First Ladies Library Blog

Welcome to the National First Ladies Library blog. This replaces the “asked/answered” page and all information from it has been transferred to the blog. Here will be an ongoing public forum on the work of the NFLL and its collections, discussion on new and emerging scholarship and popular publications, news stories, and any other information or discoveries related to directly to the subject of First Ladies. The public is invited to engage here with questions on the subject.

Research, reading and writing on the subject of American First Ladies opens windows into so many fascinating aspects of not just national and international history and culture but contemporary issues as well.

Enjoy our blog and feel free to post your comments.

 

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with his sister Darline Nordone, (AP)

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with his sister Darline Nordone, (AP)

Last month, when United States Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham announced that he was joining the range of candidates seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he addressed a question about what he would do, as a lifelong bachelor, about the matter of not having a spouse who could serve as First Lady.

Senator Graham's sister, it has been suggested, would be his primary First Lady were he to be elected President. (AP)

Senator Graham’s sister, it has been suggested, would be his primary First Lady were he to be elected President. (AP)

Joining him at his June 8, 2015 announcement was his younger sister Darline Graham Nordone.

The siblings are unusually close. When their parents died suddenly within a year of each other, the Senator, then serving in the U.S. military, adopted his younger sister to ensure that if anything happened to him she would at least inherit his estate.

Now, he has suggested she could play a role if he became President. “I’ve got a sister. She could play that role if necessary.”

There is great historical precedence for this, although some media reports have included numerous errors in their coverage of past incidents that are analogous. Some clarification of fact:

Rose Cleveland.

Rose Cleveland.

Only two single Presidents have depended on a sister to serve as First Lady, both of them contiguous in the presidential timeline: Chester Arthur, who inherited the presidency upon the death of President Garfield in 1881, a widower who eventually asked his married sister Mary “Molly” Arthur McElroy, and  Grover Cleveland, elected as a bachelor in 1884, who had his single sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland serve as his feminine counterpart at social events and ceremonies until he married in 1886.

Since the youngest of his sister’s two children, a daughter, still requires her supervision as a parent, however, there was also the suggestion that Darline Nordone might not be able to fill social duties full-time. To this, Graham remarked, “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”

There are several examples of Administrations where there were multiple women relatives who worked together or consecutively to serve as hostess of the White House.

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Under widower Jefferson, his two daughters Martha Randolph and Maria Eppes visited one social season together, with Randolph returning for a second of her father’s eight years as president.

The primary hostess for nearly all of the eight years of widower Andrew Jackson was his wife’s niece Emily Donelson. His adoptive daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson also came to serve as an adjunct to Donelson.

The most recent example occurred after the death of presidential spouse Ellen Wilson in 1914; before her husband remarried to his second wife Edith during his presidency, his daughter Margaret Wilson and his cousin Helen Bones worked together as hostesses of the White House.

During John Tyler’s presidency his first wife Letitia Tyler was unable to appear as the public hostess so their daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler assumed the lead role. She was often assisted by the First Daughter, Letty Tyler Semple.

Letitia Tyler Semple. (Virginia Historical Society)

Letitia Tyler Semple. (Virginia Historical Society)

After Priscillia Tyler and her husband, the president’s son Robert, left Washington but before the President remarried to his second wife during his incumbency, Letty Semple served as the only hostess.

Similarly, Andrew Johnson’s wife Eliza was alive during his presidency but only occasionally made public appearances.

The leading hostess of that Administration was their daughter Martha Patterson, wife of a U.S. Senator, always aided by her widowed sister Mary Stover.

Mary Abigail Fillmore. (Buffalo Historical Society)

Mary Abigail Fillmore. (Buffalo Historical Society)

Two First Ladies who were presidential wives assumed the lead role as public hostess were aided by their daughters: Elizabeth Monroe and Eliza Monroe Hay, Abigail Fillmore and Abby Fillmore.

What of Senator Graham’s specific suggestion of “rotating First Ladies” – is there historic precedence for this? There is.

Two weeks after Chester Arthur became president, renovation work was begun on the private residential rooms of the White House, thus precluding any immediate occupancy by a presidential family.

A period of some ninety days of official mourning for the late President Garfield was to then be observed by the federal government, precluding any presidential entertaining.

Chester Arthur entered the presidency as the fourth widower. (LC)

Chester Arthur entered the presidency as the fourth widower. (LC)

During this period, Arthur lived and worked out of the Capitol Hill home of Interior Secretary Samuel J. Kirkwood during the week.

He returned as often as possible to New York, having his home renovated and prepared to rent to his married nephew and his family, establishing temporary office space in that city in rented rooms at the New York Hotel.

The press and the public, however, pressed the issue of a First Lady, as expressed in the 10 November 1881 Washington Post:

 “The question which now concerns society circles in this city, as well as interests those circles where purely political subjects are discussed is – What lady is President Arthur to install as mistress of the White House during the Administration? “

The paper named several potential candidates.

Elizabeth Botts, cousin of the president's late wife, was considered one of the potential "rotating First Ladies" of the Arthur Administration.

Elizabeth Botts, cousin of the president’s late wife, was considered one of the potential “rotating First Ladies” of the Arthur Administration.

One person high on the list was Sarah Haughwout Howe Roosa, a childhood friend and bridesmaid of Ellen Arthur’s. Highly social, a brilliant conversationalist, intellectual and beautiful, Mrs. Roosa was nevertheless tainted by scandal as a former paramour of Roscoe Conkling’s, the reason for her divorce from her first husband.

A second name mentioned was Ellen Arthur’s first cousin Elizabeth Herndon Botts, who married into a pro-Union southern family was thought by many to be her ideal substitute as First Lady.  Ellen Arthur had been especially close to her and Mrs. Botts named a daughter after her.

Also speculated about were two of the president’s three married sister, Malvina Haynesworth or Mary “Molly” McElroy.

On 20 November, 1881 the Washington Post finally reported what Senator Graham has suggested in 2015:

Harriet Blaine was one of several women who served as an initial "rotating First Lady" for President Arthur.

Harriet Blaine was one of several women who served as an initial “rotating First Lady” for President Arthur.

“President Arthur’s plan regarding assistance at his receptions is now said to be not to have any lady remain permanently and preside at the White House. He will, it is said, invite the wives and daughters of the members of his Cabinet to assist him. This plan he has communicated to several ladies, telling them that he confidently counts on their help during the winter.”

The first sign of his decision would be evident at the New Year’s Day Reception on the first day of 1882; however, Arthur received officials and the public that day with a host of other men’s wives: Harriet Blaine, married to the outgoing Secretary of State. Union general’s wife Mary Logan, and spouses of Senators and Congressmen Elizabeth Cameron, Hannah Jones, Mary Miller, Alice Pendleton, and Maria Robeson.

Several weeks later, there was a glowing report of Arthur’s first state dinner, and “the absence of a mistress took nothing away from the enjoyableness of the occasion.”

Presidential sister Molly McElroy, President Arthur, and his children Nell and Alan Arthur.

Presidential sister Molly McElroy, President Arthur, and his children Nell and Alan Arthur.

However, desiring the presence of his young daughter with him in the White House,

Arthur settled on his sister Molly McElroy, then serving as the motherless girl’s caretaker. With her move into the executive mansion, she assumed by default the leading hostess role.

One other more recent example, however, has been consistently and entirely overlooked by historians and journalists.

It occurred during the Kennedy Administration over which the legendary Jackie Kennedy served as the primary First Lady.

However, she was often away from the White House and absent during many social events and ceremonies.

Pat, Jean and Eunice Kennedy, the "First Sisters." (Pinterest)

Pat, Jean and Eunice Kennedy, the “First Sisters.” (Pinterest)

On a regular basis there were a number of regular “substitute First Ladies,” consisting of Vice President’s wife Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady’s mother Janet Auchincloss, the President’s mother Rose Kennedy, the President’s sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy.

However, an informal tabulation of both formal and informal social events of the Kennedy Administration suggest that the “substitute First Lady” role was most frequently rotated among the President’s three sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith, Pat Kennedy Lawford and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the last of these three appearing more often than any of the other surrogates.

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A President Who is Single?

 

Grover Cleveland receiving guests alone, one of the only two bachelors elected to the presidency.

Grover Cleveland receiving guests alone, one of the only two bachelors elected to the presidency.

This posting is an adaption of a recent written and telephone response to a media inquiry about the prospects of a President of the United States who is single, be they unmarried, widowed or divorced, and the even greater rarity of a bachelor being a candidate for the presidency. With the recent announcement of South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham that he is seeking the Republican Party nomination for the highest office of the land, it seemed an important though rarely addressed subject.

Jefferson.

Jefferson.

Among the forty-three individual men who have served as President of the United States, nine were incumbents as single men, for either a period of, or the entirety of their tenure.

Two Presidents were elected as widowers, Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and Martin Van Buren in 1836.

One President was married at the time of his 1828 election but widowed by the time he was inaugurated in 1829, Andrew Jackson.

A fourth man, Chester Arthur, was a widower in 1880 when he was elected as the Vice President and remained unmarried when he inherited the position of President upon the 1881 death of President James Garfield.

Three Presidents who were elected as married men, became widowers during their presidencies: John Tyler in 1841, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, and Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

One divorced man ran for the presidency, but failed to win the election: Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson who was defeated by Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower in both the 1952 and 1956 elections.

An anti-Buchanan cartoon depicting the President as managing a balancing act with policy.

An anti-Buchanan cartoon depicting the President as managing a balancing act with policy.

Finally, two men were elected to the presidency as bachelor: James Buchanan in 1856 and Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Considering how, from the inception of the presidency, the public took an avid interest in the wives of Presidents who would act as hostess alongside him at public receptions, formal dinners, official ceremonies and other events, and too how many of these wives received critical consideration in the national media regarding their “qualifications” as role models for women of the country, how did they react to the prospect of a presidential candidate who was single?

In the case of the very first single President, Thomas Jefferson, there was no public concern about his marital status during his 1800 election.

Some press accounts gave mention to the fact that his married daughter Martha Randolph always appeared at social events hosted at his Virginia estate Monticello.

A posthumous portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph

A posthumous portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph

If the matter even crossed the minds of citizens, perhaps there was a general assumption that Mrs. Randolph would provide some sense of feminine identity in the presidential mansion.

Certainly during his re-election campaign in 1804, however, his marital status only fueled the anti-Jefferson press in their reports that he had made one of enslaved women on his estate, Sally Hemings, his mistress.

Van Buren.

Van Buren.

The single status of Martin Van Buren also generated no media attention or known public reaction during his 1836 presidential candidacy.

The fact that both Jefferson and Van Buren were single by their status as widowers may have been the reason they were spared any speculation about serving as Presidents without wives, by the election of 1856, the matter was raised with the the very first candidacy of a bachelor, Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan.

James Buchanan. (National Archives)

James Buchanan. (National Archives)

Having served as the American Ambassador to England, Buchanan had something of a national reputation by the time he ran for President and the public role played there by his orphaned niece Harriet Lane, who served as his hostess and was as emotionally close as a daughter to him, was already known to party leaders and some of the national press.

Still, his status as a single man was considered an unusual anomaly and some reporters from newspapers supporting his political opposition in the new Republican Party, sought to deride him for being unmarried.

The basic idea underlying opposition to him on the grounds of such a personal matter seemed rooted in the idea that he lacked the sort of emotional support and balanced perspective that a strong marriage could provide a President. Perhaps the most famous derision poked at Buchanan’s bachelorhood was a ditty, part of which ran:

Whoever heard in all of his life,

Of a President without a wife?

Whatever prejudices there may have been against a bachelor in the White House, however, it didn’t prevent his victory.

As his Administration ensued, there was constant speculation about Buchanan taking a wife and making her First Lady, his every interaction with unmarried and widowed women fodder for gossip.

There was also an incurrent, again from political foes, that Buchanan was, in the terminology of the day, an “old maid,” or “Aunt Nancy,” euphemisms implying that he may have been what would today be termed “gay.”

One of numerous political cartoons depicting the bachelor President as an "old maid." (LC)

One of numerous political cartoons depicting the bachelor President as an “old maid.” (LC)

While his affectionate and emotional intimacy with the late U.S. Senator William Rufus Devane King had earlier in his career been a point of demeaning comments and observations by leading national Democratic Party figures, it was also inextricably intertwined with assessments of him as being politically weak.

Thus, it is often difficult to delineate what were genuine critiques of his marital status and speculation about why he remained single from sarcastic and satirical remarks motivated by politics.

What is clear is that the institutionalized sexism of that time universally cast women as weak and those who were advanced in age and unmarried as querulous, petty and fussy. It was as the caricature of an “old maid” that President Buchanan was soon enough universally parodied.

The 1884 campaign of the only other man elected to the presidency as a bachelor besides Buchanan, led to a different kind of speculation about him as an unmarried man.

A political cartoon depicting the bachelor Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland being confronted with his illegitimate child and the woman he fathered the son by. (LC)

A political cartoon depicting the bachelor Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland being confronted with his illegitimate child and the woman he fathered the son by. (LC)

In this case, that of Grover Cleveland, it was not any suggestion about his preferences but rather what this bachelor’s relationships with women had been up to that point.

With Cleveland, who had served as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, the question rapidly grew into a controversy that threatened to derail his candidacy.

In fact, he had been sexually intimate with an unmarried Buffalo woman by the name of Maria Halpern and further, had fathered an illegitimate son by her.

Once spoken rumors of his fathering the child hit the public press, Cleveland recognized he had to somehow address the rapidly spreading scandal and its potential harm to his victory.

He crafted a public statement suggesting that he might have been the father of the child, thus implying another other number of men could also have done so. This tactic had the effect of not only casting Maria Halpern as a woman of lose morals, but also earning Cleveland at least some public respect for “honesty.”

Sheet music about the bachelor candidate Cleveland's problem.

Sheet music about the bachelor candidate Cleveland’s problem.

The colorful story led to the legendary ditty of, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!” There was at least one political cartoon and song printed on sheet music satirizing the situation.

Well over a century later, as proven by recent scholarship, it was learned that the real story had a far darker side, suggesting that Cleveland likely raped Maria Halpern while consciously intending to have her publicly depicted as seducing him into the encounter.

In her lifetime, she was never vindicated.

Elected and inaugurated as a bachelor, President Grover Cleveland soon enough shifted his marital status. Becoming the only chief executive to ever wed in the White House, he married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room there, in June of 1886.

 

 

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First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech during a visit to Mulberry School for Girls in east London, Britain, 16 June 2015 during her two-day mission to England. (EPA/ANDY RAIN)

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech during a visit to Mulberry School for Girls in east London, Britain, 16 June 2015 during her two-day mission to England. (EPA/ANDY RAIN)

In response to several inquiries, the National First Ladies’ Library recently spoke with various media outlets, including  a live BBC radio broadcast, providing historical context to First Lady Michelle Obama’s June 2015 trip to England to bring international attention and seek wider global support for her “Let Girls Learn” initiative.

Mrs. Obama meets with Prince Harry of England in promotion of "Let Girls Learn," June 16, 2015. (Reuters)

Mrs. Obama meets with Prince Harry of England in promotion of “Let Girls Learn,” June 16, 2015. (Reuters)

Through “Let Girls Learn,” the American First Lady is striving to prove to other governments that not only is preventing the full education of young women an act of sexism but it also radically reduces the overall potential of economic growth in such nations by limiting its capacity for employment of necessary professional training f practically fifty percent of its population.

On their own, several other First Ladies made official visits to Great Britain during their White House tenures and the different purposes of such excursions. The discussion did not include those First Ladies who had gone to England to accompany Presidents of the United States on official state visits.

The Kennedys leaving the London residence of the First Lady's sister on their way to dinner at Buckingham Palace. (AP)

The Kennedys leaving the London residence of the First Lady’s sister on their way to dinner at Buckingham Palace. (AP)

While Jacqueline Kennedy was perhaps the most famous of those First Ladies who made trips on her own to numerous foreign countries, her initial visit to England was largely ceremonial and private in nature.

Mrs. Kennedy joined President Kennedy on his first foreign trip to Europe in May of 1961, and most famously left a permanent impression during their first stop in Paris. Her knowledge of French history and ability to speak French fluently startled French President Charles DeGaulle as well as the nation’s media and populace.

She then went with the President to Austria, where she had a similar affect on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a dinner held after his talks with JFK.

The President and Mrs. Kennedy during the baptism ceremony of the First Lady's niece. (original source unknown)

The President and Mrs. Kennedy during the baptism ceremony of the First Lady’s niece. (original source unknown)

After Vienna, the Kennedys flew to London. The First Lady’s sister Lee Radziwill was then living in the English capital city and the Kennedys were overnight guests with her and her family. During their time there, the President served as the godfather of the Radzwill’s daughter Christina.

They were also the honored guests at a private dinner in Buckingham Palace.

Jackie Kennedy had once shaken the hand of Elizabeth as a princess when the future First Lady was touring Europe as a college student and had again watched her arrival in Washington, in November of 1951 during a visit to President Truman at the White House.

The Kennedys with England's Queen and Prince. (AP)

The Kennedys with England’s Queen and Prince. (AP)

Mrs. Kennedy’s 1961 dinner at Buckingham Palace was the first time the two women had a chance to speak and get to know each other personally.

Although the President returned to the United States immediately after the dinner, the First Lady remained in London for several days, exploring the city on her own.

Jackie Kennedy and her sister antique shopping in London's Chelsea section. (original source unknown)

Jackie Kennedy and her sister antique shopping in London’s Chelsea section. (original source unknown)

She did not make any official appearances.

Instead, she strolled the streets and went antique shopping with her sister before they both headed to Greece for a private vacation.

In July of 1981, First Lady Nancy Reagan made her own independent trip to England as the guest representative of the United States at the legendary wedding of British Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, soon to become famous the world round as “Princess Di.”

During her time in London, Mrs. Reagan attended a private dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for heads of state from other nations also in attendance at the royal wedding, and a polo match where the Queen also made an appearance.

Nancy Reagan arriving for the London wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in July, 1981. (RRPL)

Nancy Reagan arriving for the London wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in July, 1981. (RRPL)

Staying at the American Embassy, she encountered fellow Americans and those also previously employed in her former profession of acting, including Princess Grace [Kelly] of Monaco and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

In October of 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first incumbent First Lady to make a lengthy mission to a foreign country without a President (Ida McKinley had briefly visited Mexico in May of 1901 for a breakfast gathering and Edith Wilson had joined President Wilson for his post-World War I trip to Europe).

Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed by England's King and Queen, October 1942. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed by England’s King and Queen, October 1942. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt made the Atlantic crossing by plane, first landing in Ireland and then proceeding to England.

Mrs. Roosevelt made the historic trip as a representative of the Red Cross.

In her capacity as the First Lady of the United States she was both an important symbol of the US-British alliance fighting the Third Reich during World War II and also as an inspector of wartime conditions of not only British citizens but also American servicemen and servicewomen stationed there.

Mrs. Roosevelt talks to British munitions factory workers. (LC)

Mrs. Roosevelt talks to British munitions factory workers. (LC)

Everywhere she went, the looming figure of the American First Lady was greeted enthusiastically br crowds. She had no Secret Service agents and went about wartime London at her free will

Staying as a guest of King George and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, she toured munitions factories where women were predominantly the employees, met with Air Transport Auxiliary women workers, and visited London shelters where residents sought refuge during bombings by the Nazis.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with black US servicemen during World War II. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with black US servicemen during World War II. (FDRL)

Mrs. Roosevelt also met with American service personnel, which was then still being racially segregated.

A famous champion of civil rights on all spheres of life, she made a point of coming to meet with both white and black American troops.

All of this she reported back with her observations to the President and Secretary of War (as the Defense Department was then called).

Eleanor Roosevelt gave a radio broadcast on the BBC. (BBC)

Eleanor Roosevelt gave a radio broadcast on the BBC. (BBC)

She also made an address to the British people by BBC radio.

From the trip, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gained useful ideas she recommended both for improving conditions for US servicemen and for how the people of England were coping with wartime conditions.

During World War II, she would later make two other foreign trips in her capacity as a Red Cross representative, to the South Pacific and then to the Caribbean basin.

 

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A campaign photograph showed Ida McKinley as physically healthy. (Ohio Historical Society)

A campaign photograph showed Ida McKinley as physically healthy. (Ohio Historical Society)

The National First Ladies Library recently received an inquiry from an individual who is conducting research in preparation for a live first-person historical reenactment of First Lady Ida McKinley, specifically for the period of her husband’s final year as Governor of Ohio, covering the period of 1895.

The only full-length biography of Ida McKinley.

The only full-length biography of Ida McKinley.

Herein is an adapted version of some ideas of how the historical figure Ida McKinley is viewed as can best be humanized by a person.

The biography Ida McKinley: Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination & Secret Disability will certainly be of the most direct aid in providing direct quotations and contextual material, anecdotes, etc. to serve as monologue material it may be quite helpful. You will find a great amount of original documentation in both the text and the endnotes, including new and rare direct quotes from her.

As far as clothing, Ida McKinley was especially noted for her expensive tastes, rich materials and most especially her fondness for lace. In fact, she had a large collection of intricate, rare and antique lace. This itself has an interesting story.

Ida McKinley almost always wore pieces of her lace collection, as much an emblem of her belief in better way for women who wove the fabric as it was a fashionable accessory,

Ida McKinley almost always wore pieces of her lace collection, as much an emblem of her belief in better way for women who wove the fabric as it was a fashionable accessory,

As the rare young unmarried woman who determined to seek full-time employment, working in her father’s bank and eventually serving as bank manager during his frequent trips out of Canton, she was especially sensitive to the plight of working-class women.

This came home to her dramatically during her six month trip though many European nations.

It was in Belgium that she was shocked to see the tedious work and toll on the eyes and body of very young women who were making lace.She bought up as much of it as she could afford in an effort to provide more money to these women.

Mrs. McKinley bought her clothes custom-made during her many frequent trips to New York.

One of several elaborately embroidered pieces of clothing purchased by Ida McKinley at Marshall Field's. (McKinley Presidential Museum)

One of several elaborately embroidered pieces of clothing purchased by Ida McKinley at Marshall Field’s. (McKinley Presidential Museum)

She often carried a parasol, to block the view of strangers as much as to block the sun. Her favorite colors were a pale blue, which became something of a signature color for her, and a dark blue-violet.

She also carried a large, lace handkerchief, as was common among the elite class of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

She preferred using very small hats – not only due to her taste but because she had to avoid any pressure or feeling of heaviness, even hairpins, since it could often provoke a migraine headache.

This is related to her health condition of seizure disorder.

Ida McKinley could often experience a seizure when put under great stress.

Mrs. McKinley in a newspaper illustration which showed her using a wheelchair.

Mrs. McKinley in a newspaper illustration which showed her using a wheelchair.

She also had suffered a bad fall which left her with a degree of spinal damage affecting the nerves of her leg, and so she almost never walked – during this period – without the reliance of a large, heavy cane. It was during her White House years that she was also known to require a “rolling chair,” or wheelchair, though on many occasions it was there but she had no need to use it.

Mrs. McKinley was highly intelligent, keenly aware of all political matters be that local, state, national or international.

She was especially concerned at this time about the increase in assassinations of world leaders by anarchists.

Ida McKinley as Ohio Governor's wife. (ebay)

Ida McKinley as Ohio Governor’s wife. (ebay)

While she had previously encouraged her husband towards the presidency and believed him worthy of attaining it, by 1895 – the last year she was the spouse of the governor – she was overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of doom.

She even shouted in fear on his Election Day in 1896 that he would be killed if he was elected President.

This First Lady supported women’s suffrage as well as equal education for African-Americans and she underwrote the higher education of the children of the woman who regularly took in the McKinley wash, who was African-American.

Contrary to later depictions of her, Ida McKinley had a sharp wit and keen sense of humor; she loved to laugh and once spoke about the importance of laughter as a method of coping with life's challenges.

Contrary to later depictions of her, Ida McKinley had a keen sense of humor; she once spoke about the importance of laughter as a method of coping with life’s challenges.

She believed in reincarnation and was not in any way a traditional Christian, never attending church though she was not a disbeliever in Christ; rather, she took from various faiths those tenets which spoke to her view of the world.

She was a great wit, sometimes sharp-tongued and quick to rebuke those she felt showed no respect to her husband.

Yet she also became frustrated when, during his second gubernatorial inauguration, she could only honestly respond to a question that he refused to tell her whether he was going to run for President.

She, by this time, had learned to function in a sort of play-acting manner with her husband in public, always intended to show herself as a bit weaker than she really was, all intended to make her husband appear heroic in his devoted care to her.

The Saxton-McKinley House. (NFLL)

The Saxton-McKinley House. (NFLL)

Ida McKinley was never a homemaker or housekeeper. The McKinleys gave up their own home following the death of their first daughter, who died at four months old, and moved into the Saxton-McKinley House in Canton, owned and restored by the NFLL – certainly a trip worth your while to visit if you can. She did not cook or clean, relying on servants. In Washington as in Columbus, the couple lived in rented residential hotel suites.

A pair of slippers knitted b Ida McKinley. (McKinley Museum)

A pair of slippers knitted by Ida McKinley. (McKinley Museum)

However, Ida McKinley was an avid knitter of slippers.

She did this not just as a pastime but to serve a very specific purpose.

Since she was often, unpredictably, unable to be independently mobile, but felt a need to participate in aiding numerous charitable organizations, she would knit thousands of slippers over her lifetime and contribute a pair to charities which would then auction the item for very high prices.

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New Book on First Ladies Based on C-Span Series

 

The new book based on the popular C-Span series.

The new book based on the popular C-Span series.

 

April 14, 2015 marks the publication date of a new book, First Ladies, based on the popular C-Span series which ran during 2013; it is by Susan Swain of C-Span, the popular host of many of the channel’s news and history programs.

Ida McKinley.

Ida McKinley.

The weekly series focused on a different First Lady in separate episodes, several of the shorter Administrations being treated on one episode.

What makes this book unique is that it is an edited transcript of the series discussions with various historians, biographers and journalists.

The series included footage made at the National First Ladies’ Library Saxton-McKinley House during the episode on Ida McKinley.

She will be one of those likely to be discussed in a National Archives panel considering the subject, in connection with the book’s publication, taking place on Thursday evening, April 23.

 

 

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The First Ladies at Christmas: Seven Modern Women, Part 4

Modern First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all introduced innovations to White House holiday traditions.

Modern First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all introduced innovations to White House holiday traditions.

The era immediately following the end of World War II changed the celebration of Christmas in the United States forever. While much of the sentimental songs of longing and separation caused by the war remained standards, such as “White Christmas,” the postwar economic flush sparked an unheralded consumerism which made the business of Christmas boom. And the increasingly lavish decorations and new customs introduced by First Ladies also reflected that change as the 20th century progressed into the 21st.

The tinseled East Room tree under Eisenhower.

The tinseled East Room tree under Eisenhower.

Another factor shifted the role of First Ladies on the national scene during the holiday season. Whereas the previous generation had involved themselves with local charities and organizations by stepping out into the public sphere to share the holiday, after the years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s active visibility there was a greater public expectation from presidential spouses to expand their accessibility, and make the holiday White House more accessible, both in person and through the media, a feat accomplished by the growing visual mediums of newsreels, television and live video feeds.

Mamie Eisenhower loved every holiday, from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day, from Independence Day to Valentine’s Day.

Christmas, however, was a whole galaxy unto itself for her.

In 1958, she not only had a large tree set up in the family quarters but a count of thirty others on the state floor and at the North Portico entrance. While none of the popular synthetic silver trees were ever spotted, she had the real ones doused in enough silver tinsel to seem like it.

The Eisenhower family in the West Sitting Hall in front of the family's tree.

The Eisenhower family in the West Sitting Hall in front of the family’s tree.

And just to make sure that every person, be it tourist or guest, who entered the house immediately caught the spirit of the holiday season, Mrs. Eisenhower employed the new gadgetry of stereophonic projection, having a loop of pre-recorded Christmas carols piped in through a modern sound system.

(It was the same one she used in the spring when she had the sound of chirping bird broadcasted through the house).

Seen here with her grandson  and daughter-in-law Mamie Eisenhower had the Cross Hall columns wrapped in evergreen garland.

With grandson and daughter-in-law, Mrs. Eisenhower had columns wrapped in garland.

The multitude of trees and the recorded carols were the least of it. Mrs. Eisenhower also had nearby hobby shops raided for miles of large-bulbed colored lights, fake evergreen garlands, glass and plastic baubles and ornaments, and bright red ribbons and bows.

All of it was worked into wreaths for the windows, in which an electric candles stood in the center of each.

In the house, the gardening staff had their hands full spray-painting tree branches winter white, which were them placed around the white columns of the house, which were also wound with the garlands.

Red bows were tied around the large free-standing candelabras and mistletoe hung from the crystal chandeliers.

For a final touch, she had the windows sprayed with a white substance to simulate snow drifts. It was an eye-popping Fabulous Fifties Winter Wonderland to be sure.

Unfortunately no color images of Mamie’s White House Christmases have yet surfaced.

Mamie Eisenhower at Christmas.

Mamie Eisenhower at Christmas.

And this First Lady, although personally managing the household budget to the penny, was not tightwad when it came to spreading the annual goodwill. “It’s been my desire, all my life, to be able to give a Christmas gift to everybody who works for me!”

Each year, every White House staff employee, from butlers to maids to electricians to gardeners to cooks and bakers was invited up to the family quarters where she eagerly handed them each a personal gift.

The staff was given to nicknaming her “Mrs. Christmas,”  the former Chief Usher later chuckled, also recalling her coming into his office when the radio was on and tapping her toe and snapping her fingers to the then-new song, “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Mamie Eisenhower's personal Christmas card.

Mamie Eisenhower’s personal Christmas card.

Her generosity, however, extended beyond those she knew or would ever meet. Receiving hundreds of letters from parents unable to purchase toys for their children asking if there was some charity or place that could help them to provide one, Mrs. Eisenhower directed that hundreds of gifts sent to her four grandchildren be quietly sent to those in need.

Mamie Eisenhower so loved Christmas that she even had a series of her own personal cards made with herself as a caricature, and another with her and the President, both crafted by artists who worked for her friend Joyce Hallmark of the famous card company.

As Mamie did, so did Jackie.

Jacqueline Kennedy's original watercolors were reprinted as Christmas cards.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s original watercolors were reprinted as Christmas cards.

Jacqueline Kennedy designed three different Christmas cards during her tenure as First Lady.

Two were printed from her own original watercolored pen sketch paintings, one titled Gift of the Magi, of the three Kings, the other being of a Good Tidings, of a trumpeting angel.

Both were printed onto thousands of boxes of Christmas cards which were then sold to the general public in a limited edition, as a means of raising funds for the National Cultural Center, later to be named in her late husband’s honor as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Mrs. Kennedy sent out a personal card of her driving a one-horse sleigh across the South Lawn.

Mrs. Kennedy sent out a personal card of her driving a one-horse sleigh across the South Lawn.

Jacqueline Kennedy had a third Christmas card made but she didn’t design it – she was depicted in it.

As the personal card she had sent out, she used a black and white picture of herself driving her children in a one-horse sleigh across the snow-covered South Lawn.

Jacqueline Kennedy went further in giving a theme to the White House Christmas tree which, by then, had become traditionally placed in the center of the large, oval Blue Room.

The Kennedys in front of the Nutcracker Suite tree.

The Kennedys in front of the Nutcracker Suite tree.

Reflecting her love of ballet, she chose the subject of “The Nutcracker Suite,” and had the tree’s branches laden with ornaments modeled after its costumed characters.

In 1961, she also borrowed a magnificent antique nativity crèche, a rare depiction of religious imagery in a government building, showing the nativity scene of Christ’s birth. birth of Christ.

Jacqueline Kennedy hands out lollipops at Junior Village.

Jacqueline Kennedy hands out lollipops at Junior Village.

Mrs. Kennedy ensured the involvement of children in her holiday activities. She not only initiated a holiday party for children of the diplomatic corps who came in colorful clothes of their native lands, but also sponsored a party for disadvantaged local children over which the Attorney General’s wife, Ethel Kennedy, presided.

Jacqueline Kennedy also visited the local Junior Village, a permanent home for children who had been abandoned or orphaned, and then went to Children’s Hospital distributing gifts to youngsters being hospitalized during the holidays.

Pat Nixon especially focused on making the White House interesting for the long lines of tourists who patiently waited on line in the long, ground floor corridor to see the house during the holiday season. It was part of her overall effort to make the historic mansion as accessible and enjoyable as possible for the average visitor.

Pat Nixon helped the staff decorate the White House during the holidays.

Pat Nixon helped the staff decorate the White House during the holidays.

She placed historical objects from previous presidential Christmases displayed in glass cases along the wall of the building, and had snowmen built on the lawn which could be seen through the facing wall of windows.

This First Lady literally helped decorate the vast rooms and halls of the state floor of the White House herself, working with her daughter Julie and electricians and handymen, to ascend ladders and literally deck the entrance hall with holly.

Pat Nixon and daughter Julie inspect the first of the White House Gingerbread houses.

Pat Nixon and daughter Julie inspect the first of the White House Gingerbread houses.

There, she started a new White House holiday tradition, having a gingerbread house created by the White House bakers displayed for close view, placed in the State Dining Room. During her tenure it was a simple ski chalet, modest in comparison to the more elaborate ones to come.

To permit as many people as possible in to see the decorations, the First Lady initiated what were called “Candlelight Tours,” the first time that tourists were permitted into the White House during the evening hours, with many of the candles lit and the electric lights turned down low, giving a unique ambience to the mansion which enhanced the feeling of the holidays.

Visitors on Pat Nixon's first candlelight tour, 1970.

Visitors on Pat Nixon’s first candlelight tour, 1970.

She further enhanced this by asking the Marine Band to continuously play Christmas music until the last visitor had left that night.

Mrs. Nixon offered an added innovation to the White House Christmas parties for disadvantaged children begun by Jackie Kennedy and continued by First Daughter Luci Johnson; this First Lady hosted the parties on the Sequoia, the presidential yacht.

Pat Nixon at the 1972 holiday preview.

Pat Nixon at the 1972 holiday preview.

She further hosted a school group which evoked an especially poignant moment for her. Making good on her initial extension of an invitation to the White House, she welcomed sixty Los Angeles Junior School for the Blind students, their trip unwritten by donors, guiding them through the holiday-decorated mansion, describing what they could not see.

She recalled an especially poignant moment, their singing for her again the inspiring song Climb Every Mountain, from the movie Sound of Music, the song they had sung when she had first heard them perform.

Certainly. the most extraordinary White House Christmas party in history was the one hosted by Rosalynn Carter in 1980.

Peggy Fleming skating at the ice rink built on the South Lawn for Rosalynn Carter's 1980 outdoor Christmas party.

Peggy Fleming skating at the ice rink built on the South Lawn for Rosalynn Carter’s 1980 outdoor Christmas party.

By holding the party on the South Lawn rather than in the state rooms, she permitted a far larger number of guests to attend and she kept them entertained and warm with some novel entertainment.

An entire ice skating ring was built and the legendary skater Peggy Fleming performed, certainly a first for the White House.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Christmas Tree.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Christmas Tree.

Mrs. Carter also had booths with hot chocolate available, a petting zoo with live reindeer, snowmen in various sizes and guised as different contemporary personalities, and a snow-making machine shed white flakes on the delighted crowds

For their first three years in the White House, the Carters kept up their tradition of spending Christmas morning with the President’s family and then going to the First Lady’s mother’s home to share their holiday dinner with her and the First Lady’s siblings. Her last Christmas, however, was the most bittersweet for Rosalynn Carter and she wanted to spend the holiday at Camp David.

The President, Mrs. Carter, daughter Amy and Peggy Fleming with a snowman at the outdoor party.

The President, Mrs. Carter, daughter Amy and Peggy Fleming with a snowman at the outdoor party.

A month earlier, the President had lost his bid for re-election, and American hostages continued to be held by Iran, a fact memorialized by the decision to permit the National Christmas Tree to be lit for only 419 minutes, the number of days since they had been held as prisoners.

Mrs. Carter was only to spend the holiday with her husband and daughter, but at the suggestion of Amy Carter, members of the White House staff were invited to join them at Camp David, an especial treat since it was the first time most of them had ever been able to see the private presidential retreat.

Barbara Bush also preferred spending Christmas at Camp David, since it permitted the Secret Service agents who protected her and the President to spend the holiday with their families in Washington, and since the many guest cabins there offered enough room for all five of her adult children and all of her grandchildren to stay overnight there.

There were more than enough winter activities for the whole family there, and the First Lady joined in them – although one year she broke her leg after tumbling from a sled ride down a steep snowy hill.

Barbara Bush placing the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Barbara Bush placing the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Mrs. Bush also continued on for her four years as First Lady a custom she had begun as the Vice President’s wife from 1981 to 1988, of stepping into a fire engine cage and being raised in it to place the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Long a supporter of the charitable Salvation Army, she was alarmed when she learned that local area department stores had banned the bell-ringing volunteers of the group, in their signature blue coats, from urging shoppers to toss some coins into their small red kettles.

Barbara Bush joined by the former President ringing a Salvation Army Bell for donations in her post-White House years.

Barbara Bush joined by the former President ringing a Salvation Army Bell for donations in her post-White House years.

The First Lady had herself driven in a White House car to a local mall, stepped out of the car and donated some money, a move captured and publicized by the White House. It had the effect of reversing the ban. In the White House, she also hosted a special children’s party for those from families who were homeless during the holiday season.

This First Lady continued the custom of having a unique Gingerbread House crafted each year, perhaps the most unique one being a Candy Castle, made entirely of candy and dubbed “the Land of Sweets.” And, without intending to do so, Barbara Bush may have also accidentally begun another welcome holiday tradition in the White House.

Barbara Bush with her dog Millie looks over the Blue Room tree.

Barbara Bush with her dog Millie looks over the Blue Room tree.

Rarely making a public appearance or granting an interview anywhere in the White House with the company of her beloved spaniel Millie, as she did when coming to preview the Blue Room tree in 1990.

From then on, whatever pet was reigning during any Administration, they would be making at least one public appearance during the holiday season.

Socks the Cat during a White House Christmas.

Socks the Cat during a White House Christmas.

Hillary Clinton continued this custom, permitting not just the family’s dog Buddy, from their last years in the White House, but Socks the Cat, to be photographed around the holiday-decorated house.

The Gingerbread House tradition also got more personal under Hillary Clinton’s tenure, the pastry chef crafting edible versions of both her childhood home in Park Ridge, Illinois and that of the President, in Hope, Arkansas.

Hillary Clinton looks into the Gingerbread House modeled after her childhood home.

Hillary Clinton looks into the Gingerbread House modeled after her childhood home.

Despite being best remembered for her policy involvement as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton took an active interest in Christmas at the White House. She invited the celebrity “domestic goddess” Martha Stewart to come film a television special on how the White House prepared for the holidays and the final results.

She even “decorated” herself, whether it was wearing one of the multi-design “Christmas sweaters” which were ubiquitous during the early 1990s or displaying one of her 1996 holiday gifts from the President, a necklace made of colored-glass Christmas lights which flashed on and off, by a hidden battery.

Despite being best remembered for her policy involvement as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton took an active interest in Christmas at the White House.

She invited the celebrity “domestic goddess” Martha Stewart to come film a television special on how the White House prepared for the holidays and the final results.

Hillary Clinton in her Nineties Xmas sweater.

Hillary Clinton in her Nineties Xmas sweater.

She even “decorated” herself, whether it was wearing one of the multi-design “Christmas sweaters” which were ubiquitous during the early 1990s or displaying one of her 1996 holiday gifts from the President, a necklace made of colored-glass Christmas lights which flashed on and off, by a hidden battery.

During her eight years as First Lady, Hillary Clinton continued the custom of a different theme for the Blue Room Christmas Tree, always using traditional concepts based, for example, on holiday carols and books such as The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Night Before Christmas.

Each year’s ornaments were crafted by the nation’s leading artists and art schools.

The 2012 Obama Gingerbread House featured a reproduction of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden.

The 2012 Obama Gingerbread House featured a reproduction of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

When one year she chose the theme “Angels, We Have Heard On High,” a cloth figurine depicted the classic movie star Mae West, the First Lady was upbraided for this “pornographic ornament” by a disgruntled former government worker seeking to score a political attack.

The current First Lady has continued all of these White House holiday traditions initiated by her predecessors. During her tenure, the artistry of the Gingerbread House has become even more detailed.

Michelle Obama brought along her dog Bo to holiday events outside of the White House as well as those held there.

Michelle Obama brought along her dog Bo to holiday events outside of the White House as well as those held there.

In 2012, for example, it included a minute reproduction of the White House vegetable garden which was created by Michelle Obama, the individual vegetables being crafted from marzipan candy.

During the holiday season, at events not just in the White House but those held outside at charitable institutions, Michelle Obama was accompanied by Bo, the first of two Portuguese water dogs belonging to the First Family.

Always spending their private holiday in Hawaii, the birth state of the President, Michelle Obama traditionally spent Christmas morning by attending church services at a local military base, followed by a visit to service centers for members of the armed services.

Michelle Obama invited the children of active members of the armed service to help make ornaments and cookies.

Michelle Obama invited the children of active members of the armed service to help make ornaments and cookies.

She also used the traditional White House holiday party for children as an opportunity to extend her ongoing project of providing support to military families, setting aside an entire day for children with parents who were active members of the armed services to craft ornaments for the White House tree and to help make and decorate holiday cookies.

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Five Progressive Era First Ladies Edith Wilson Florence Harding Grace Coolidge Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt felt a duty to use their status to share aspects of the holiday with the public.

Five Progressive Era First Ladies Edith Wilson Florence Harding Grace Coolidge Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt felt a duty to use their status to share aspects of the holiday with the public.

If the Victorian Age had seen First Ladies at Christmas extending themselves beyond the private boundaries of marking the holiday with just their family by involving themselves in community efforts, the first half of the twentieth century saw a number of First Ladies going further by sharing it with the public either in person or by using the White House.

While most of these women were progressive either by their words and deeds or their attitudes about themselves as women with a right to education and professional pursuits, the first in the group was neither. Edith Wilson perceived her role as less of a public figure and more as a devoted wife to her husband, who just happened to be President.

In the context of Woodrow Wilson becoming the first incumbent U.S. President to travel overseas in 1918, to help negotiate the

Edith Wilson seated besides General Pershing at Christmas 1918 dinner in France, just after World War I's end.

Edith Wilson seated besides General Pershing at Christmas 1918 dinner in France, just after World War I’s end.

post-World War I peace treaty, however, she became the first First Lady to spend Christmas outside of the country, sharing the holiday with top military brass, at the New York Fifth Division headquarters of General John Pershing in Chaumont, France.

Before traveling by rail there on Christmas Eve, Edith Wilson had joined her husband in strolling the streets of Paris among the city’s residents, popping into a bookstore and clothing shop, pausing to watch a florist spraying gold paint on mistletoe branches. Before Mrs. Wilson was to sit beside General Pershing for Christmas dinner in a large, drafty temporary structure, however, she would trample muddy fields to offer the season’s good wishes with U.S. troops stationed there, as the President reviewed them.

Also in Paris with Woodrow and Edith Wilson was his daughter Margaret Wilson, who had served as First Lady following her mother’s death in August 1914 and before the President’s second wedding in December of 1915.

Margaret Wilson at far right with her father and stepmother Edith Wilson.

Margaret Wilson at far right with her father and stepmother Edith Wilson.

Although she was no longer serving as First Lady a year after the wedding, Margaret Wilson was still living at the White House and she was the figure of focus at a public concert of Christmas carols which took place on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Building, adjacent to the presidential mansion. The President’s daughter, a professional singer, led the public in singing some of the carols and her presence prompted an unexpected bonus for the public, the sudden appearance there of Edith Wilson and the President.

Florence Harding strove to provide a similar bond with the general public at Christmas.

Mrs. Harding hung wreaths in the White House windows for the public.

Mrs. Harding hung wreaths in the White House windows for the public.

Initially, she had planned to have lit candles placed in the windows of all the rooms of the White House for passersby to enjoy.

She decided not todo so after being warned by the insurance industry that this could set an example which might prove dangerous by raising the statistical chances for home fires.

Instead, she opted instead to hang Christmas wreaths in the windows.

The First Lady buys savings bonds for Christmas from the Treasury Secretary.

The First Lady buys savings bonds for Christmas from the Treasury Secretary.

She also encouraged the American people to buy savings bonds as wise investments that were an efficient and practical Christmas gifts, posing to purchase some herself in front of the South Portico.

In 1921 and 1922, Mrs. Harding also sent out a small number of engravings of the south view of the White House and signed them invariably as “Greetings of the Season,” “Happy Holidays,” and “Best Wishes of the Season.”

On autographed engraved cards, Florence Harding also sometimes wrote out "Happy Holidays."

On autographed engraved cards, Florence Harding also sometimes wrote out “Happy Holidays.”

She also played a “Mrs. Santa role of sorts, being asked by the President to choose which non-violent prisoners held in federal penitentiaries should be granted their petitions for parole.

Further, she sent the unusual gift of giant-sized candy canes to the wounded and disabled veterans of World War I who languished in the wards of nearby Walter Reed Hospital.

Florence Harding gave mammoth candy canes to wounded Walter Reed Hospital vets.

Florence Harding gave mammoth candy canes to wounded Walter Reed Hospital vets.

Extending further Florence Harding’s decking the White House windows with wreathes for the public’s pleasure, her immediate successor Grace Coolidge hosted a unique Christmas caroling concert on the steps of the White House North Portico.

Perhaps using the 1916 caroling event on the Treasury Building steps in which Margaret Wilson had participated as her model, Mrs. Coolidge arranged for a similar event to be held on the steps of the White House North Portico.

Working with her local parish of the First Congregational Church, some sixty-five members of the church choristers sang familiar carols of the season and the general public was invited to come onto the North Lawn to hear it more closely.

Grace Coolidge arranged for carolers to sing for the public on the White House steps.

Grace Coolidge arranged for carolers to sing for the public on the White House steps.

They also glimpsed the First Lady herself, along with her son John, joining in the singing. The group’s leader even composed a new Christmas carol, Christmas Bells, in her honor.

Although she had no direct role in the arrangement of the placement of the first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, Grace Coolidge did join her husband there when he became the first President to light it.

Grace Coolidge joined her husband in lighting the National Christmas Tree.

Grace Coolidge joined her husband in lighting the National Christmas Tree.

She did, however, employ a similar sentiment in another innovation she created to further the bond between the public and the presidency during the holiday season. Although the Tafts had put up a Christmas tree just days before the holiday for the enjoyment of their visiting family members, Mrs. Coolidge had one installed in the Blue Room for the pleasure of the public. The tall spruce, from her native state of Vermont, was put up just after Thanksgiving so it could be enjoyed by the streams of tourists who walked through the rooms of the state floor.

Mrs. Coolidge was also the first of three successive First Ladies to personally hand out toys at Washington’s Central Union Mission for children whose parents were unable to provide gifts for them.

The Great Depression’s devastating affect on families extended the intentions of the Washington Central Union Mission, and would soon enough have both Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt not only distributing toys to children but food baskets to their parents.

Lou Hoover distributes gifts at a mission during the Depression.

Lou Hoover distributes gifts at a mission during the Depression.

Lou Hoover continued the idea of caroling but rather than have these performed by church choristers, she invited a large contingency of Girl Scouts to perform the singing. Unfortunately, although it may have been a symbol of goodwill to the general public during the period of economic devastation, she had the singing performed inside the mansion for private guests only.

In one unique respect, Lou Hoover shared the White House with special friends and family at Christmas quite literally: in 1930 the gift sent from the mansion were pieces of old pinewood from the building’s earliest years, removed during a renovation.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking on Christmas Eve 1936 at a charitable event.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking on Christmas Eve 1936 at a charitable event.

True to form, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmases as First Lady were as fully scheduled as every day of her year. It began early on Christmas Eve, when she made the annual visit to the Washington Central Union Mission, and then dropped in at other holiday parties being hosted by local charitable organizations, followed by a goodwill visit to an old-age home the condition of which she was seeking to upgrade.

She would return to the White House quickly, certain to first appear at an annual late afternoon tea dance which her sons held for their classmates and friends in the East Room, and would be ready at five in the evening to stand with President Roosevelt as he lit the National Christmas Tree by remote switch from the South Portico, and delivered his live annual holiday message  to the nation by radio.

After this, she was back in the East Room with the President, by then cleared out of the young adults at the tea dance, and ready to watch and listen as he read The Night Before Christmas to an eager crowd of children, including a number of Roosevelt grandchildren.

Eleanor Roosevelt Christmas shopping for toys.

Eleanor Roosevelt Christmas shopping for toys.

Before she would lay down to sleep and awake on Christmas Day, however, Mrs. Roosevelt still kept to one more personal tradition, attending midnight services at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

Despite her own dismal childhood or perhaps because of it, the holiday season was the favorite time of year for Eleanor Roosevelt and, like Julia Grant and Ida McKinley before her,  especially relished the large task of buying every single personal gift which she would dispense to nearly one hundred individual friends, family and staff members.

She would unceremoniously pop into local Washington shops and stores, sweeping through the aisles and making purchases, often buying a multiple number of the same item.

When it appeared to some shopkeepers that she was favoring the popular Kahn’s store, this First Lady obliged to spread her sponsorship, going to several other stores and making purchases there as well.

Mrs. Roosevelt meets Santa Claus.

Mrs. Roosevelt meets Santa Claus.

And there was never a Santa Claus that Eleanor Roosevelt was unwilling to pose beside, especially if it could help sales in a store struggling to survive during the Depression.

Eleanor Roosevelt's second volume on the holiday was published a year after her death. (amazon)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s second volume on the holiday was published a year after her death.

This First Lady also earned a unique holiday precedent, the only one to author not one but two children’s books for Christmas.

The second book, entitled Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmas Book, was posthumously published by Dodd, Meadin 1963, a year after her death, and is a collection of her writings over the years about the holiday season.

The first was published while she was in the White House, in 1940, as the storm clouds were gathering over Europe with Nazi Germany’s Third Reigh on the march in Europe.

The First Lady's first Christmas book, 1940. (brain pickings.org)

The First Lady’s first Christmas book, 1940. (brain pickings.org)

Christmas: A Story tells a tale of a Dutch girl, striving to make sense of humanity’s darkness after her father is killed.

Rather than ignore the truth to children of the current state of affairs, the First Lady articulated in her introduction:

The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.”

Eleanor Roosevelt's introduction to her 1940 Christmas book. (brain picking.org)

The preface to Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1940 Christmas book. (brain picking.org)

 

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Five First Ladies of the Victorian Era celebrated Christmas in the White House as private family events only: Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley.

Five First Ladies of the Victorian Era celebrated Christmas in the White House as private family events only: Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley.

The overwhelming sadness which overcast both North and South during the four holiday seasons of the Civil War was felt just as intensely in the White House of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. This was followed three more difficult Christmastimes for the succeeding Andrew Johnson family during the growing acrimony between him and Congress and the bitterness of his impeachment trial. Not until the last one the Johnsons marked in the White House was there any joy at Christmas, when a special children’s party was hosted by the five little presidential grandchildren who lived in the Executive Mansion.

Christmas became popularized in the U.S. during the Victorian Age.

Christmas became popularized in the U.S. during the Victorian Age.

It was during the Administration of the next President, Ulysses S. Grant, that a more genuinely happy spirit again reigned in the White House, all of it overseen by the optimistic and witty Julia Dent Grant. It was by Julia Grant’s direction that Christmas in the White House moved one step closer to becoming a holiday shared with the public just as the general population of Victorian America was beginning to make the holiday the largest one in national life.

Julia Grant.

Julia Grant.

Previous First Ladies who had arranged Christmastime dinners or parties in the White House did so in the context of being wives and mothers, considering the details about how she and her family spent the holiday to be an utterly private matter, the details to be withheld from reporters who were always hanging about the executive offices at the west end of the same hallway where the presidential family lived. It was not to be shared with the general public. Julia Grant felt otherwise.

Mrs. Grant permitted the details of her family’s first White House Christmas to be fully disclosed for public consumption.

The first public notice of Christmas at the White House, 1869.

The first public notice of Christmas at the White House, 1869.

On December 28, 1869, it was reported in The Evening Star of Washington, D.C. that the President and Mrs. Grant hosted a Christmas dinner and published the names of each guest, details about the meal and what the party did after their meal. It is the first known instance of details about a First Family’s Christmas being published in the newspapers.

What is most interesting about the guest list is that it represented a mix of private and public, with family members and executive department aides and the heads of government departments.  The First Lady’s own nuclear family dominated, including her aged father, two of her brothers and their spouses, a sister-in-law and niece, a sister and her spouse, but there were eleven non-family guests.

The report concluded that:

“The dinner was a fine one, and was prepared under the directions of the new steward, V. Melah, of New York, who commenced his services as chef de cuisine on this occasion. At the conclusion of the banquet, the party proceeded to the East Room, and promenaded and indulged in social converse for a time. They afterwards repaired to the Red Room, and closed the evening with music and singing, the juveniles amusing themselves in their own way.”

This First Lady was also the very first one known to ever send out a Christmas card, likely in her last year in that role, 1876.  Always at the cutting edge of the fashionable, it may well be that Julia Grant sent it, to her friend Mrs. Childs in Philadelphia, in 1875, a year earlier, when the first known Christmas cards sold in the United States. If if was sent out in 1875, the only known example which still remains may be among the earliest known Christmas cards examples.

Sent by Julia Grant, this only known example is perhaps one of the earliest extant Christmas cards.

Sent by Julia Grant, this only known example is perhaps one of the earliest extant Christmas cards.

The card is actually a message printed on a two-fold mustard-colored paper. In the middle of the top page is a small bit of straw which is inserted several words in – the word “straw” rhyming with the amusing message of goodwill: “I fear to send this greeting to you, less happily you may draw that I only care a [straw]. ‘Tis not so, I assure you. The fact is, ‘Times are bad,’ and I only could procure you the best of what I had.”

The Grant family.

The Grant family.

Julia Grant went further in extending from the White House the spirit of the season. As Christmas approached, large wood barrels were being delivered by horse and buggy to local Washington orphanages, old age homes, hospitals and insane asylums. These were gifts from Mrs. Grant and the President, filled to the brim with candied fruit.

This First Lady went a step further, making her Christmas generosity even more personal; when she went out to a city toy store and encountered a group of poor children staring longingly at the toys in the window, she invited them in and bought them all toys, as well as gifts for her own children.

Also the mother of several sons and one daughter, Mrs. Grant’s successor Lucy Hayes also shared aspects of her Christmas with those other than family members. She continued her own charities, particularly concerned with indigent Union Army veterans and orphans.

Lucy Hayes.

Lucy Hayes.

On the morning of Christmas Day, Lucy Hayes invited all of the White House staff members, which included African-American domestic workers, and their own spouses and children, to join in the First Family’s festivities, presenting them all with gifts.

Frances Cleveland's Christmas tree for her three little girls.

Frances Cleveland’s Christmas tree for her three little girls.

Frances Cleveland’s Christmases as First Lady followed a similar duality.

While she lavished attention on her own three little girls Ruth, Esther and Marion in her last year in the White House, buying them all different types of dolls which were placed beneath the small tree which stood in the oval room of the family quarters, she had also been lavishing attention on other children for several years.

In 1893, during the first Christmas of her husbands second, non-consecutive term, Frances Cleveland assumed the role of honorary president of The Christmas Club, an organization which underwrote gifts, and hosted an annual holiday party for the most deeply impoverished demographic of the local African-American community.

Frances Cleveland was president of the charitable organization The Christmas Club for impoverished African-American children and attended the annual event, including the puppet show.

Frances Cleveland was president of the charitable organization The Christmas Club for impoverished African-American children and attended the annual event, including the puppet show.

With the “badge of the Christmas Club gleaming white on her fur-trimmed garnet coat,” wrote one reporter, she “helped distribute the toys and candy from the sparkling Christmas tree.” Afterwards, the First Lady sat with the children through their Christmas dinner and the puppet show put on for them after the meal.

Credit for the first definitively-documented Christmas tree in the White House in 1889 goes to Caroline Harrison who served as First Lady after and before Frances Cleveland.

In this illustration, Caroline Harrison presents a gift to her grandson in front of the first definitively documented White House Christmas tree.

In this illustration, Caroline Harrison presents a gift to her grandson in front of the first definitively documented White House Christmas tree.

As chronicled in a letter by her daughter Mary McKee, the First Lady decided to have a tree set up in the small corner room that was the nursery of the three presidential grandchildren who were in residence and “after breakfast we lighted the tree.”

Perhaps Christmas was more poignant for Ida McKinley than any other First Lady. For her first two holidays in the White House, she relished the diamond hair combs and then diamond bracelets which the President gave her. In 1899, however, she grew especially despondent. Their first child, daughter Katie, had been born on Christmas but had died twenty-three years earlier, before she even reached the age of four. Whenever she became wistful as the holiday approached, the President knew her thoughts returned to grieving the lost girl. So that year, her husband took a different tactic with the diamonds: he gave her a blue frame studded with her favorite jewel and within it, the familiar and singular image of toddler Katie.

Ida McKinley permitted her grandniece Marjorie Morse a small Christmas tree in her room.

Ida McKinley permitted her grandniece Marjorie Morse a small Christmas tree in her room.

For Mrs. McKinley, however, the presence of other little girls managed to immediately lift her spirits during Christmas. She especially welcomed the visit to the White House for Christmas 1900 of five-year old Marjorie Morse, daughter of the President’s niece, and family references point to the fact that the First Lady permitted a small tree set up for her grandniece in her White House room.

This First Lady loved Christmas shopping as much as she loved the holiday itself and annually made an excursion to New York for a whirlwind of gift buying.

Staying in the Windsor Hotel suite always used by her and the President during their frequent trips to to the city, Ida McKinley found one year’s highlight to be the visit paid to her by a group of little children who lived in the residential hotel.

On her Christmas shopping trips to New York, department store clerks brought various gifts for Ida McKinley to choose from in her hotel suite.

On her Christmas shopping trips to New York, department store clerks brought various gifts for Ida McKinley to choose from in her hotel suite.

One year, she stayed with them for a longer period of time than she did in reviewing the dozens and dozens of gifts which were brought from local department store by clerks for her review.

And, contrary to the caricature of Ida McKinley as a permanent invalid, during one holiday season in the White House, she hosted a lively dance for young people in the Blue Room, including nieces of hers and of the President.

Even more startling is that the Christmas spirit so moved her that during the holiday following her husband’s election to the presidency, Mrs. McKinley arose from her chair and joined in the dancing herself.

 

 

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First Ladies at Christmas: Six Southern Hostesses, Part 1

Six southern First Ladies at Christmas: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor.

Six southern First Ladies at Christmas: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor.

Today, Christmas Day is among the biggest of the holidays celebrated in the United States between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

An antebellum plantation house decorated for Christmas.

An antebellum plantation house decorated for Christmas.

In the earliest days of the new nation, however, the manner in which people who observed Christmas as a religious day also marked it as a holiday celebration had as much to do with their regional origins, socioeconomic status, and cultural customs dictated by their particular sect of faith.

While Quakers, Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists who lived in New England, Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest marked the holiday in their own unique ways, Christmas was an especially celebratory time among the class of wealthy southern plantation families.

The White House during Polk's presidency.

The White House during Polk’s presidency.

In the White House, these holiday celebrations of southern presidential families were organized by the First Ladies with the notable exception of the first one.

In the first fifty years of the American presidency, it was especially First Ladies who had either been born and raised in elite class of the South, or those married to Presidents from this demographic, who made the most of Christmas.

N.C. Wyeth's fanciful illustration of "Christmas in Old Virginia."

N.C. Wyeth’s fanciful illustration of “Christmas in Old Virginia.”

In contrast to the two Adams families of the second and sixth President who were New England Unitarians, for example, families of the “Virginia Dynasty” presidencies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Tyler were all owners of large plantations  and belonged to the less strict Anglican Church, which did not forbid dancing, music, card-playing and alcohol consumption.

Christmas dancing at the Mount Vernon plantation house.

Christmas dancing at the Mount Vernon plantation house.

Like other wealthy plantation owners, many southern Presidents preserved some of their ancestral English customs, included the marking of “Twelfth Night,” the culmination of twelve consecutive nights after Christmas, with intoxicating eggnogs and punch, dancing and games.

The Washington's Twelfth Night wedding ceremony.

The Washington’s Twelfth Night wedding ceremony.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with relatives often having to travel for several days to reach a central plantation, many remained as houseguests for weeks.

Besides the celebration of Christmas and the twelve frolicking days which followed, family weddings often took place during this time, taking advantage of so many relatives under one roof. George and Martha Washington, for example, were married on Twelfth Night in 1759.

Martha Washington's "Great White Cake," is a frosted fruitcake that was popular in the Old South.

Martha Washington’s “Great White Cake,” is a frosted fruitcake that was popular in the Old South.

Continuing the seasonal custom of dance parties, bourbon eggnog and rounds of card games, at their Mount Vernon plantation, Martha Washington also had a “Great White Cake” made each year, a rich fruitcake which was then frosted.

Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Monticello)

Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Monticello)

Martha Jefferson Randolph and her sister Maria Jefferson Eppes are why their father’s happiest Christmas was the one celebrated in 1802.

Rarely leaving their Virginia plantation homes near his own in Monticello, it would prove to be the only one celebrated by the widower Jefferson as President with both of his daughters.

In addition to their husbands, both Congressmen who lived with the President in the White House, they were also joined by six of Martha’s children and Maria’s son.

Martha Randolph preparing the Christmas Day table as her father fiddled for his dancing grandchildren.

Martha Randolph preparing the Christmas Day table as her father fiddled for his dancing grandchildren.

The President himself did the marketing on Christmas morning, purchasing a large goose and cranberry tarts, which he himself placed on the plates of all the children.

Two other guests were the President’s close friends, Secretary of State James Madison and his wife Dolley Madison. While Martha Randolph helped her father oversee the meal’s preparation, her children were taken by Mrs. Madison for a carriage ride out into the countryside near Georgetown.

Monticello at Christmas.

Monticello at Christmas.

During their excursion, she stopped to purchase sprigs of mistletoe from a slave selling it along their path, and decorated the inside of the coach with it. The table was set with eight silver candelabras and the later afternoon meal concluded with games in the oval reception room, now the Blue Room.

Dolley Madison would preside over eight of her own annual Christmas dinners as First Lady but for the final three years of her tenure, those holidays were not celebrated in the White House.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Following the August 1814 burning of the White House by the British during the War of 1812, the presidential family had to find quarters in temporary presidential mansions for the last thirty months of the Madison presidency.

Certainly that first Christmas after being left homeless was the most despondent for Mrs. Madison.

Not only was she living in the nearby, borrowed Octagon House, which was spared the British torch, but her son never arrived home from Europe for Christmas and her siblings John and Lucy never arrived in Washington from Philadelphia.

It got better, however. By the next Christmas, the war was over and Dolley Madison hosted a dinner party on the holiday, serving ice cream and permitting her green parrot to fly freely through the rooms of a second temporary executive mansion on Pennyslvania Avenue.

Sisters: Anna Cutts, Dolley Madison and Lucy Washington.

Sisters: Anna Cutts, Dolley Madison and Lucy Washington.

Certainly the most convivial Christmas she presided over was in the White House, in 1811. That year, at her holiday dinner there, Mrs. Madison was joined by her two sister Lucy Washington and Anna Payne, between whom  sat Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay.

Also joining them was a future President and First Lady, James and Elizabeth Monroe. After Monroe raised his glass to all the ladies present, the entire group repaired to the oval room, furnished in a yellow gold color, and sat down for hours of loo, Dolley Madison’s favorite card game.

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

At Christmas 1835, the Southern First Lady who presided at the White House was not a Virginian but rather a Tennessean, Emily Donelson, who had assumed the role during nearly all of the presidency of her widowed uncle Andrew Jackson.

The mother of four small children, three of whom were born in the executive mansion, Emily Donelson was twenty-eight years old but conducted herself with authority.

Emily Donelson had eggnog available in the White House family quarters during Christmas.

Emily Donelson had eggnog available in the White House family quarters during Christmas.

Emily was a strict disciplinarian with her children but the day before Christmas the President himself intervened with her when the young ones asked to use his room and prepare their gifts for adults.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” Mrs. Donelson quipped with disapproval when the President insisted he relinquish his room for them.

In the meanwhile, she directed the Jackson slaves brought from the President’s Nashville mansion to decorate the state floor with holly leaves and cedar wood branches, with evergreens in the East Room.

Alongside wrapped gifts being given among family members, she also had silver punchbowls filled with a frothy, intoxicating eggnog placed on the tables in the center hall of the second floor, into which all the family rooms opened. Christmas dinner that year sounded more like a fancy buffet brunch, the dining room table laid out carefully with artfully designed displays of the food.

Emily Donelson's daughter Rachel, one of six little children at the Christmas events she organized in 1835.

Emily Donelson’s daughter Rachel, one of six little children at the Christmas events she organized in 1835.

On Christmas morning, Emily Donelson had the children file into a small corner where they each received a stocking stuffed with candy, nuts and fruit. Immediately afterwards, she called up the presidential carriage and made a round of afternoon calls to her circle of the capital’s most elite social leaders, all of whom she counted as her friends.

Cora Livingston.

Cora Livingston.

As her daughter later recalled, Emily Donelson had “that love of pleasure and desire to please natural to young, attractive women.”

One of those society women befriended by the First Lady was Cora Livingston, a young woman from a prominent family who had come to help Emily Donelson at the White House by taking charge of the children throughout the day’s festivities.

Emily Donelson was also sure to have mistletoe hung from the chandeliers in the East Room, a gesture without subtlety as she was known to be encouraging a romance between Cora and the widowed Vice President Martin Van Buren, both of whom were guests at a children’s party hosted that holiday season for the Jackson family children and their little guests.

Eager to please the Jackson family, the Vice President even amused the children by dancing on one leg and gobbling like a turkey when that was what a play game called for when it was his turn to draw.

No Christmas romance for Van Buren.

No Christmas romance for Van Buren.

During the children’s party, Emily Donelson remained with the adults in the Red Room, but never managed to get far in prompting the Vice President and her friend Cora into a deeper romance.

Van Buren apparently had his limits in pleasing the Jacksons.

Despite frail health and limited mobility resulting from a stroke, Letitia Tyler continued to direct the presidential household  for the year and a half that she lived in the White House before her September 1842 death there.

So very little is known about her, yet a careful reading of first-hand accounts suggest that she was not nearly as invisible as later chroniclers claimed, appearing in public at a daughter’s White House wedding and joining a family theater party.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Certainly we know that Christmas had long been a time of especial delight to Letitia Tyler.

Fifteen years earlier, the future President wrote a letter home to her, the day after Christmas, feeling neglected and gently chastising her that, “Are you all so much taken up with your Christmas frolics as to have forgotten me?” He also wrote his daughter Mary that, “I do think your mother might have stolen one hour to devote to me.”

Other clues must be used to determine what Christmas for this disabled First Lady meant.

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

Just two years earlier, her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler reported that Letitia Tyler, who was first beset by the stroke’s paralysis a few months before, remained in her “chamber,” a large quiet bedroom at the far side of the Tyler family home in Williamsburg, Virginia:

“Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can’t tell when she does it,” Priscilla wrote. “All the cakes, jellies, custards, and we indulge largely in them, emanate from her, yet you see no confusion, hear no bustle, but only meet with agreeable results…”  

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

Another clue is a remark attributed to her, dating from her daughter Elizabeth’s White House wedding, in which she insisted that all the guests must dance and enjoy themselves despite her own inability to join in.

Finally, it is known that during the Tyler family’s White House Christmas of 1842, the by-then widowed President oversaw a dinner of friends and family which included alcoholic eggnog among other treats.

From all this it is a safe assumption that Letitia Tyler was still very much enjoying the holiday during her only one spent in the White House, surrounded by her family, encouraging their spiritedness, and merry drinking even though she had to remain seated throughout the festivities.

Like Letitia Tyler, Margaret “Peggy” Taylor did not assume the role of public hostess during her tenure as First Lady, relinquishing it to her daughter Betty Bliss.

Margaret Taylor.

Margaret Taylor.

However, she was the undisputed leader of the especially convivial social life at the White House which took place on the second floor, appropriating from the executive offices the large room where today’s Treaty Room as her own reception room.

During the only Christmas she was to enjoy as First Lady, Peggy Taylor’s reception room was the central gathering point for the dozen or so kinfolk who stayed as house guests of the presidential family, arriving from Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and Kentucky.

The Kentucky home of the Taylor family, where Zachary and Peggy Taylor often lived, a residence shared with many other relatives.

The Kentucky home of the Taylor family, where Zachary and Peggy Taylor often lived, a residence shared with many other relatives.

While the young children, including the First Lady’s beloved grandchildren, remained in the family quarters, busy with the many overnight relatives there, the young women dressed in fancy gowns to attend the endless nights of dancing at holiday balls.

All was not as joyful as it seemed for the First Lady, however. Despite the pleasure of seeing so many of her relatives and those of her husband, there was one family member whose absence was glaringly painful.

Richard Taylor.

Richard Taylor.

While the precise facts are unknown, there was some enough of an estrangement between the President and his only son, Richard. Instead of joining his family for Christmas, the First Son remained at his home, managing one of the Taylor cotton plantations.

Despite his especial closeness to his mother, Richard Taylor was never invited to come visit the White House. Not until his father died and his mother came to live with him would Richard and she be reunited.

Peggy Taylor liked her coconut cakes for Christmas. (Southern Cakes)

Peggy Taylor liked her coconut cakes for Christmas. (Southern Cakes)

Still, Peggy Taylor remained busy as hostess of the full house. A descendant would later claim that the First Lady’s great pride was seeing to the proper baking and decorating of old-fashioned coconut cakes, traditional southern dessert at Christmas, among the long buffet tables of food which she made available for the relatives coming and going during the holiday and frequently replenished.

Not all of the southern First Ladies during the antebellum period which preceded the Civil War celebrated Christmas with as expansive a spirit as did Martha Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler and Peggy Taylor.

Sarah Polk.

Sarah Polk.

Certainly Sarah Polk was an accomplished hostess who treated her dinner guests with a lavish touch, but it was her strict adherence to the tenets of her Methodist faith which dictated her modest marking of the Christmas holiday. She never permitted dancing, card-playing or hard liquor to be served in the White House.

Another factor which may have led Sarah Polk to treat Christmas Day without fanfare was the lack of any young presidential children or grandchildren living in the White House with her, being one of the few First Ladies who never gave birth.  Too, although the holiday fell during the capital city’s social season of balls, dinners, dances and parties, it was not yet the central focus in that era.

Joanna Rucker with her aunt Sarah Polk.

Joanna Rucker with her aunt Sarah Polk.

In 1845, during her first Christmas as First Lady, Sarah Polk did have her sister’s daughter living with her as a companion in the White House. Young Joanna Rucker was a close observer of the habits of capital society at the time. She noted that the city seemed to be universally quiet, with most people attending services in the various denominational churches.

Raised in the same faith of her aunt, Miss Rucker nevertheless had a curiosity about other faiths and that Christmas decided to attend a Catholic mass, finding it “a great deal of ceremony, burning of incense and a great deal of nonsense to me, but I say ‘everyone to his notion.’”

The Polks.

The Polks.

Two years later, Christmas Day fell on a day of the week when Sarah Polk usually hosted public receptions.

She kept it scheduled as such, rather than hosting a holiday party or even a special family dinner.

As President Polk bowed to guests while standing in front of a warm fire, the “shrewd and sensible” First Lady Polk was described as “engaged in lively conversation.”

There was no eggnog offered to guests, alcoholic or otherwise.

 

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With White House chefs, Pat Nixon previewed for the press the turkey which would serve as the main course of the First Family's 1970 Thanksgiving meal.

With White House chefs, Pat Nixon previewed for the press the turkey which would serve as the main course of the First Family’s 1970 Thanksgiving meal. (RNPL)

Among First Ladies, none instituted more public outreach in connection to the holiday of Thanksgiving than did Pat Nixon.

Knowing family recipes can be a humanizing factor in politics Pat Nixon had some of her own distributed to voters during the 1968 campaign, and continued this with her White House Thanksgiving recipes.

Knowing family recipes can humanize politics Pat Nixon had some of hers distributed to voters in 1968, and then did so with her White House Thanksgiving recipes.

Knowing, for example, that hundreds of citizens annually besieged the White House correspondence office with requests for a First Lady’s personal recipes during the holiday season, Mrs. Nixon saved time and also the expense of printing recipe cards to instead have her office issue the ingredients and cooking instructions of many of her personal favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

In fact, Mrs. Nixon realized the political value of distributing her own personal recipes of favorite family dishes, having had some of hers printed onto flyers and left on household doorknobs during the 1968 presidential primary elections.

It was surely not policy but it was one way to humanize a candidate to the voters. Even some of Mrs. Nixon’s Thanksgiving recipes, like a delicate corn souffle, managed to strike the right balance between the plain and the fancy.

Pat Nixon's Corn Souffle, the recipe for which she released to the public at Thanksgiving.

Pat Nixon’s Corn Souffle, the recipe for which she released to the public at Thanksgiving.

In 1969, timed for the National Turkey Federation presentation of its traditional gift of a bird to the President, his wife released to the nation’s newspapers, her recipe of “Chestnut and Apple Stuffing,” a name which was somewhat deliciously misleading. Along with bacon, raisins, apples and chestnuts, the recipe released to the public also called for one cup of chopped celery.

Colcannon. (thecafesucrefarine.com)

Colcannon. (thecafesucrefarine.com)

For her own Thanksgiving meal, however, Pat Nixon wanted more – a lot more according to former White House chef Henry Haller: “She insisted on having celery stuffing, which was kind of unusual for me. I was used to making stuffing with a little celery, but she liked lots of it.”

She also had a taste beyond the traditional holiday side dish of mashed potatoes, having them whipped along with mashed yellow turnips, an Irish recipe sometimes known as Colcannon, according to Haller.

And this First Lady, he said, liked roast turkey all year round.

The Nixons and  their daughters and sons-in-law in the President's Dining Room. (RNPL)

The Nixons and their daughters and sons-in-law in the President’s Dining Room. (RNPL)

Having risen in the world entirely by her own disciplined efforts to achieve through education, Pat Nixon was always conscious of others struggling, whether to thrive or simply survive.

A former teacher, she greatly relished reading stories to her two daughters when they were young, a particular favorite being “The Lame Squirrel’s Thanksgiving,” which told of an injured squirrel unable to gather his necessary nut foods to survive winter and how other forest animals joined forces to do so for him.

The story’s point of how simple offers of support from strangers could help others survive was an elemental theme of Pat Nixon’s public efforts as First Lady, an agenda of promoting regional and national voluntary organizations.

The State Dining Room, one of two rooms where senior citizens were joined by the Nixons for a Thanksgiving lunch in 1969. (RNPL)

The State Dining Room, one of two rooms where senior citizens were joined by the Nixons for a Thanksgiving lunch in 1969. (RNPL)

In 1964, a nonprofit organization known as V.I.P. , formed with the intention of widening contact between disparate and neglected communities, initiated what it hoped would become an annual tradition in the Washington area known as “The Thanksgiving Day Salute to Senior Citizens.”

Five years later, as her first holiday season as First Lady neared, Pat Nixon saw the ideas as dovetailing with her efforts, and thus hosted a special holiday meal for senior citizens who had no families with which to share the day.

There were two hundred and twenty-five guests, coming from eighteen regional retirement and assisted living facilities as guests.

Pat Nixon with the President, their daughter Julie and son-in-law David at the 1969 senior citizen Thanksgiving she hosted.

Pat Nixon with the President, their daughter Julie and son-in-law David at the 1969 senior citizen Thanksgiving she hosted.

Although the President had some repartee with a spry wisecracking ninety-three year old man, the eldest guest there, he actually ate a lunch of his favorite cottage cheese and catsup.

In late afternoon, the family flew down to their new “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, where they enjoyed a private, traditional Thanksgiving meal.

A poster for the upbeat soft rock group The Spurrlows, who performed for Pat Nixon's 1970 White House Thanksgiving dinner for disabled servicemen.

A poster for  The Spurrlows, who performed for Pat Nixon’s 1970 White House Thanksgiving dinner for disabled servicemen.

Meanwhile, both Nixons, their daughters and son-in-law David, his grandmother the former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and her elderly uncle Joel managed to sit for a portion of the meal time with each table of guests.

Continuing with her theme, Pat Nixon organized a similar event for Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1970 but for another neglected demographic, wounded and disabled veterans.

From three area hospitals, ninety-eight servicemen and the fifteen nurses who helped push their wheelchairs and carry their stretchers were welcomed by Pat Nixon and the President for a noontime meal.

Former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower again attended her successor’s unique event and, along with the Nixons and their daughter Tricia, sat at tables with the guests.

The soft rock Spurrlows performed upbeat songs, sometimes with civic intent.

The soft rock Spurrlows performed upbeat songs, sometimes with civic intent.

Pat Nixon reminded them all that the White House is “your home,” and in recalling his own navy service during World War II, her husband spoke of how being away from a warm home during the holiday season was “the hardest thing of all” during wartime service.

And there was an added, somewhat unusual touch to the event in the form of some twenty orange-costumed teenager singers, part of a soft rock group which performed uplifting, even patriotically-themed music. Here’s a listen to the groovy Seventies sound of “The Spurrlows.”

The following year it was the First Lady and not the President who presided over the customary ceremony to accept two live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation, yet this time the event had a twist: the Poultry and Egg Board wanted in on the Thanksgiving action, and were permitted to also present at the same ceremony two frozen turkeys.

Mrs. Nixon accepted the annual live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation on November 23, 1971 but also frozen turkeys from the Dairy and Egg Society.

Mrs. Nixon accepted the annual live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation on November 23, 1971 but also frozen turkeys from the Poultry and Egg Board.

Whether or not Pat Nixon was conscious of the statement this seemed to underline, there were certainly tens of millions of more American families now dining on frozen birds rather than those freshly killed, which was more expensive.

Her substitution for her husband was believed to be due to his decision to visit the practice facility of the Washington Redskins: a fanatical football fan, he never missed watching the televised games on Thanksgiving, and was sometimes joined by Pat. It may have been a troubling ceremony for him.

The year before, looking at the turkey presented to him, he quipped, “How can you kill him! Look at his eyes” The Nixon family spent that year’s holiday in seclusion at their San Clemente, California estate “La Casa Pacifica.”

The following year was an equally quiet Thanksgiving for Pat Nixon and her family, coming just three weeks after an exhaustive campaign the First Lady undertook across the entire country by plane, on behalf of her husband’s 1972 bid for a second term, which he won. The family celebrated again in private, this time at the presidential retreat Camp David but it was not a relaxing time.

The Nixons at Camp David in November of 1973, which marked their last presidential Thanksgiving. (Ollie Aikens)

The Nixons at Camp David in November of 1973, which marked their last presidential Thanksgiving. (Ollie Aikens)

The First Lady had not gone to Camp David with her husband when he left the White House ten days before Thanksgiving to come work at the retreat in relative solitude. After their holiday meal, the President decided to abruptly leave Camp David. Eager to begin his second term plans for governmental reorganization he decided to hold meetings on the night of Thanksgiving in the West Wing with the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and of Transportation, rather than as originally scheduled at Camp David.

Thanksgiving of 1973 would prove to be the last one Pat Nixon had as First Lady, the Watergate scandal already beginning to mushroom, leading eventually to her husband’s resignation as president nine months afterwards. Some two weeks before Thanksgiving, the President had angrily defended himself on national television by declaring, “I am not a crook,” in a press conference. The very day before Thanksgiving, it was determined that Rosemary Woods, the President’s longtime, loyal secretary who often spent holidays with Pat Nixon and her daughters, was responsible for the erasure of part of Nixon’s secretly taped conversation about the scandal.

Now more deeply retreated from his wider staff and the public, the President absented himself from the ceremony accepting the gift turkey. So, for a second time Pat Nixon substituted and took the birds, the only First Lady to do so twice.

Just three years before her husband had all White House night lighting eliminated during a 1973 energy crisis, Pat Nixon had overseen installation of the mansion's evening illumination. (RNPL)

Just three years before her husband had all White House night lighting eliminated during a 1973 energy crisis, Pat Nixon had overseen installation of the mansion’s evening illumination. (RNPL)

The mood was made all the more somber when, due to a growing energy crisis, the President announced that the White House during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day would be dark, encouraging all Americans to curtail their use of electricity. Some reporters speculated that while practical, the decision surely saddened Pat Nixon.

Nearly three years before to the day, she had worked with engineers and electricians to make the landmark mansion visible at night to those in planes or visitors unable to tour its rooms by installing breathtaking floodlights.

Pat Nixon especial interest in Thanksgiving led her to achieve some unique benchmarks.

Pat Nixon especial interest in Thanksgiving led her to achieve some unique benchmarks.

Certainly, Pat Nixon’s first Thanksgiving as First Lady stands out not only among the others she experienced there, but those of all her predecessors and successors.

For while Presidents since George Washington had been issuing annual Thanksgiving proclamations, Pat Nixon is the only First Lady in history to do so. Alluding to the civil unrest over the Vietnam War in the fall of 1969 , the president’s wife stated, in part:

“[T]he Pilgrims… experienced their own times of hardship, yet were able to find hope amidst their fears. Thanksgiving gives all of us the opportunity to reflect upon the positive aspects of our lives.”

 

 

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