Auto Enthusiast William Howard Taft Brings the Horseless Carriage to the White House

2012 White House Ornament depicts President Taft in automobile

The 2012 White House Christmas ornament celebrates the life of William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president of the United States (1909–1913), the only man to become president and then chief justice of the United States. An early automobile enthusiast, he introduced the motorcar to White House transportation, breaking a long presidential tradition of reliance on horse-drawn vehicles.

A distinguished jurist and effective administrator, President Taft focused on executing the law rather than setting an ambitious legislative agenda during his term. A “large, jovial, conscientious” man, he was caught in the intensive battles between progressives and conservatives. Taft received scant credit for many of his accomplishments, including the signing of the first tariff revision since 1897; establishing a postal savings system; forming the Interstate Commerce Commission; and prosecuting over 75 antitrust cases.

President Taft was smitten with the White steamer, a pre-gasoline steam powered car, manufactured by the White Sewing Company of Cleveland, Ohio. He believed in the future of the automobile and wanted a White when he entered the White House. After some wrangling with opponents in Congress over the costs and dangers of motorcars, he obtained a $12,000 budget for the purchase of the first White House limousine fleet consisting of the Steamer, two Pierce-Arrow limousines, a “suburban,” and a landaulet. The small remaining budget was used to convert the White House stables to a garage and pay the chauffeurs. Pauline Wayne, Taft’s famous milk cow continued to be stabled at the White House until the garage and stables were demolished in 1911.

The Tafts loved the active social life required by the presidency, and entertaining was notable for its variety and frequency. White House hospitality centered on the dining table and featured ambitious and varied menus to accompany the state dinners. Formal musicales and elaborate parties and dances were held in the garden. Garden parties were one of Mrs. Taft’s favorite ways of entertaining, reminding her of her cherished years in the Philippines when President Taft served as civil governor. The pleasant rides through tree-lined parks in Manila inspired her to dream of having a promenade and drive appropriate to the federal city. This wish led to the first public project ever undertaken by a First Lady and resulted in the creation of Potomac Drive. The drive and its popular Marine Band concerts were immediate successes. Additionally through the efforts of Mrs. Taft Potomac Drive would be given its famous cherry trees, an enduring gift of friendship between the U.S. and Japan.

Christmas at the Taft House

The Taft family celebrated Christmas simply, they opened gifts in the morning and shared a turkey dinner later. According to press reports, a 35–40 pound prize turkey graced the table along with “Aunt Delia’s goodies.” The president’s aunt Delia Torey of Millbury, Massachusetts always sent “Nephew Will” an eagerly anticipated package of apple pies, jellies, and jams made from fruit grown on the Torrey property. President and Mrs. Taft enjoyed the bustle of downtown Christmas shopping with holiday crowds. On Christmas Eve in 1911, the president and first lady secretly left the White House on foot to call on friends as a surprise. When the Secret Service discovered their absence, there was widespread panic. Eventually, President Taft returned to the White House smiling broadly with Mrs. Taft holding his arm.

A major change occurred to the White House complex during the Taft administration with the creation of the first “Oval” office space to house the president’s office. It was fully oval, like the Blue Room. The Oval Office—as it later came to be known—was the first new state room since the house was built in the 1790s. The office was replaced in 1934 by the Oval Office built for Franklin D. Roosevelt in yet another major expansion of the West Wing.

Of the previous White House ornaments 24 honored presidents. The 1989 ornament paid tribute to the bicentennial of the American presidency, and 1992 honored the laying of the White House cornerstone in 1792. The bicentennial of the White House as home of the president was commemorated in 2000. In 2002, the ornament honored the centennial of the restoration of the White House and the building of the West Wing.

The cost of the ornament is $17.95 and includes packing and standard shipping, and can be ordered from the White House Historical Association, P.O. Box 96586. Washington, D.C. 20090-6586, or you can call toll free 1-800-555-2451, or visit online at shop.whitehousehistory.org. Each of the 31 past ornaments in the collection (from 1981–2011) is also available, along with educational brochures.

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The White House Historical Association was established in 1961 as a non-profit organization to enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House. All proceeds from its trusts and sales of ornaments, publications and other association products are used to fund acquisitions of historic furnishings and art works for the permanent White House collection, assist in the preservation of the public rooms, and further its educational mission.