A recently unearthed letter from one of Lincoln’s Springfield acquaintances provides a charming anecdote of the future President’s fondness for whittling.
W.T. Scherr arrived in Springfield in 1847 as a young clerk in James L. Lamb’s store. In this capacity Scherr saw Lincoln many times over the years and remembered him as “a jovial, full of fun man, a heap of jokes,” and one who was always whittling: “In court while most lawyers made notes, he with his retentive memory did not seem necessary to use these, but if could get a nice pine stick, soon had a nice pile of shavings about him.”
It was a mindless, relaxing habit, one that Lincoln engaged in with any piece of wood handy. Occasionally this got him into trouble. Scherr recalled: “Our counters were fine cherry, narrow beaded strips. [Lincoln] was over 6 feet and sometimes would (if no customers by) squat on one, his long legs hanging over. One morning he did so, out came knife, in moment he’d chip’d into a bead but I stop’d him, ‘Oh! Mr Lincoln this is our fine counter.’ He hopped off quick.”
It wasn’t the only time Lincoln carelessly destroyed someone’s property with this penknife. Scherr related the following story in his letter:
“We got most our goods from New York and Philadelphia in large pine cases, one especial style called W case, being of uniform size. The lid made of two pieces, tongue and grooved. At that early day the farmers had but few barns or grainary, we sold the boxes for grain at $1.25, same as cost in the East. The morning referred to Mr. Lincoln came, one [box] stood on pavement in front of store. We took off the lids carefully and only tacked them on, leaving a small crack. [Lincoln] passed ‘time of day.’ ‘How goes it boys?’ throwing himself at length, hips and elbow, left side on the box.
“The crack was too enticing, out came his knife chip came off one side of lid. I told the two fellow clerks, ‘keep still, let’s see what he’ll do.’ Slap went a chip off the other side. He then told us some of his yarns, until he had a hole cut into which could almost put a good size baby head.
“I then exclaimed, ‘Oh! Mr. Lincoln look what you’ve done to our box.’
“He seemed entirely oblivious as to what had done. ‘Boys what do you do with these boxes?’
“I told him.
“‘What you get for them?’
“‘Oh we get $1.25.’
“‘Well it will make kindling won’t it?’
“’Well, charge it to me, send it up to my house.’
“’I guess we don’t do that. We can get anyhow $1.00 and you have entertained us enough for the difference,’ I said.”
Lincoln continued his habit of whittling the rest of his life. He even had a penknife in his pocket the day he was shot. One wonders if the Civil War hadn’t kept his hands literally and figuratively full, if some of the chairs and tables in the White House wouldn’t have borne evidence of his knife.
 W.T. Scherr to Elliott, 8 February 1912, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.