A short history of White House cats

“Cats,” wrote The Conversation gravely in 2013, “remain under-represented in Washington.”

It’s a problem that the Bidens are set to remedy. Last week, first lady Jill Biden teased that a cat is “waiting in the wings” to join the family and their two dogs at the White House. The newcomer won’t be the first four-legged friend to knock pens off the Resolute Desk, though; here are seven notable White House cats who blazed the trail for First Kitty Biden.

Tabby and Dixie, the O.G.s

When President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was asked if her husband had any hobbies, the first lady replied simply: “Cats.” She wasn’t kidding: Reportedly Abe loved his cats so much that he’d even feed them from the dinner table, to Mary Todd’s dismay. Lincoln was also the first president to introduce cats into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the form of Tabby and Dixie, who were a gift from his secretary of state, William H. Seward. “At one point, [Lincoln] told a friend that Dixie was ‘smarter than his entire cabinet’ and ‘didn’t talk back,’ which was a bonus,'” Andrew Hager, the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum, told The New York Times.

Siam, the immigrant

Don’t be surprised if the Bidens adopt a Siamese cat, as a nod to a White House tradition that began with Siam in 1878. Born in Thailand, Siam made a two-month journey to Washington, D.C., by way of Hong Kong and San Francisco, to become the first-known Siamese cat in the United States. She was sent as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes from David B. Sickels, an American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate in Bangkok, and reportedly enjoyed meeting all the visitors at the White House: Siam “always . . . [entered] the room when Mrs. Hayes had visitors . . . the cat marched in and show[ed] no hesitation, though the parlor was full of strangers,” newspapers reported. Though Siam sadly died not long into her White House tenure, the tradition of Siamese cats continued in Washington with Shan Shein, who belonged to President Gerald Ford’s daughter, and Misty Malarky Ying Yang, who belonged to President Jimmy Carter’s daughter.

Slippers, the undignified welcome mat

Theodore Roosevelt famously kept a menagerie at the White House that included a “small bear,” a lizard, a blue macaw, a pig, a pony, a one-legged rooster, a badger, a barn owl, several guinea pigs, an assortment of snakes, a number of dogs, as well as two cats, Tom Quartz and Slippers. While Tom Quartz often bullied Roosevelt’s terrier, it was six-toed Slippers who “had no sense of decorum,” the Presidential Pet Museum reports. He even once “flopped himself down for a nap right in the middle of the corridor that … dignitaries were using to get to the dining room,” an incident that was memorialized in St. Nicholas Magazine.

Tiger, the runaway

(Blackie and Tiger | Photo by National Photo Company, 10 Oct. 1923, via Library of Congress)

Calvin Coolidge had four cats (not counting the bobcat and two lion cubs) while he was in the White House, but it was Tiger that finally decided he’d had enough of politics and took off. Tiger came to the White House with Blackie in 1923, and was a prize pet of the president. Apparently, though, during a snowstorm in March 1924, seven-month-old Tiger wandered off — and was taken in by some worried staff at the new Navy building half a mile away, the Library of Congress’ “Picture This” blog reports. When Tiger didn’t return within a few days, the Coolidges grew worried, and put out a radio dispatch notifying the public that the White House was missing their striped cat. “There may be 100 cats at the White House by tomorrow morning,” joked The New York Times. But the radio broadcast worked: “Tige,” as he was affectionately known, was returned safely home.

Socks, the socialite

(Socks as the center of attention, as every cat should be | Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the best known White House cat of all is Socks, who lived at the residence with the Clintons. He had a true rags to riches life: born in Little Rock, Arkansas, as a stray, the story goes that Socks leaped into Chelsea Clinton’s arms one day as she was leaving her piano teacher’s house. The family brought the cat with them to the White House, where he became a sensation; President Clinton even had to warn the press to leave Socks alone after one paparazzo enticed him to come out through the mansion’s gates with some catnip. Still, that didn’t stop a Socks Fan Club from forming, or the publication of the book Socks Goes to Washington, or Socks from appearing in an episode of the TV show Murphy Brown, or even the release of a Socks video game. Socksmania eventually died down when the family left the White House; Socks himself retired to Maryland with Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, since he famously didn’t get along with the Clintons’ dog, Buddy. According to Mental Floss, Socks lived to the ripe old age of 18 to 20, since his age was never firmly established due to him being a stray.

India “Willie” Bush, the underdog

(The shy troublemaker | George W. Bush Presidential Library)

The most recent First Kitty is India “Willie” Bush — although you might not have heard much about him when he lived in the dog-crazy Bush household. India “was overshadowed by the first family’s high-profile (and high maintenance) Scottish terriers,” The Houston Chronicle reports, and he supposedly preferred to spend his time napping in the White House library. Named by Barbara Bush after the Texas Rangers outfielder Rubén “El Indio” Sierra, the cat was so out-of-the-spotlight that his favorite hobby was reported to be “hiding from owners.” Still, India is likely the only White House cat to have sparked an international incident: “Angry youths in [the capital of India’s Kerala state] Friday burnt an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush, not because they are anti-American but because he has named his cat India,” the Deccan Herald newspaper reported in 2004.


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