On Feb. 14, 1962, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave Americans the first-ever televised tour of the White House residences. Guiding a CBS News correspondent and millions of viewers through the White House’s recently restored interior, she highlighted its many historic furnishings, artworks, and other decor, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Steinway piano. Toward the end of the tour, she announced, “We are going to do a book.”
That book became The White House: An Historic Guide, coedited by Kennedy, which brought the televised tour’s highlights to the page and launched the publishing arm of the White House Historical Association, which Kennedy founded in 1961. This year, the Historic Guide celebrates its 60th year in print and, with it, the WHHA’s 60th year in publishing.
The book was published July 4, 1962, with the first print run of 250,000 copies selling out in 90 days, and by December of that year there were 600,000 copies in print. Sales of the guide now exceed five million copies, and the 26th edition will be released this July. Thanks to the success of the Historic Guide, the WHHA has “matured into a nationally recognized independent publisher,” said chief publishing officer Marcia Anderson. In 1998, Anderson joined the WHHA as the first publishing professional on staff, and has since overseen the expansion of the publishing program and the production of dozens of new titles.
“As an educational organization devoted to history, our focus is nonfiction,” Anderson said, with the WHHA covering such subjects as history, architecture, fine arts, gardening, memoir, and cookbooks. Titles range from general interest books to “authoritative and comprehensive references on distinctive fields of White House study.”
Anderson credits the Historic Guide with “launching a new field of White House scholarship,” and as that field of scholarship evolves, so do the publishing efforts of the WHHA. In 2024, the WHHA will publish Enslaved Labor and the White House, the result of extensive research by historians from the WHHA’s David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History. More than 200 known enslaved people worked to build the White House and the Capitol, and more than 100 other known enslaved people worked in presidential households; at least nine presidents either brought with them or hired out enslaved people to work at the White House. Anderson said the book will be “the first of its kind to tell the story of the enslaved persons who labored to build the White House and the roles of enslaved persons at the White House.”
The Historic Guide itself has also evolved. When White House tours became more limited after the 9/11 attacks the book “took on a new purpose it never really had before,” Anderson said. Since then, the WHHA has “set out to make the Historic Guide a new sort of White House experience tailored to the modern visitor who may not actually enter the house,” which has included the creation of a digital version of the guide available on the WHHA website. The guidebook is also updated continually to reflect new acquisitions and changes to the White House decor. Further, thanks to advances in printing and photographic technology, readers of the forthcoming guide will see more comprehensive views of White House spaces, thanks to fold-out pages and wide-angle photos.
Since 1962, the WHHA has published 60 titles, releasing three to four new adult books each year, along with two to three children’s titles. It also publishes the White House History Quarterly magazine. The most recent issue, which centered on Queen Elizabeth II’s visits to the White House, was the magazine’s bestselling issue yet. WHHA handles its own distribution, and its books are available online and sold in the WHHA’s three shops in Washington, D.C.: the White House History Shop, the White House Visitor Center, and the Bookseller’s Area in the White House. Many independent bookstores, presidential libraries, museums, and historic sites also carry WHHA titles. Today, the WHHA is a member of the American Association of Publishers, the Independent Book Publishers Association, and the American Booksellers Association, and its titles have received more than 160 national editorial and design awards in the past 12 years.
When it was first released, the Historic Guide was sold at a small table display by the East Wing entrance to the White House tour route, but it soon became apparent that a bigger bookselling operation was needed to meet demand. “The public was hungry to know more about the White House,” said WHHA president Stewart D. McLaurin. He recalled people swarming the sales desk with shopping carts full of guidebooks, while thousands of letters containing $1 bills (the book’s price, set by Kennedy herself, was $1) overwhelmed WHHA staff.
With the Historic Guide, Kennedy had clearly identified an unmet need in the publishing sector: the book remains the WHHA’s bestselling title. Other recent WHHA bestsellers include Wine and the White House: A History by Frederick J. Ryan Jr. and Recipes from the President’s Ranch: Food People Like to Eat by Matthew Wendel, and the association’s bestselling children’s books are The White House Easter Egg Roll: A History by Jonathan Pliska and How to Draw the Presidents by John Hutton.
Kennedy’s aim to make American history accessible continues to inform and inspire the WHHA’s publishing efforts. By publishing the Historic Guide, Stewart said, the first lady wanted readers to feel that the historic White House, and the nation’s history, truly belonged to them. Today, Anderson envisions WHHA’s publishing arm as a “springboard for further research and discovery”—one that unearths, preserves, and circulates U.S. history for readers across the country, regardless of whether they’ve ever set foot in the White House.