famous and popular as its user. Office desks like the White House Resolute Desk fit in this category: few office desks have powerful stories behind them, or have served as a turning point in international diplomacy.
The Resolute office desk is one of the most famous symbols of the American Presidency, a desk gifted by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and used almost continuously to the present day.
The name ought to tell you that this most famous of office desks was built from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, a British ship that had become ice-bound, abandoned, and re-discovered by American whalers. Returned by the U.S. to Britain, the Resolute served in the Royal Navy for over twenty years. At its decommissioning, Queen Victoria requested that some of the ship’s timbers be recycled into a desk, which she then sent as a gift to the United States.
While all the Presidents since Hayes have used the Resolute desk at one time or another, it played second fiddle to other office desks. The recipient of the Resolute desk, Rutherford Hayes, had other Oval Office desks at his disposal, and kept the generous gift in other parts of the White House. Hayes’ successors did much the same. (read more)
Other Oval office desks came and went while the Resolute desk stayed in McKinley’s private office (the treaty ending the Spanish-American War was signed upon it). William Howard Taft used the Resolute Desk in his private study, while Herbert Hoover installed the Resolute desk in the Lincoln Bedroom.
The front of the Resolute Desk was “open” until Franklin D. Roosevelt took charge – he was self-conscious of his leg braces so he had a modesty panel installed in the front.
The Resolute Desk was never brought to the Oval Office until Jackie Kennedy restored the White House in the 1960s, making John F. Kennedy the first American President to use the Resolute Desk in its present position. After Kennedy’s death, incoming President Lyndon B. Johnson (who was a tall man) found the Resolute to be too small – he had the Senate cabinet shop make him a plainer but more roomy replacement.
Nixon didn’t bring the Resolute desk back to the Oval Office, either – upon succeeding Johnson, Nixon asked for the desk of Woodrow Wilson, but a snafu left him using the desk of Ulysses Grant’s Vice President Henry Wilson. For the rest of his term, nobody told Nixon he had been using the wrong desk!
The desk was brought back to the Oval Office by Jimmy Carter, and has stayed there ever since (with a brief break during George H. W. Bush’s term – he placed the desk in the Treaty Room). Replica Resolute office desks are also installed in a number of Presidential Libraries all over the country.
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