(A version of this post was published on our previous blog on 12/21/2015.)
By Laurie Austin, Former Audiovisual Reference Archivist and Stacey Flores Chandler, Textual Reference Archivist
As Reference Archivists, we look through the archives to find answers to reference questions every day – and sometimes, we’re lucky enough to find something that’s new to us! Holiday-themed requests can often send us searching, and one question gave us a particularly fun window into the collections: “How did the First Family do their Christmas shopping?” Until we started digging for an answer, we had no idea – but the first place to look was in the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Personal Papers. We hit the archival jackpot when we found this FAO Schwarz toy catalog for Christmas 1961, along with a handwritten note by Mrs. Kennedy about items (and even their page numbers in the catalog) she wanted to order for her children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr.
A look inside the classic toy catalog, which let people browse and order gifts by mail before the era of one-click shopping, shows the attention that went into choosing gifts for the First Children. And luckily for archivists and researchers, Mrs. Kennedy dog-eared several pages and circled specific toys. What a find!
Once we knew about Mrs. Kennedy’s plans for the 1961 Christmas toy roundup, we searched our photo and film collections to find the gifts in action. That horse and hound set circled on page 89?
We spotted those in photographs of Caroline Kennedy’s White House bedroom, taken by White House Photographer Robert Knudsen. One horse is tucked away behind the playhouse, while the hound got a cozy spot on the bookshelf.
The “Busy Box” on page 10 featured knobs, buttons, and plenty of other things for a toddler to make noise with. One of Mrs. Kennedy’s chosen gifts, we spotted this one in a White House photograph of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s crib in the nursery!
Admittedly, the very large calf-skin rocking horse from page 13 was pretty easy to spot in 1962 images of Caroline Kennedy’s room.
We also found a few staff favorites, including the trampoline from page 86; Mrs. Kennedy noted that the mothers of the play group Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr. belonged to would buy this gift for the kids to use on the South Lawn.
Archivists recognized this item right away, thanks to this photograph of young Caroline jumping on it (with her brave friend Shawn Brittle hanging out underneath), taken by White House Photographer Cecil Stoughton in 1962.
And the trampoline makes another appearance in our film collections; we found an unidentified friend jumping at an April 4, 1963 children’s party on the South Lawn.
Another favorite is the “festive costume…with peasant designs of brilliant sequins” and matching flower-trimmed headpiece circled on page 76.
We were excited to learn about the origin of this outfit, because the costume is featured in one of our most popular sets of images of the Kennedy children as they sat with Mrs. Kennedy in the White House nursery. Other photographs in this series, captured by Cecil Stoughton in 1962, show John F. Kennedy, Jr. playing with his mother’s necklace.
As reference archivists, our work is guided by the questions we are asked, and we get to learn something new about our collections every day. We’re grateful for the best archival gift we could ask for – a question that led to fun discoveries in our collections!