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The Dansville Online
  • With a shabby White House, Mary Todd Lincoln took to decorating

  • When Abraham and Mary Lincoln moved into the White House in March of 1861, there wasn’t enough matching china to have a dinner for even a dozen guests.

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  • When Abraham and Mary Lincoln moved into the White House in March of 1861, there wasn’t enough matching china to have a dinner for even a dozen guests.
    “It wasn’t just the tableware that was the problem,” said James Cornelius, Lincoln Curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., in a podcast about the artifacts currently on display (http://tinyurl.com/3du7rfw).
    “There were tears in the draperies, pieces of upholstery were cut out, pieces of the carpet were cut and taken as souvenirs. The White House was a public building and people could come and go. They couldn’t even find the key to the front door when the Lincolns moved in,” he explained.
    Back then, the family of the incoming president would bring their personal items to the White House, and take them back home when they left. Add that to the souvenir hunting, and the Lincolns were stuck with pretty shabby conditions for entertaining in the Executive Mansion.
    To remedy the situation, Lincoln asked Congress for an appropriation of $20,000 to beautify the White House. He got it, plus another $5,000. In May of 1861, Mary went to New York to spend the money.
    At E.V. Haughwout & Co. (referred to in the New York Times as “the greatest china and porcelain house in the city”), she selected a 190-piece dinner service for official state functions. The china plates featured the Great Seal of the U.S., surrounded by a purple band and a gold-and-white braided rope border.
    The first lady also bought a simpler buff-and-gold china set for the family’s private meals, each piece marked with a Gothic-style “L” for the family name. Another purchase was a set of crystal toddy cups, with the Great Seal, for hot punch or cider. She bought matching crystal sherry glasses, as well.
    The china was produced by Haviland & Co. in Limoges, France, and shipped to New York, where artists hand-decorated the pieces. The crystal came from the Dorflinger works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
    “In the 1850s, the wealth of the country was growing. There was cotton in the South and manufacturing in the North. The coffers were flush. Even though we were just about at war, Lincoln didn’t want anyone to think this country was shut down or hard pressed because of wartime. He wanted to keep up appearances,” Cornelius said.
    “Lincoln said to Mary, ‘Please continue and make this place look right. It is a home of dignity and of a stable federal government.’”
    On display through Nov. 30 at the presidential museum are some of Mary’s purchases: an official state plate, a tureen from the family china set and a toddy cup.
    Page 2 of 2 - Besides tableware, Mary bought wallpaper, drapes, carpeting, upholstery and other furnishings for the White House. She overspent the appropriation, and the Lincolns covered the overage, Cornelius said.
    “Initially, Mary Lincoln was applauded by Washington, D.C., society for making necessary improvements to the presidential home,” he said. “But as the (Civil) War dragged on and the national debt grew, she was publicly derided for her extravagance.”
    Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.
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