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A big cheese for the Big Cheese in 1837

In 1836, President Jackson accepted 1,400-pound wheel of cheese from Col. Thomas Meacham, a dairy farmer near Sandy Creek, NY. The cheese was mammoth, and it sat, ripening, in the White House for over a year. Eventually, Jackson invited everyone in Washington, DC, to stop by and help consume the massive wheel. He threw the doors open, and in just two hours, the cheese was gone.

Patent for a cheese press, given to Luke Hale in June, 1838. National Archives.

Patent for a cheese press, given to Luke Hale in June, 1838 (National Archives at Kansas City). This patent shows a cheese press from around the same year as Jackson’s cheese giveaway.

Even members of Congress went crazy for cheese and were absent from their seats. From the Vermont Phoenix, March 3, 1837:

Mr. Alford opposed the motion for a recess. He said it was time, if they intended to do any public business this session, that they forthwith set about it, for they had wasted enough time already.  As for the battle with the great cheese at the White House, he was for leaving it to those whose tastes led them there, and to-morrow they might receive a full account of the killed and slain.  The gentleman from Maine, (Mr Jarvis) could as well finish the speech he was making to the few members present, as not.

Mr. Wise remarked that it was pretty well understood where the absent members had gone. There was a big cheese to be eaten at the White House to-day, and the appetites of members had driven them there to partake in the treat. To obtain a quorum he therefore moved that the Seargent-at-arms be directed to go to the President’s house, and invite the members there to return to their seats.  ["Those that have done eating!"—exclaimed a member.] “Oh yes,” continued Mr. W. “those that have done eating their cheese, of course.”  ["And let them bring a portion with them," said a third.]  “No, he did not want any of it—he had no wish to partake of any thing at the White House.”

A motion was again made that the House take a recess till 4 o’clock.

This true story is the basis for today’s first virtual “Big Block of Cheese Day” at the White House, which is hosting an online open house for citizens to ask questions. Sadly, there will be no physical cheese giveaway!

When we heard about the event, our archivists hunted through our records, but there are no official Federal documents relating to the cheese, probably because the cheese was a private gift. (In fact, we only turned up a handful of cheese-related records, including a recipe for making “loaf” from cottage cheese.)

However, we did find a mention of Jackson and cheese in this handwritten note (see page 4 and 5) from President Truman in 1952. The White House was being renovated, and Truman was thinking of previous Presidents and their treatment of the official furnishings. Truman wrote, “Then old Andy Jackson and his rough, tough backwoods [illegible] walking on the furniture, with muddy boots and eating a 300-pound cheese, grinding it into the lovely Adams and Monroe carpets!”

Jackson was not the first President to receive a giant wheel of cheese as a gift. President Jefferson received one as well. There is even a monument in Cheshire, MA, to the cheese press used to make the cheese for Jefferson.

Alas, this cheese slicer was patented 30 years too late to help President Jackson get rid of his cheese more quickly….

Patent for a cheese slicer, granted to J. G. Barker in 1860 (National Archives at Kansas City)

Patent for a cheese slicer, granted to J. G. Barker in 1860 (National Archives at Kansas City)

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Comments

Comment from Quinn
Time January 29, 2014 at 12:09 pm

The most remarkable thing about the 1837 report is the clear picture of how far members of Congress would go to avoid doing “any public business.” Free cheese? No quorum.
(And I think the Truman text reads “backwoodsmen.”)