Sometimes a piece of furniture comes along and completely transforms our surroundings. Furniture is meant to be lived in, slept in, worked in, sat in, just as a painting is meant to be looked at, and fashion is meant to be worn. It governs how we interact with our surroundings. But did you know how the Resolute Desk was made?
The Resolute Desk was made from scrap from the HMS Resolute. Since 1880, the majority of Presidents have used it.
Desk Crafted from An Abandoned Ship
The desk’s history is steeped in naval lore, as it was crafted from oak timbers salvaged from a British research vessel, HMS Resolute. The fate of the Resolute became entwined with the exploration of the Arctic, one of the great quests of the mid-1800s.
The crew of the Resolute had to abandon ship in the Arctic in 1854 after becoming trapped in ice. A year later, however, it was discovered drifting by an American whaling ship. The Resolute was sailed to England by an American naval crew after a thorough refit at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The American government presented the ship to Queen Victoria with great fanfare in December 1856. The ship’s return was celebrated in the United Kingdom, and the incident symbolized friendship between the two countries.
The Resolute’s story has faded into obscurity. Queen Victoria, on the other hand, was always remembered.
When the Resolute was decommissioned decades later, the British monarch had oak timbers salvaged and crafted into a desk for American presidents. During President Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration, the gift was delivered as a surprise to the White House. (Source: White House History)
The Desk’s Arrival in the United States
The crew of the whaling ship managed to sail the Resolute back to New London, Connecticut, in December 1855, despite great difficulty. The New York Herald ran a front-page story on the Resolute’s arrival in New London on December 27, 1855.
According to stacked headlines in the New York Herald, the ship was discovered 1,000 miles from where it had been abandoned, which touted the Wonderful Escape of the Resolute From the Ice.
According to maritime law, the British government was informed of the discovery and agreed that the ship was now the property of the whaling crew who had discovered her on the open sea.
Members of Congress became involved, and a bill was passed authorizing the federal government to purchase the Resolute from its new owners, private citizens. Congress authorized $40,000 on August 28, 1856, to purchase the ship, refit it, and sail it back to England to present to Queen Victoria.
The ship was quickly towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where crews began repairing it. The ship was still quite sturdy, but it required new rigging and sails.
Britain’s Queen Victoria gave the desk to the White House in November 1880. It became one of the most recognizable pieces of American furniture during President John F. Kennedy’s administration after his wife recognized its historical significance and placed it in the Oval Office. (Source: White House History)
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