We’ve all felt the pressure of finding a gift for someone we don’t know well, but really must impress. Best case scenario, we’ll get an assist from a mutual friend or turn to ubiquitously versatile gift cards in a pinch. But when your recipient is the president of the United States, the stakes are quite a bit higher. Thankfully, most of us aren’t foreign dignitaries with delicate diplomatic etiquette to follow, so we’ll never have to put our gifting skills to that particular test.
If you do want some hypothetical presidential gift inspiration, check out this list of some of the most unusual gifts given to American presidents during their time in office:
- 300 pounds of raw lamb, from the president of Argentina to George W. Bush. No word on whether it came with recipe suggestions, but this meaty gift was passed along to the General Services Administration.
- A peach pit carved with the president’s likeness, an eagle, and a depiction of St. Christopher from R. J. McErlean to JFK. A very creative spin on “work with the materials you’ve got.”
- Rutherford B. Hayes received a lemon carved into the shape of a pig. It arrived sporting matchstick legs and a curly tail of twine. Last minute? Perhaps. Adorable? Certainly.
- A 1,235 pound block of cheese, engraved with the phrase “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Long before it was official policy, Thomas Jefferson refused to accept free gifts. He paid $200 for this massive cheese from the Republican Baptists, which they made with milk from local cows–none of which belonged to the hated local Federalists.
Arts & Crafts
- The Obamas received a signed, framed photograph of Prince William….from Prince William. When British royal policy prevents you from sending selfies, there’s always portraiture.
- Other presidents received crafty renderings of their own likenesses–some painted, others in more creative mediums like a handwoven rug for Bill and Hilary Clinton and two petite portraits on grains of rice for Richard Nixon.
- Barack Obama received two incredibly ornate robes and a floor-length cape from the head of the Saudi National Guard, valued at $40,000. While they surely would have made an impression at a state dinner, these gifts were graciously taken to the National Archives for storage and display.
- Ronald Reagan received several dozen ornate saddles and 372 belt buckles during his time in office–enough to outfit a fleet of rodeo stars.
Attentiveness goes a long way toward giving a thoughtful gift. When First Lady Pat Nixon mentioned her love of pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, he took note. A mere two months passed before the Chinese government formally presented the Nixons with a pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who lived at the National Zoo for 20 years.
- While some presidential gifts, like puppies and horses, make for great photo opportunities, there was one notable exception: the giant, venomous Komodo dragon George H.W. Bush received from the president of Indonesia in 1990. Naga was quickly rehomed for a long, healthy life at the Cincinnati Zoo.
- In 1861, the King of Siam offered–er, strongly suggested–several elephants as a gift for Abraham Lincoln. He recommended breeding them, as their usefulness for transportation would be of “great benefit” to the American people. Lincoln demurred, citing steam power as a more viable resource at the time.
The Wild Cards
- The chief minister of Australia’s Northern Territories has perfected the art of niche practical gifting. When Barack Obama visited Australia in 2011, he and Michelle received crocodile insurance in case their visit to the remote city of Darwin didn’t go as planned.
- George Bush received a number of playful gifts during his time in office: a full set of rollerblading gear complete with wrist and knee guards from the Dutch Prime Minister, and an electric harp with a speakerphone from Vietnam.
- The Sultan of Brunei certainly has a sense of whimsy when it comes to his gifts. He took the mix and match approach, and presented Barack Obama with 12 scented votive candles and an automatic tea infuser shaped like a penguin, among several other novelty items.
After all those gifts–carefully considered or not–are exchanged, you might wonder: Were they a hit? It’s complicated. Presidential gift-giving and receiving in the United States comes with particular customs. For all the expectations that they’ll enthusiastically acknowledge each gift, policy dictates that sitting U.S. presidents can’t keep gifts valued over $390. Instead, they must turn them over to the government, where items are assessed for monetary value, catalogued, and kept in the Presidential Library or National Archives. Perishables like wine, food, and perfumes, which the Secret Service handles–without sampling, one assumes. If a particular gift really piques the First Family’s interest, they may purchase it at market value, though this is rarely done.
If all these memorable gifts have you feeling insecure about your next high-stakes gifting situation, don’t panic. We’re fresh out of elephants and sculpted peach pits, but we have hundreds more gift ideas you can browse and customize however you like. Start here!