President’s Day isn’t exactly up there as one of the most obvious of gifting holidays (it’s mostly a time when mattresses go on sale), but there are some true George Washington nuts out there, and historian Alexis Coe is here to help. She spent the last few years entrenched in all things Mount Vernon while researching her newest book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, and her recommended gifts, like the man that inspired them, are complicated (a cypher wheel), cool (a sleek desktop bust), and a little bit cheeky (a hand-knit colonial hair wig). She also tipped us off to her favorite topical books (other than her own), which are best enjoyed with a splash of G.W.’s own brand of rye whiskey. Buy that and more, below.
I would have found young George Washington intolerable. He was a self-important social climber who brewed his own beer and journaled. The New York Public Library, where I once worked as a research curator, has made his notes on how “To Make Small Beer” available online. If directions like “let this stand ’til it is little more than Blood warm” inspire you to home-brew like George, by all means go for it. But it’d be a lot easier to order a six-pack of Freedom Reserve, which Budweiser based on Washington’s handwritten recipe.
In 1794, Washington was so mad that distillers in Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania weren’t paying a tax on the whiskey they produced, he sidestepped the Constitution and decided to ride out to confront them with the state militia — but only after he’d hired a tailor to make him a uniform modeled after the one he’d worn in the war. He turned around at the last minute, which was good, because the Whiskey Rebellion was the lamest on the books. It did give him a good idea: By 1799, he was one of the largest whiskey producers in the country, and his historic home, now a museum and library, has kept up the tradition. You can taste his award-winning Rye Whiskey, the official state spirit of the Commonwealth of Virginia, at Mount Vernon’s restaurant, or buy a bottle to take home from the gift store.
This country was built on the backs of enslaved people, and on the land of native ones. The New York Times has brought attention to the legacy of slavery through the 1619 Project, but First Americans have yet to receive the same treatment from a major publication. Colin Calloway’s The Indian World of George Washington not only fills in the details, but does so by providing a startling juxtaposition. When Washington is a young man, he feels as if he’s at the mercy of Indians, but by the time he becomes president, their roles have radically reversed.
For a man known for his serious (if not grave) disposition, George Washington gave his dogs ridiculous names — including Sweetlips, the perfect plush introduction to a lesser-known side of Washington. He developed the American Foxhound, which he loved to hunt with, but he also kept terriers, coach dogs, and Newfoundlands. He loved his dogs, and would visit their kennel, which had a fresh spring running through it, every morning and evening.
Erica Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is popular history at its best: She corrects a forgiving narrative that celebrates Washington for emancipating the hundreds of people he enslaved on his will by focusing on how he acted toward his slaves while he was alive. There’s also a young reader’s edition, too, providing an incredible opportunity to co-read.
Washington didn’t outfight the British Army, but he did out-spy them. The secrecy that helped win independence was integral to maintaining it, which inspired Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s secretary of State, to devise a cypher wheel the administration could use to encode and decode messages.
George Washington’s past biographers — whom I call “the Thigh Men of Dad History,” but more on that in my book — always promise to break him out of his marble mold, but their reverence got in the way. When it was my turn, I had the same goal, but not the same bias. This bust of Washington is a good reminder that if you take a close look at a familiar figure and try to see it anew, in earnest, anything is possible.
This wig from Etsy is very cute — if not misleading. Washington never wore a wig. Until he went gray, he wore his reddish (!) hair powdered and gathered in the back. Still, I feel like it might come in handy. When? Why? I don’t know, but I like to be prepared, and I promise you I don’t own anything like it.
Please don’t make the same mistake I made and order a Founding Father cookie imprint from Etsy and realize, only after confirming the purchase, that it was coming all the way from Russia. At first, it seemed like a darkly funny comment on our time, but when the plastic laser-cut imprint showed up a month later and required a washing after it was applied to every two-inch ball of dough, I was done with it. In retrospect, this copper cookie-cutter, made in America, seems like a far better choice.
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