The story behind Obama’s desk

When Obama is inaugurated into his second term as President, he’ll be coming back to a certain desk in the Oval Office that has become iconic. It’s a large desk, a quite beautiful thing, but it’s not made in America.

It’s actually made from the timbers of abandoned British exploration ship the HMS Resolute, left abandoned in the Arctic in 1854. A year later, the Resolute was found by an American whaler named George Henry. An American Senator by the name of George Murray Mason proposed that they restore the ship and gave it back to England as a gift. This was during a time in world history when tensions between the United States and England were frayed; the symbolic gesture of returning the $40,000 ship (a staggering amount of money in those times) was seen as a large step forward for diplomatic relations.

Queen Victoria had the desk made from the timbers, and in 1879 she gifted the desk to then-President Rutherford B. Hayes. There is another desk made from the same timbers in Windsor Castle. A plaque on the front reads:

H.M.S. RESOLUTE forming part of the expedition sent in search of SIR JOHN FRANKLIN IN 1852, was abandoned (74°N 101.367°W) in latitude 74 degrees 41 minutes N longitude 101 degrees 22 minutes W on 15th May 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September 1855 in latitude 67 degrees N (67°N 58.7°W) by Captain Buddington of the United States Whaler “GEORGE HENRY.”
The ship was purchased, fitted out and sent to England as a gift to HER MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA by the PRESIDENT AND PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES as a token of goodwill & friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN & IRELAND to the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the “RESOLUTE.

FDR used the desk for a while, and had it modified: there’s a small hinged panel in the front that was put there to hide anyone on the other side of the desk from viewing his wheelchair.


The desk was used throughout the White House until 1961 when Jackie Onassis found the desk “languishing” in the White House Broadcast room. She had it fully restored and JFK used it as his desk in the Oval Office. When JFK was assassinated in 1963 the desk was removed from the White House for a brief US tour, and has remained in the White House ever since. While nearly every President since (bar Reagan and George H.W. Bush) has used the desk in an official capacity, Bill Clinton had the desk moved back into the Oval Office permanently in 1993, where it has remained since.