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Lincoln's slippers take star turn from Fremont to Hollywood

Hayes Center items replicated


The Hayes center photographed President Abraham Lincoln's well-worn wool house slippers, in the Rutherford B. Hayes collection in Fremont.


FREMONT — Gilbert Gonzalez didn’t give it much thought when he got a call a year and a half ago from a California firm requesting photos of Abraham Lincoln's slippers.

The well-worn house slippers — presented as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes when he took office in 1878 — had been on permanent display at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont for years.

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What surprised Mr. Gonzalez, the chief of photographic services at the Hayes, was learning that actor Daniel Day Lewis was sporting an exact replica of the slippers in the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln.

“We were very surprised. We were very excited. We were very pleased that objects from our holdings could be used for such a project,” he said.

The wool slippers, which feature a needlepoint image of a deer head on the top and a dog’s head on the side, get a quick cameo early in the film after the 16th president finds his youngest son, Tad, asleep in front of a fireplace. He carries the young boy off on his back, leaving his slippers behind.

In other scenes, as the long-legged Lincoln pads down the halls of the White House, deep in thought, it’s apparent he has his trusty slippers on.

“They’re kind of dirty. They’re worn — they’re slippers,” said Mary Lou Rendon, collections manager at the Hayes Center. “He must have loved them.”

Numerous historic accounts reference the fact that Lincoln preferred informal attire at the White House and was especially fond of slippers. A 1945 book by Jay Monaghan was titled, Abraham Lincoln Deals With Foreign Affairs: A Diplomat in Carpet Slippers.

The folks at the Hayes Center couldn’t be prouder.

“I get quite a few requests for photographs of our artifacts,” said Ms. Rendon, explaining that 20,619 items are cataloged and pictured on the Hayes Web site. “I thought maybe it was for a book or maybe a manufacturer was going to try to reproduce the slippers as a promotion — certainly not for a movie.”

By all accounts, the producers of Lincoln went to great lengths to create an authentic look at the final months of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency as he fought for passage of the 13th Amendment and worked to bring an end to the War Between the States. Sights, sounds, and even slippers are as close to the real deal as they could make them.

The film’s assistant costume designer, Ken van Duyne, wrote in a 2011 email to Mr. Gonzalez, “Since we are reproducing these slippers 100 percent, an accurate color representation in the photos is greatly appreciated.”

Mr. Gonzalez said he supplied photographs of the front, left side, right side, top, bottom, back, and the inside, “which we thought was kind of odd.” He placed a ruler next to the slipper to give Mr. van Duyne an accurate representation of its size.

He sent off the seven photos, including a bill for $280. Once payment was received, he didn’t give them another thought.

“What we were told was this was a project for Steven Spielberg. That’s all we were told,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “My curiosity didn’t go any further. It was a routine photographic request.”

Routine until Nan Card, manuscripts curator at the Hayes, went to see Lincoln over Thanksgiving weekend and spotted the famous slippers.

“It clicked with Nan Card: Was that the project we worked on a year and a half ago?” Mr. Gonzalez said. “We’re convinced it was.”

Just how President Hayes came to possess the slippers is a little tougher to solve.

According to correspondence in the Hayes collection, Alex Williamson, who served as a tutor to Tad Lincoln and his brother Willie, until the latter’s death in 1862 from typhoid fever, gave the slippers to President Hayes in 1878 with the note, “Please accept the accompanying slippers. They were worn by the late President Lincoln up to the day of his murder.”

In a subsequent letter to President Hayes, Mr. Williamson said that he was hired as tutor to the Lincoln boys in September, 1861, and “enjoyed the respect and friendship of and almost daily intercourse with Mr. Lincoln from said date until his death, at which sad scene I was present.” Before Mrs. Lincoln left the White House, she gave the slippers to Mr. Williamson, along with the late president’s dressing gown and shawl, he said.

Hayes spokesman Nancy Kleinhenz said they can only surmise the reasons for the gift, which was presented during Hayes’ first year in office.

“A lot of people did that — sent the President things and then got a letter back from the president,” she said. “We don’t know if this is the case, but some people also sent gifts to try to get a position or try to get the president’s influence on an issue. And it was widely known that Hayes was a collector.”

President Hayes asked Mr. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, to be his secretary of war, but he declined, she said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-724-6129.

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