August 8th is International Cat Day, and today’s post, from Alyssa Moore in the National Archives History Office looks at the history of household cats at the White House.
While cats were likely used to control the mice population in the early years of the White House, Abraham Lincoln was the first President believed to have a feline as a pet at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When taking up residence in Washington, the Lincolns left their dog Fido in Springfield, Illinois, prompting Secretary of State William Seward to give them two cats, Tabby and Dixie, in August 1861. Abraham Lincoln was reported to enjoy the company of animals, and when asked by a reporter what her husband’s hobbies were, Mary Todd Lincoln stated flatly: “cats.”
The next cat to occupy the White House was given to First Lady Lucy Hayes in 1878 by the American consul in Bangkok, David Sickels. The Siamese cat, named Siam, became Hayes’s daughter Fanny’s pet. Siam was reportedly the first Siamese cat in the United States when she arrived in 1879. Sadly, she fell ill nine months after her arrival.
Though the President’s personal physician attempted to nurse Siam back to health with fish, chicken, duck, cream, and oysters, she later died at the White House. Records indicate that the President sent her remains to the Department of Agriculture to be preserved by a taxidermist, but the body was misplaced, and no paper trail exists to tell us what happened to Siam. Today, you can purchase a plush Siam stuffed animal at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museum gift shop!
Theodore Roosevelt was known to keep the White House full of animals, including a six-toed cat named Slippers. Jacob Riis reported on a January 11, 1906, diplomatic corps dinner in which President Roosevelt escorted Baroness Hengenmuller, the wife of the Hungarian ambassador, to the State Dining Room. On their way to dinner, Roosevelt tiptoed the baroness around Slippers so as not to disrupt the cat, who was in the midst of a nap on the Cross Hall carpet.
Calvin Coolidge’s cat Tiger (nicknamed Tige) had a habit of wandering beyond the White House. His March 1924 disappearance was reported in the press, with Washington radio stations broadcasting his jaunt outside of the White House grounds in an effort to enlist the public in finding the President’s cat. Luckily, Tige was found in a Navy building half a mile from the Executive Mansion and was returned to the White House, safe and sound.
Blacky, the other Coolidge cat, preferred to eat rather than roam and could often be found in the White House kitchen, where he would go in search of a handout.
When Coolidge left office in 1929, the White House did not play host to another pet cat until 1974. Susan Ford, President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford’s daughter, brought her Siamese cat, Shan, to live with her while her father was President. The pampered cat slept with a heating pad at night in Susan’s bed and spent her days with Betty Ford while Susan was at school, often hiding under the Lincoln bed and sunbathing in the solarium.
Misty Malarky Ying Yang was a Siamese cat belonging to Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. He lived at the White House from 1977 until the end of Carter’s term in 1981. So famous was this cat that Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo composed a jazz song called “Misty Malarky Ying Yang” for his 1977 album, Faces.
Much like Teddy Roosevelt’s cat Slippers, Misty Malarky made headlines in 1977 when he wandered down the Grand Staircase of the White House during a State Dinner, passing President Carter and Mexican President José López Portillo on his way.
Perhaps the most famous of White House cats is Socks. Belonging to President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, Socks was a stray tuxedo cat the Clintons adopted when they lived in Arkansas.
He became a pop culture icon during his tenure at the White House and was a recurring favorite of press photographers, who once baited Socks with catnip to lure him outside of the White House. A television cameraman even held the cat aloft to pose for a picture. This incident resulted in a swift rebuke from the Clintons saying, “Special note to all press from the highest authority: don’t touch the cat again.”
When he passed away in 2009, several newspapers released obituaries commemorating the legendary life of Socks the White House cat.
George W. Bush and Laura Bush brought a black Shorthair cat named India to the White House. India, also known occasionally as “Willie,” kept a lower profile than the family’s two Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley. She did, however, appear in BarneyCam videos during the holiday season and even made a Halloween appearance on the White House South Lawn in 2007 dressed as a wizard.
More recently, in 2022 the Biden White House announced that a cat would yet again be joining the First Family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. First Lady Jill Biden met Willow, a tabby cat, at a 2020 campaign stop when the cat unceremoniously leapt onto the stage during Dr. Biden’s speech. The Bidens adopted Willow after President Biden made a campaign promise to bring a cat to the White House if he won the Presidency. She is named after Dr. Biden’s hometown of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.
The White House has a long tradition of cats maintaining residence there. White House pets can be ambassadors to the public, especially for children. Pets belonging to the First Family humanize the Office of the President, making it less intimidating. The White House is the place where the President conducts business and is a powerful symbol of democracy, but it is also the residence of the First Family. Pets remind the public that the First Family is, indeed, a family and are actual, tangible human beings and not only figureheads of the American republic.