Secrets of the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk, Used by Every President Since Carter
It’s common tradition for U.S. presidents and their families to redecorate the White House on move-in day. Some embark on million-dollar renovations, while others only make a few minor changes. But regardless of individual presidential preferences, there’s one thing that never changes. The Resolute Desk is the desk the president uses, serving as an historical prop for official pictures, business and other pensive-looking gazes since 1880. The most famous workspace in America has a pretty interesting past.
From its humble origins on the rough seas to the Oval Office, the Resolute Desk has undoubtedly seen it all. Let’s look inside and discuss the secret history of this piece of presidential furniture, and also find out the 1 thing that President Trump did to change the desk (page 15).
1. Its origins hail from a British ship
The HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship) Resolute was a 600-ton British ship sent out by Queen Victoria on an Arctic rescue mission in 1852. Its goal? To find the lost Franklin expedition that disappeared in 1848 during an exploration into the Arctic.
The HMS Resolute quickly became ice-locked and the crew abandoned ship in 1854. In a stroke of good luck, American ship captain, James Buddington, discovered it during a whaling trip and returned both the ship and crew to the United States once the ice melted.
Next: An act of kindness sparks goodwill.
2, It was a timely gift from America to the Queen of England
Rescued from the sea, American shipyards repaired the vessel and sailed it back across the Atlantic to give to England. At a time when U.S. – U.K. relations were tense; this was seen as a gesture of goodwill between the nations. The act of kindness worked on Queen Victoria, as pieces of this ship’s legacy would soon be destined for America once again.
Next: The ship goes from hunk of wood to polished gleam
3. It arrived in America in 1880
The HMS Resolute was retired in 1879 and the Queen ordered a desk to be fashioned from the ship’s wood. What began as wood scraps became elaborate desk panels with carved medallion portraits of Her Majesty and the President of the United States, as well as two male and female hands grasping each other — cementing goodwill between the two countries.
The first official Resolute Desk was sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 to thank America for its help in searching for the Franklin expedition. Hayes found the ornate desk to be distinctly presidential and placed in the White House President’s Study.
Next: One of the few modifications ever made to the desk
4. Panels were added to hide FDR legs
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to modify the desk. Rather than use trash cans, FDR had a modesty panel installed in the desk’s kneehole to hide the leg braces he wore for his polio diagnosis. The desk was fitted with a hinged panel that opened like a door. He, unfortunately, did not live to see the changes installed.
Next: This historic detail can only be found on the Resolute Desk.
5. Its wooden panels depict history
FDR’s secret door was embroidered with a carved presidential seal. When President Truman took office in 1945 he had had FDR’s doors installed officially. This was prior to Truman’s decision to turn the eagle toward olive branches as a sign of peace. The Resolute’s modesty panel remains one of the few White House seals featuring an eagle facing the arrows of war instead of the olive branches.
Next: The desk finds a home in the White House
6. John F. Kennedy made it famous
The Resolute desk was placed in the oval office for the first time in 1961, per the request of President John F. Kennedy — or shall we say First Lady Jackie Kennedy. She uncovered the forgotten Resolute desk in storage and transferred it to the oval office during her famous White House restoration project.
Next: Famous press pictures
7. It makes for cute photo ops
The fact that two small kids could fit in the desk’s kneehole speaks to the sheer size of the piece. The Kennedy children were famously photographed playing in the underside of the Resolute Desk in 1962. Caroline, John Jr., and Kerry Kennedy were often seen playing in FDR’s hidden compartment from the oval office while JFK conducted official business.
Next: The desk goes on tour
8. The Oval Office wasn’t its only home
After JFK’s assassination, the desk went on a year-long tour with the Kennedy Library traveling exhibition, then to the Smithsonian Institution for exhibition from 1966-1977. But before that, the desk also lived in the President’s Study on the second floor as well as the Broadcast Room on the Ground Floor where it was used during radio and television broadcasts under the Eisenhower administration in 1952.
Next: All the famous presidents who sat behind this desk began with this guy
9. Jimmy Carter demanded its return
The desk finally returned to the Oval office at President Jimmy Carter’s insistence. A presidential trend emerged, and the desk remained in the Oval Office for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s presidential terms. But there was an exception to the rule, enacted by one president, in particular.
Next: The one president who brought his own desk to the party
10. George H.W. Bush bucked the trend
The Resolute Desk was sent to storage just five months into George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Instead, he preferred a humble, unadorned, walnut desk dubbed the “C+O Desk.” It was one of four made-to-order pieces of furniture for the owners of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co. circa 1920. Later, they donated the desk to the White House, and Bush used it while he was vice president. But by the time he was elected president, Bush had no use for the Resolute desk.
Next: The Resolute Desk gets an autograph
11. Dick Cheney inked himself into history on it
Rumor has it that Dick Cheney, vice president under George W Bush, signed his name in one of the top drawers before leaving office. Because what’s a little sharpie on a nearly 200-year-old artifact?
Next: No feet on the furniture
12. Obama’s feet took heat for it
While Cheney took a more permanent approach, former President Obama went casual in his use of the Resolute Desk. American’s were a little peeved when pictures surfaced showing Obama with his feet up on the historic piece, repeatedly. The media mocked him for his casual informality, but it’s likely the desk is just fine considering its parts once withstood a treacherous Artic voyage and countless eventful presidencies.
Next: How many Resolute Desks are there?
13. There’s more than one “Resolute” desk
The first — and most famous — desk rests in the Oval Office at the White House. But the HMS Resolute was a large ship, and the Queen actually ordered three desks to be constructed from the ship’s timber. The second desk is much smaller and modest in comparison to the President’s desk. It’s been on loan to the Royal Navy Museum since the 1980s.
The third known as the “Queen Victoria Desk” or the “Grinnell Desk” is a lady’s desk and was a gift from the Queen to Henry Grinnell’s widow in thanks for his help financing several Franklin rescue attempts.
Next: The desk has been in movies
14. Sorry, there are no hidden compartments
Fans of Nicholas Cage’s National Treasure franchise may remember him unearthing a treasure clue in a hidden compartment of the Resolute Desk in Buckingham Palace. But the film’s notion of secret Resolute drawers was simply a Hollywood embellishment and not true of the historic piece. There is, however, an original plaque located on the chair side of the desk that was polished and restored in 2009.
Next: Trump’s addition to the Resolute Desk
15. President Trump “Trump-ified” it
President Donald Trump is keeping tradition alive when it comes to the power desk. In addition to hanging an Andrew Jackson poster in the Oval Office (their political campaigns were remarkably similar), Trump accessorized the Resolute Desk with two arm chairs for visitors, claiming, “I changed the way it works … Used to be they never had chairs that anybody can remember in front of the desk. But I’ve always done it this way where I’m at the desk and I have people here.”
Trump continues, “usually they would sit on the sofas. But this is the Resolute desk. This is a great desk with a phenomenal history. Many great presidents were behind this desk.”
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