The White House was built between 1792 and 1800, and was expanded in 1801 during the Jefferson administration. It suffered considerable damage during the War of 1812 when the British army set it on fire, but was repaired and expanded afterward. By the early 20th century, the need for additional space resulted in two major renovations: one under Theodore Roosevelt in 1901-02, and one under Coolidge in 1927. The White House was extensively renovated again under the Truman administration, from 1948 to 1950.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered engineering reports that revealed structural problems with the White House so severe that he and his family spent the next three years of his administration living in nearby Blair House while the White House interior was almost completely gutted and old wooden beams were replaced by a steel frame. The Report of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion, issued after the renovations were completed, documents how architectural ornaments of decorative interest or historical importance such as mantels were donated to museums. Other salvageable materials — wood, stone, bricks, fixtures, etc. — were distributed to government agencies and historic sites such as George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. The rest of the materials deemed usable were offered to the public packaged as souvenir “kits” containing the raw material — stone, nails, wood or bricks — and a “small metal authentication plate,” in return for a modest fee covering shipping and handling. The second most popular kit, with 5,000 distributed, was “[e]nough old pine to make a gavel” for two dollars. The program proved hugely popular and orders exceeded available kits, turning a profit of $10,000. Materials then deemed of no use or value “were destroyed or disposed of otherwise in a manner which precluded its exploitation as a relic of the White House.”
Extant White House wood gavels from the Truman period have been found in a huge variety of turned forms and shapes to the handle and head, as well as finishes; it is not common to find even two that are identical. They are generally made of pine (most likely longleaf pine [Pinus Plaustris] or northern white pine [Pinus Strobus]), some with attractive dramatic natural grain and others with enhanced grain painting. Less commonly used were rosewood and other hardwoods, probably from interior woodwork that was removed during renovation. They usually have the official authentication plate distributed with the kit — a brass band centered by a raised Presidential seal and imprinted “Original White House Material/ Removed in 1950.”
Many White House wood gavels were apparently quite professionally made, characterized by fine lathe turnings. For example Knipp & Company, Inc., of Baltimore, Maryland, a contractor that worked on the renovation, made fine relic souvenir gavels. Murray Bonham, a foreman on the White House renovation, was among the woodworkers who made gavels out of salvaged White House wood in the early 1950s. Other White House wood gavels are fairly crude and probably homemade, sometimes with paper or unofficial labels. Truman had warmly endorsed the idea of offering White House relic souvenirs and intended to send gavels made of White House wood to all forty-eight state governors. Indeed, White House relics apparently were presented as mementos to various people by members of Truman’s cabinet, and by members of Congress, as indicated by labels and tags on extant examples.
Much of our information about White House relics is gathered from extant examples, including over two dozen gavels that have been sold by the George Glazer Gallery. The gallery has also sold a rare historical official government photograph of the White House exterior by Abbie Rowe, mounted as issued in a relic frame made from White House pine, with handwritten authentication on the mat. George Glazer Gallery has also sold a White House relic brick in its original cardboard box with an address label from the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion.
For desk or shelf display, we offer White House and other gavels on custom-made stands by a museum professional.Our gavel stands are designed so that the gavel is held at an angle above a round disk simulating a pounding block, giving it the dynamic appearance of being in mid-motion. The gavel rests on two custom-fitted wire rods, and can easily be removed for use. These stands have optional hand-stamped metal label plates. Stands and plates are available at additional cost — more information here.
Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning and wear, including some slightly greater were to mallet ends.
Knipp, Franklin. Letter to Harold Baumgarten. 30 April 1962. MS. Knipp & Company, Inc., Baltimore, MD.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. pp. 1047-1058. Online at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=8fp1A2s6aQwC&pg=PA1044&dq (14 June 2010).
Morris, Edwin Bateman, ed. Report of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion. Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Printing Office, 1952.
Palmatier, L. E-mail to George Glazer re: Murray Bonham. 31 January 2010.
“White House History.” The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/history (14 June 2010).