White House Historical Association celebrates 60th anniversary

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On February 14, 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave Americans the first-ever televised tour of the White House residences. She guided a CBS News correspondent and millions of viewers through the recently restored interior of the White House, highlighting the many period furnishings, artworks and other decorations, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Steinway piano. Towards the end of the tour, she announced, “We’re going to do a book.”

This book was The White House: A Historical Guideco-edited with Kennedy, who put the highlights of the televised tour on the site and started the publishing arm of the White House Historical Association, which Kennedy founded in 1961 Historical Guide celebrates its 60th anniversary and thus the 60th anniversary of the WHHA.

The book was published on July 4, 1962, with the first printing of 250,000 copies selling out in 90 days, and by December of the same year 600,000 copies were in print. The guide has now sold more than five million copies and the 26th edition will be available this July. Thanks to the success of Historical Guide, WHHA has “matured into a nationally recognized independent publisher,” said Chief Publishing Officer Marcia Anderson. Anderson joined the WHHA staff in 1998 as the first publishing professional and has since overseen the expansion of the publishing program and the production of dozens of new titles.

“As an educational organization dedicated to history, our focus is on nonfiction,” Anderson said, with the WHHA covering subjects such as history, architecture, fine arts, gardening, memoirs and cookbooks. Titles range from books of general interest to “authoritative and comprehensive references to specific areas of White House study.”

Anderson writes the Historical Guide with the “introduction of a new White House science section,” and as that science section develops, so does the WHHA’s publishing effort. The WHHA will publish in 2024 Slave Labor and the White House, the result of extensive research by historians at the WHHA’s David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History. More than 200 known enslaved persons worked on the construction of the White House and Capitol, and more than 100 other known enslaved persons worked in presidential households. At least nine presidents have either brought or hired enslaved people to work in the White House. Anderson said the book will be “the first of its kind to tell the story of the enslaved people who worked on the construction of the White House and the role of the enslaved people in the White House.”

That Historical Guide itself has also evolved. When tours of the White House were curtailed after the September 11 attacks, the book “taken on a new purpose that it never really had before,” Anderson said. Since then, the WHHA has “set the goal of Historical Guide a new type of White House experience tailored for the modern visitor who may not actually step inside,” which involved the creation of a digital version of the guide available on the WHHA website. The guide is also constantly updated to reflect new additions and changes to the White House decor. Thanks to advances in print and photo technology, readers of the forthcoming guide will see fuller views of the White House rooms, thanks to fold-out pages and wide-angle photos.

Since 1962, the WHHA has published 60 titles and published three to four new adult books and two to three children’s books each year. It also publishes the Quarterly History of the White House Magazine. The latest issue, which focused on Queen Elizabeth II’s visits to the White House, was the magazine’s best-selling issue to date. The WHHA conducts its own distribution, and its books are available online and sold in the WHHA’s three Washington, DC stores: the White House History Shop, the White House Visitor Center, and the Bookseller’s Area at the White House. Many independent bookstores, presidential libraries, museums and historic sites also have WHHA titles. Today, WHHA is a member of the American Association of Publishers, the Independent Book Publishers Association, and the American Booksellers Association, and its titles have received more than 160 national editorial and design awards over the past 12 years.

When it was first released, the Historical Guide was sold from a small table at the East Wing entrance to the White House tour route, but it soon became apparent that a larger book sale was needed to meet demand. “The public was hungry to learn more about the White House,” said WHHA President Stewart D. McLaurin. He recalled people flooding the sales counter with shopping carts full of guidebooks while thousands of letters containing $1 bills (the book’s price, set by Kennedy himself, was $1) overwhelmed WHHA staff.

With the Historical Guide, Kennedy had clearly identified an unmet need in the publishing sector: the book remains the WHHA’s best-selling title. Other recent WHHA bestsellers include Wine and the White House: A History by Frederick J. Ryan Jr. and President’s Ranch Recipes: Foods People Love to Eat by Matthew Wendel, and are the association’s best-selling children’s books The White House Easter Egg Roll: A History by Jonathan Pliska and How to draw the Presidents by John Hutton.

Kennedy’s goal of making American history accessible continues to inform and inspire the WHHA’s publishing efforts. By publishing the Historical Guide, Stewart said, the First Lady wanted readers to feel that the historic White House and the history of the nation truly belonged to them. Today, Anderson sees the WHHA’s publishing arm as a “springboard for further research and discovery” — one that unearths, preserves, and disseminates US history for readers across the country, whether or not they’ve ever set foot in the White House.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2, 2022 issue publishers weekly under the heading: White House Historical Association Marks 60 Years of Publishing

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