The Truth About Taft Getting Stuck in a Bathtub, Part 1

President William Howard Taft is stuck, and he can’t get out. And he’s been in that state for a full century now. He’s stuck in presidential chronology between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two legendary egomaniacs whose primped personae forever shadow him – quite a task considering Taft tipped the scales over 300 pounds.

Taft campaigning in Boston, 1908

He’s stuck between being conservative and progressive, fair and judicious, always seeking arbitration and striving for rational balance. He’s stuck with April Fifteenth too. Lincoln established Thanksgiving, Wilson gave Mothers their day, and dear old Washington had but to be born to give us – well, Washington’s Birthday. Taft? Having initiated corporate and then personal income taxes through the 15th Amendment we can hail him for Tax Day. Lovely.

Largely, however, President Obesity is stuck in a White House bathtub, so the anecdote-addled American mind still imagines. Is it fair to judge a public official based on their weight, disability, race, height 0r other labels of physicality? And is that Taft bathtub story even true?

Harpers magazine suggesting Taft did not take naturally to Roosevelts image, clothes – or policies.

Not unlike efforts by Michelle Obama to raise consciousness on obesity through proper diet and nutrition, Franklin Roosevelt’s popularizing of the gin martini, Ronald Reagan’s love of jellybeans, Jefferson’s introduction of pasta to America, Jackie Kennedy’s hiring of a French chef, Dolley Madison’s popularizing of ice cream, or Coolidge’s serving ice water in paper cups to guests at receptions,, the story of William Howard Taft’s weight and over-eating is a cautionary tale of the political and pop culture impact of presidential food.

Taft’s fatness was caricatured as he gained widespread recognition about 1905, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s War Secretary and chosen successor for the Republican presidential nomination. Stories began to publicly circulate about how good-naturedly Taft took the jokes about his weight, such as the one which told of his riding a horse and receiving a telegram from a Cabinet member asking, “How’s the horse?”

Serving as President from 1909 to 1913, Taft marked the end of an era of portly Presidents, which began with Grant and included Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, all overstuffed, bearded, mustachioed or mutton-chopped distinguished gents of that indulgent Victorian Era. In a day when the press and public called Presidents by nicknames – Arthur was “Chet,” Harrison was “Little Ben” for his stature, McKinley was “Mac.” None, however, were as fat as Taft, thus earning him the nickname of “Big Bill.”

Soon enough, there were the political cartoons, caricaturing him as a sweet-faced Santa-type and even caricatures depicting him as pieces of food.

Taft satirized on a postcard posing him as thinking of food – lots of big food.

Seemingly chuckling with appreciation beneath his walrus mustache whenever presented with gifts of over-sized food, Taft played into the jolly rolly-polly persona bestowed on him.

Privately, he was deeply unhappy, encouraged into running for president by his wife, brother – and Teddy – against his inclination for the judiciary.

The big chair carved for Taft at the Mission Inn – which insulted him.

As President, his frustration emerged in emotional over-eating, the six feet two inch tall Taft’s weight swelling to 344 pounds by the end of his first year. At the famous old Mission Inn in Riverside, California, Taft’s waistline preceded him. When its owner Frank A. Miller learned of an imminent presidential visit, he froze in terror, envisioning Big Bill getting stuck in a hotel chair or worse, collapsing in it. He allayed his fear by having a massive chair constructed for the presidential seat. On October 12, 1909, Taft made his visit to the area but was offended when he saw the chair. He did not stay at the Inn, nor is it known if he ever sat in the chair. It still sits in the hotel, on display in the hotel lobby today.

An unused page from the presidential dieticians daily recommended food intake for Taft.

For a man who especially loved salmon and salads, it seems odd that he gained so much, but it was more the volume than the type of food which became a problem.  First Lady Nellie Taft took control, enlisting prominent dietician George Brinkler to trim down her husband by providing him a daily regiment of food types and amounts he needed to strictly follow if he hoped to “reduce flesh.”

When Mrs. Taft was away during the summers or when “Will” (as she called him) was on the road, however, he resumed his regular consumption rate. While travelling by train he learned there was no diner car attached and fumed that one always be included for his excursions, “I want it well stocked with food, including filet mignon.”

Taft breakfasted in Savannah on grapefruit, partridge, venison, waffles, hominy grits, hot rolls, and bacon.

He especially loved baked goods – waffles at breakfast, hot rolls with lunch, Yorkshire bread pudding with his dinner roasts. And he had an entire mouthful of sweet teeth: butterscotch cream pie, lemon pie, caramel cake, four-fruit cream tarts, tapioca, and the old-fashioned gooey steamed puddings of that era, all variations on the popular Christmas  treat of plum pudding with sugary hard sauce. Rather than having to chose one meat at one meal, Taft’s regular lunch and dinner meal usually included a fish, turkey, beef, and pork dish. In fact, on one occasion that is now entirely forgotten, the President stuck his fork onto the plate of the Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon and swiped food from it.

He also loved fresh dairy products, so much so that Mrs. Taft finally decided to economize on the cost of family meals by accepting Wisconsin U.S. Senator Isaac Stephenson’s gift of Pauline Wayne, a Holstein cow and then Mooly-Mooly, who grazed on the public grounds in front of the present-day Old Executive Office Building (then serving as the War, State and Navy Department Building). The White House cows ensured that President Taft would have fresh butter, cream, and milk. Just about the only food he disliked were eggs. They were fine as an ingredient in recipes, but he couldn’t abide them scrambled, boiled, sunny-side up or any other way, just on their own.

The two Taft family cows, Pauline Wayne and Mooley Mooley both grazing on the public grounds just southwest of the White House

In comparison to his close friend, political mentor and immediate predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, however, Taft initially seemed calmly less strenuous and strident in his views and outlook. Roosevelt’s call for his countrymen to follow his lead and take up “the strenuous life,” however had marked a shift in the new 20thcentury. By 1909, the health virtue of physicality taken in the fresh air was a societal trend in motion. It led Taft out onto the links of golf courses, and he became the first President associated with the sport that Teddy had called “a sissy game.” He also became the first to toss out the first baseball of opening season, a game Teddy called “mollycoddle.”

Taft golfs; a most unfortunate pose.

Teddy soon had some choice and hurtful words for Taft himself.

Part 2: The Real Story Behind the Famous Taft Bathtub & Photo


Categories: Americana, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Presidential Foods, Presidential Mythology, Presidents, Ronald Reagan, The Tafts, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson

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6 replies »

  1. Another great series of articles. Two of the images I carry with me from my youthful fascination with the presidents and first ladies are those of the Tafts. The first, somewhat unfortunately, is the picture of all those men in the Taft tub. The second is the fabulous portrait of Helen Taft wearing a tiara and her inaugural gown with the flowing gold wrap. I spent endless hours poring over the WHHA’s books on the presidents, first ladies and the White House Historical Guide. I’ve since learned more about the Tafts and there’s much more of interest than those two images. But, I find it interesting how seemingly little things can capture your imagination and help lead to years of further fascination. Thanks!

  2. You’re aware, I’m sure, that Taft is portrayed in the pediments of the Supreme Court. He was the Chief Justice when the building was designed, and through most of its construction. The full story of Taft gets a more rosy glow when his post-Presidential career is included.

    The History Channel series on each president has a woman historian (whose name escapes me, unfortunately) noting that Taft was not happy as president, especially following TR — and that unhappiness manifested itself in his overeating. He gained substantial weight as president.

    But he lost much of the weight, later in happier times, she noted, and Taft was appointed Chief Justice by Warren Harding. Was that, perhaps, the greatest service Warren Harding did for the nation?

  3. It’s great to find soeomne so on the ball

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