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February 18, 2013

QUIZ: Test your presidential knowledge

It's Presidents' Day, and I suddenly find myself obsessed with John Tyler, the nation's 10th president, who served from 1841 to 1845.

Did you know that Tyler had more children than any other president? He had 15, helped by the fact that after his first wife, Letitia, died, he married Julia Gardiner, 24, who was 30 years his junior.

So, John Tyler: a player.

And also: a traitor.

Tyler was from Virginia, and when the Civil War broke out he was elected to the Confederate Congress, an act of treason against the country he had once served.

Those factoids, and a lot more, are in "The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia." I'm sure the Obamas keep a copy in the White House bathroom.

But really, trivia? Isn't the presidency the most hallowed office in the land? Should we be trivializing it, literally?

"It's just an access point that people can get into to learn more about American history, to spark their interest and larger curiosity," said Harry Rubenstein, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. He's among contributors to the book, which was written by Amy Pastan.

Harry said he's useless at remembering trivia — the first, the fattest, the tallest — but many people love that sort of thing.

"Those little bits just take these mythic figures and make them a little less mythic, hopefully a little more human," Harry said.

Florence Harding was accused of poisoning her husband! Teddy Roosevelt endorsed a brand of traveler's checks! Gerald Ford was a fashion model!

Then there's my fave — John Tyler, who with his first lady pops up in the book in the weirdest ways. Before she became fertile young wife No. 2, Julia Gardiner scandalized New York society by posing for an advertisement. Of course, they didn't have cameras back then, and she wasn't even shilling for something unmentionable like corsets or opium. She was depicted in an engraving on the arm of a young man while on her handbag was written an ad for a department store: "I'll purchase at Bogert and Mecamly's, No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their Goods are Beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap."

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