A Few of Buchanan’s Favorite Things

On 23 April 1791, James Buchanan was born to James and Elizabeth Speer Buchanan. Though Buchanan didn’t celebrate with balloons and streamers, he did have a few known favorites that he may have enjoyed on his birthday.

Favorite Way to Spend the Day

A publication from the Daily Democrat and News on 20 December 1859 summed up a day in the life of James Buchanan:

“If Mr. Buchanan does not enjoy his politics; he is in full enjoyment of his usual robust health. He rises early, reads the newspapers, breakfasts, transacts business, takes a walk, dines plainly, receives visitors, and goes to bed at ten o’clock” (Daily Democrat and News, 20 December 1859, page 2: column 3, Chronicling America, LOC).

In just one sentence, we get a glimpse of several themes surrounding Buchanan: reading, eating, walking,  socializing, and sleeping. Let’s explore some of these concepts in more detail.

Favorite Foods

Sauerkraut sits high up on the list of Buchanan’s favorite foods, as this popular German dish can be found in a number of his letters. Making sauerkraut requires cabbage and a bit of fermentation. Fermented foods have a few health benefits, like improving digestion, strengthening the immune system, and even helping with gout.

Unfortunately, Buchanan’s consumption of sauerkraut did not stop him from gout attacks. Buchanan regularly suffered from frequent attacks of gout, especially in the later years of his life. He would often take foot baths to help ease his pain. Even though he enjoyed sauerkraut, his regular diet was still high in rich foods and alcohol. This may have counterbalanced the health benefits found in fermented cabbage.

Buchanan also enjoyed eating ice cream. But how could he enjoy this frozen treat in an age before the refrigerator? The answer lies twelve feet below ground. The icehouse and smokehouse at Wheatland is one of the original outbuildings still found on the property today. The icehouse section is twelve feet below ground and accessed by ladder. Ice from local ponds were kept at the bottom of the ice house with straw and sawdust to insulate it throughout the year. If Buchanan had ice cream, it likely would be stored in the ice house.

Delaware shad ranks as another Buchanan favorite. This fish gets its name from the Delaware River, which stretches through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

The strawberry patches at Wheatland meant that strawberries were plentiful in Buchanan’s diet. During his birthday, the strawberry patches would be nearing the harvesting season.

Favorite Beverages

Buchanan always enjoyed an alcoholic beverage, especially whiskey, wine, and port. After his death in 1868, an inventory was taken at Wheatland. The contents of the wine cellar included $800 worth of Madeira wine, Port, Rhine and Claret wine, and various liquors.

While serving in the Senate at Washington, D.C. from 1834-1845, Buchanan bought 10 gallons of whiskey from Jacob Baer per week. While this may seem like quite a bit to the modern reader, it’s not altogether unreasonable in America during the Victorian era. A combination of issues and distrust around water safety, the belief that alcohol had health benefits, and the low cost and popularity of alcohol made it the drink of choice. Studies have shown that Americans over the age of 15 drank 9.5 gallons of spirits (not including wine, cider, or beer) per person in 1830 alone.

Favorite Past-Times

Buchanan often walked throughout the grounds at Wheatland and down along Marietta Avenue. Because of Wheatland’s close proximity to Lancaster city, Buchanan preferred walking instead of riding in the carriage. He’d walk into the city to attend church, enjoy society with his friends, and visit his favorite taverns.

Known to be quite the reader, Buchanan had books just about everywhere at Wheatland. During the Presidential Campaign in 1856, journalists visited Wheatland. They noted the desks in the mansion were covered in books and the bookcases were well stocked. Though Buchanan had many bookcases throughout Wheatland, the two more “famous” bookcases regularly mentioned in tours reside in the library. Buchanan bought these two bookcases from Wheatland’s previous owner, William Morris Meredith, for a total of $75.00.

Photograph of two bookcases in James Buchanan's Library
The two bookcases that Buchanan purchased from William Morris Meredith for $75.00.


If Buchanan wasn’t reading or walking, he may have been socializing. Buchanan preferred to entertain guests in smaller numbers rather than large groups. His niece, Annie Buchanan, had recalled that her Uncle had an uncanny ability to transport people back in time. She also remembered that he could hold the guests’ attention all night long with his stories. Guests would only ever interrupt his story-telling to ask a question that would prompt him to continue.

But perhaps Buchanan’s most time honored “past-time” was his bedtime. He was very strict about going to bed at 10:00 PM every night, which was, according to Buchanan, “The time for all good Christians to be in bed.”

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House