William Taft's Yale Days Show Humor, Struggle With Obesity

Oct 31, 2013

Taft Baseball Grandstand Seat
Credit Diane Orson / WNPR

America’s 27th President, William Howard Taft, has been in the news recently. New research finds that a diet prescribed for the nation's portliest president looked very similar to today’s low-carb, low-calorie diets. William Howard Taft was a Yale man who weighed 225 pounds when he graduated from college.

"In the White House, his weight ballooned to 355 pounds," said Mark Branch, executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine. His biographers said Taft never much liked being President, and ate more under stress. "There was no more stress than in the four years in the White House."

Taft worried about his weight, and wrote about those struggles in letters to his doctors and family. But he also had a sense of humor about his size. In 1913, after his term in the White House, his alma mater offered him a job teaching constitutional law in New Haven. Branch said, "The story goes that the secretary of Yale came to him and said, ‘Would you accept a chair in law in Yale College?’ He said that he wasn’t sure a Chair in Law would be adequate, but a Sofa of Law should suffice."

Branch took me on a tour to see several custom-made chairs especially built for Taft’s legendary proportions. He knows of five around the Yale campus. We headed first to the Yale Art Gallery’s Furniture Study, and spoke with John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt associate curator of American Decorative Arts. We walked down an aisle filled with Windsor chairs and Bannister back chairs, and then stopped in front of a strikingly large oak armchair. "It's what you might call a double-wide," said Gordon.

A brass plaque on top read, "William Howard Taft." Gordon and Branch tipped it on its side. "There are two large oak planks screwed onto the underside of the seat to give added reinforcement," Gordon said. "So whoever commissioned this special-order chair knew it was going to have to bear the weight of history."

Next, Branch and I headed across campus, "to Woolsey Hall," said Branch, "the auditorium and concert hall of the university, where President Taft had his own special seat in the balcony. Here it is; these are wooden chairs. The seats fold up and down. At the very end of the row is a seat that’s easily half again as wide as the rest." 

"The story is that they accommodated this by shrinking the seats all alongside it in this row just a little bit," Branch said. "So in fact, you would have a little less room if you wanted to sit in the same row with President Taft." 

Our last stop was the archives of Yale’s athletic department. President Taft was a big baseball fan, so a special grandstand seat was built behind home plate at Yale Field. It’s a long bench with slats and metal dividers. "They saved a normal seat. And then one next to it is twice that, I’d guess.That’s plenty of room, I think, even for Taft," laughed Branch.

Historians agree that Taft was very happy during his years teaching at Yale. He left New Haven in 1921 to accept the job he’d always said he wanted: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His weight never again went over 300 pounds, and his seat on court was, well...a little smaller.