New in the collection: Polk tobacco silk

Image of James K. Polk on fabric

“It was between 1905 and 1910 that tobacco companies in America began inserting textile items into their cigarette and tobacco products. The fad for these textiles was between 1910 and 1916. At the beginning of World War I the practice was more or less abandoned….

“The tobacco or cigarette ‘silk’ was made from a variety of fabrics such as silk or silk satin, a cloth combination of silk and cotton, a cotton sateen or even a plain woven cotton. The silks were often beautifully poly-chrome printed with varied subjects, and were usually printed with the tobacco company name.”

— From “Tobacco Silks” at the Princetonian Museum

This tobacco silk of North Carolina native James K. Polk — from a series of presidents — was included with Mogul cigarettes, although the brand name is missing on this example.

Though likely made of a Turkish blend, Moguls were advertised with an Egyptian theme when introduced by a Greek importer in 1892. In 1900 the company was purchased by American Tobacco, then parceled out to P. Lorillard in the 1911 dissolution of the tobacco trust. 


Proof lacking for tattooed presidents

“From the mid- to late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, high profile individuals were turning to tattoos. Andrew Jackson had a tattoo of a large tomahawk on his inner thigh, while James K. Polk had a Chinese symbol that translated to ‘eager.’ “

— From “Tattoos: An Illustrated History” by Tina Brown (2019)

Interesting, if true. (Old newsroom expression.)

Alas, despite the popularity of these claims in internet listicles and trivia quizzes, neither tattoo is mentioned by Jackson and Polk biographers or other historians.

From a self-described “Polk scholar”: “Not only is there absolutely no recorded evidence that he had a tattoo, but everything I know about the man suggests he would be the last man to get one.
“He didn’t drink and his wife banned dancing from the White House. Preoccupied with the Mexican-American war, Polk had very little Asian influence in his foreign policy in his 4 year term.”



‘…annoyances to which a President of the US is subjected’

“Among others who called this morning was rather an elderly woman who said she lived in Alexandria. She wanted money to pay her rents and for other purposes. She brought no letters. I did not learn her name. She said she had lived in Alexandria many years. She had a genteel appearance.

“I endeavored to waive her application by treating her civilly and telling her she should apply to her neighbors and friends, who knew her. She became more and more importunate and I was forced at last to give her a positive denial. This did not satisfy her, and she named a sum which would satisfy her. I declined to give it to her and was compelled at last to tell her plainly that I did not know her or that she was worthy. I informed her that I contributed to objects of real charity as far as my means permitted, and asked her again why she had not applied to her neighbors in Alexandria, to which she replied that she did not wish to expose her necessities.

“I note this case to show some of the annoyances to which a President of the US is subjected.”

— From the diary of James K. Polk, Jan. 19, 1849

h/t Winston Blair


While Polk studied at UNC, dad was busy building

“On the same day the U.S. Treasury announced Andrew Jackson’s image would be removed from the front of the $20 bill, Congress moved a step closer toward declaring [James K.] Polk‘s Tennessee home a national treasure.

“A bill that passed the U.S. Senate contains a provision directing the Interior Secretary to study the feasibility of preserving the 11th president’s home in Columbia, just southwest of Nashville, as part of the national park system.

“The two-story brick structure, built in 1816 by Polk’s father while the future president was attending the University of North Carolina, is where Polk returned after graduation and where he began his legal and political career. The house contains more than 1,300 objects and original items from Polk’s years in Tennessee and Washington, including furniture, White House artifacts and political memorabilia.”

— From “James K. Polk home moves closer to national park status” by Michael Collins in the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 25)

Considerably less well situated is the site of Polk’s 1795 birth in Mecklenburg County, which in recent years has endured trial by both fire and legislature



Polk ‘yielded,’ let Mathew Brady take his picture

The first president to have his picture taken in the White House was Mecklenburg native James K. Polk. The photographer could have caught him on a better day.

In his diary for February 14, 1849, Polk complained about having to deal with office-seekers all morning: “I have great contempt for such persons and dispose of their applications very  summarily. They take up much of my time every day. I yielded to the request of an artist named Brady, of New York, by sitting for my daguerreotype likeness today. I sat in the large dining room.”

Mathew Brady, then 27, would later earn wide fame for his Civil War photos.