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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.