A Mississippi resident sent a raccoon in a top-slatted soap box to the White House in November of 1926. The idea was that the animal would be slaughtered and prepared for a Thanksgiving feast, according to news reports. But President Calvin Coolidge didn’t care for raccoon meat. Turkey would suit.
Also this was, first lady Grace Coolidge later wrote, “no ordinary raccoon.” The animal was lively and seemingly tame. So instead of eating her, the Coolidges, who adored animals, kept the raccoon as a pet. They named her Rebecca, and when she was indoors, she roamed the White House apartments. She liked to sit in a bathtub and play with a bar of soap.
Rebecca achieved national prominence when the first family tried to domesticate her, but with her capers — all avidly chronicled by the media — she showed how we have never really known quite what to make of raccoons. Are they pests? Pets? Thanksgiving dinner? Rebecca certainly had an easier time than many of her peers, said Katherine Grier, a historian at the University of Delaware. In the 1920s, stylish raccoon coats flew out of stores. To some — including the Mississippian who sent Rebecca — raccoons were food.
Early in 1927, renovations in the White House forced the Coolidges into temporary housing. They thought they would leave Rebecca to live outdoors, in her low treehouse and enclosure on the White House grounds, but the President missed her, The Associated Press reported. He liked to pat her and to play with her at night.
So after he finished working one March day, he took Rebecca back to his lodging in Dupont Circle. She burrowed close to him during the limousine ride. Later that month, an Evening Star cartoon showed Coolidge walking out of the White House with a raccoon tucked under each arm. One has a tag that says, “Economy,” and the other wears one that says, “Tax Reduction.” “I don’t feel right without ‘em!” the cartoon Coolidge is saying, referring to his policy preoccupations of the moment.
Soon after, Coolidge appeared with a never-explained bandaged hand, and the raccoon was hustled to the zoo. “From White House to Zoo is Rebecca’s Sad Story,” read one Baltimore Sun headline.
“Oh, she totally bit him. They are wild animals,” Grier said.