History | Did You Know

8 Weird Facts About America's First Ladies That You'll Work Into Your Next Conversation


The role of the First Lady of the United States often involves being a calming presence in the White House, perhaps running a charity and being present for the occasional speech.

But in the nearly 250 years of independence, we have certainly had some First Ladies who bucked the trend and are remembered for their, ahem, colorful behavior.

1. Don't cross Martha Washington

At age 18, before she married George Washington, Martha fell in love with a man 20 years her senior named Daniel Parke Custis. By all accounts they were a healthy, happy couple. But Martha's father-in-law made it known that he did not approve of her and he made every attempt to sabotage their relationship until the two were finally married.

When Daniel died seven years later, Martha visited his mansion and sold off her father-in-law's possessions. She left only one thing; his wineglasses he'd hand-blown himself. As glass was very expensive at the time, this was a particularly priceless collection.

In an act of glorious vengeance, Martha took her father-in-law's glasses and proceeded to smash them until they were all destroyed.

2. Mary Todd Lincoln dealt with her addiction by selling manure

Aside from her other quirks, Mary Todd Lincoln was also a notorious shopaholic. When her husband was running for reelection, Mary realized that his loss could mean her massive shopping debts could become known.

Panicking, she realized she needed to find unconventional means to pay off her bills. So she did what every self-respecting shopaholic would do. She secretly sold excess White House manure and fired some of the House's staff behind her husband's back.

3. Dolley Madison was a party animal

Every history book will tell you that Dolley Madison threw some epic parties. She was known for her "Wednesday Night Squeezes", parties which she organized every week, where she invited everyone from famous politicians to average Joes. She was also known for her provocative dressing and for serving ice cream during the legendary nights.

4. Julia Tyler was more Kim Kardashian than Kate Middleton

First Lady Julia Tyler was already known for her efforts to achieve celebrity status even before she entered the White House. After she married her husband, John, she had etchings of herself where she'd posed with her head to the side (the equivalent of today's duck face), mass produced and sold to the general public with the title, "The President's Bride."

She also introduced the idea of ladies-in-waiting, having been inspired by European royalty. She made her ladies, whom she called her "vestal virgins," wear matching white clothes and surround her whenever she hosted guests.

Bonus Fact: When John Tyler met her, he was so obsessed with her that he once chased her around living room furniture in an attempt to kiss her.

5. Eliza Johnson wanted a reminder of home

Eliza Johnson fiercely missed her home state of Tennessee and when she moved to Washington after the election, she was determined to bring a part of home with her.

So, Eliza arranged to have cows brought into the White House from the South. Passersby would often see the two cows grazing on the White House lawn and the First Lady milked them nearly every morning. Although this turned out to be a great economic decision, she was often seen as unsophisticated for doing this.

6. Bess Truman went to great lengths to prove her Southern loyalty

Bess Truman was another Southern belle before she married her husband and moved to Washington. She fiercely believed in Southern superiority and proved it by having her laundry sent all the way to her home state of Kansas to be cleaned. Her reason? Dry cleaning in Washington sucked.

7. Betty Ford was a die-hard hippy

When Gerald Ford became President, his wife made sure the White House was up to date with all the hippest trends. She frequently spoke of the benefits of psychiatric treatment, an idea that was considered taboo in the 70's.

She was also outspoken about marijuana use and premarital sex. In fact, she sometimes discussed her and the President's sex life, saying that they had sex "as often as possible." In the White House, she wore mood rings and used her CB radio under the handle "Big Mama."

8. Nancy Reagan consulted the spirits for her every move

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff published a memoir about his time in the White House.

He mentioned that "virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise." It was true. Nancy consulted an astrologer throughout the Reagan presidency and believed the President could not make a single decision without consulting the stars.

Among the moves her astrologer had to approve of included the timing of summit meetings, State of the Union addresses, the President's cancer surgery and the flights of Air Force One.

Which First Lady's quirks were the most fascinating?