From the earliest days of the nineteenth century, the White House was the social center of the capital city. By and large, however, it was only members of the legislature and judiciary who relocated to Washington from their home states during the periods Congress was in session. This meant that the early First Ladies usually had guest lists that were largely male and for them, they made alcoholic beverages readily available.
With alcoholism killing her brother and son Charles, Abigail Adams was especially sensitive the devastating effects of heavy drinking, “He was no man’s enemy,” she said of the latter, “but his own.”
The aimless and ultimately wasted life of Dolley Madison’s son Payne Todd was also due to excessive drinking. Still, both women were able to draw a line between their personal dislike of heavy alcohol consumption and what they viewed as their duty as hostess in the president’s home.
One finds few examples of nineteenth century First Ladies being especially fond of liquor themselves or of serving it. One exception was the young Julia Tyler, who insisted on large quantities of champagne being made available to guests at her final grand ball, and of intoxicating eggnog for her one holiday season as First Lady, in 1844.
Apart from liquor purchase receipts during the Tyler Administration, it was only by the praise of the religious press heaped upon her immediate successor, Sarah Polk, and the sharp contrast they drew between her and Mrs. Tyler that one discerns the latter’s tastes.
As a strict Methodist, Sarah Polk did not attend horse races or play cards because gambling was involved, and did not drink, smoke, or dance. Some of the perception about her as a severe person may be attributed to the credit that religious leaders were eager to pin on her, finding in the First Lady an important role model. In fact, some of her restrictions may have had more to do with her perceptions of the dignity of the presidency and less about her personal choices.
Mrs. Polk is known to have discouraged the Marine Band from playing lighthearted music because it encouraged dancing, which she considered it undignified for the White House. While she did maintain a strict policy of having no hard liquor served to guests, records indicate that she permitted a wide variety of wines to be served at formal dinners.
Jane Pierce has been cast similarly. Like Mrs. Polk, she was extremely orthodox in her personal life when it came to alcohol consumption, having pledged to her intolerantly strict father, while a young woman, that she would not drink. Yet she was not actively vehement against others doing so.
There were also more personal reasons for her refraining.
Drinking would have only worsened her chronic depression, occasional pleurisy and tuberculosis. Also, there was the sensitive matter of President Pierce’s earlier addiction to heavy drinking, which would rise again at the end of his life. Still, she did not order that White House guests should be denied the chance to consume alcohol if they wished.
Among the many untrue charges leveled against Mary Lincoln was one claim that she became riotously drunk with the Russian Ambassador during a cruise on the presidential yacht. There was not even circumstantial evidence to suggest this was true, let alone any record of any such party on the vessel.
Like most of the tales told and printed about her during the acrimonious Civi War years this claim, printed in one anti-Lincoln newspaper, was almost certainly motivated by political opposition to her husband.
By the post-Civil War era, legitimate concerns about the laxity in American society and the resultant physical abuse of women caused by heavy drinking led to the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The organization, consisting of regional divisions of women all in concert with efforts to eradicate alcohol consumption and, eventually, cigar and cigarette smoking and immodest clothing for women.
The organization, like many others, looked to the First Lady as the leading example for women across the country and naturally made the women the focus of their lobbying efforts. With the overall prohibition movement becoming a powerful force in politics by the late 19th century, and First Ladies usually granted requests from the organization to be received at the White House.
Nevertheless, most First Ladies both served and drank alcoholic beverages, usually light wines with dinner, champagne or whiskey punch.
Julia Grant, for example, had an especially strong punch made of champagne, brandy and rum served at her White House receptions and larger events, with an array of fine wines served at dinners. She also enjoyed these.
While there was no public outcry about the First Lady drinking, she was always extremely sensitive about printed stories claiming that her husband had a weakness for alcohol and that its effects on him were visible and extreme. She would vehemently deny these stories, having her letters printed in newspapers that might have suggested this about her late husband.
Lucretia Garfield was angered when a temperance leader called on her shortly after she entered the White House and implored her vigorously to continue the policy of Lucy Hayes. Mrs. Garfield reordered her frustration at what she considered an impertinent plea. She had liquor served at the White House to guests, ignoring the WCTU, even after the White House accepted the gift made by the organization of a larger-than-life portrait of Lucy Hayes which depicted a water fountain in its background.
Shortly after she began her tenure as First Lady, Ida McKinley entertained a large group of her and the President’s young adult relatives at a dinner and reception. When one of them spoke to the press and reported that the new First Lady had not permitted any alcoholic beverages to be served to them, the story made headlines.
Soon enough, the WCTU was hailing Ida McKinley as one of their new heroines, predicting that she would usher in a new era of temperance. As time shortly proved, they were sorely mistaken. Mrs. McKinley permitted all types of liquor to be served in the White House to both her private guests and those invited to formal events. She herself enjoyed drinking no more than a regular glass of claret or red wine, but she resisted the efforts of friends who were temperance advocates from initiating a “dry” policy.
The only two First Ladies known to have been “teetotalers” were Lucy Hayes and Frances Cleveland, but neither formally allied themselves with the WCTU, likely out of fear that such a commitment might alienate their husbands’ political supporters.
In the case of Lucy Hayes, the President involved himself in negotiating the situation. Having been elected, in part, with support from the Prohibition Party, Rutherford Hayes was sensitive to the growing temperance movement. Since she had come of age, Mrs. Hayes had never drank any liquor, a commitment she made seriously but privately.
Once installed in the White House, she had no notion of enacting a ban. However, following the drunkenness of a Russian prince who was being entertained at a formal dinner, the President instructed the staff that instead of real rum being used in dessert at the next dinner function that rum flavoring be substituted. Otherwise no alcoholic beverages were made available and one quip at the time cracked that at the Hayes White House, “water flowed like wine.”
Still, the WCTU saw a heroine in Mrs. Hayes, as the titular head of the national household, and had albums containing signatures and remarks, heaping praise on the First Lady for what they assumed was her policy.
Despite the flattery, the First Lady refused to even honorarily accept membership in the organization. Yet she was the one who would be lampooned in verse and cartoon as “Lemonade Lucy.”
Like Jane Pierce and Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland had made a family pledge as a young girl to never drink alcohol. She never sought to influence her husband, known for his love of beer, to follow her lead, nor did she determine to restrict alcohol from being served at the White House.
For herself, when a waiter would come to her place at the dinner table, she simply kept her wine glasses turned upside down. Instead, she had an especial predilection for a popular mineral water of the era, Apollonairis.
If the WCTU believed they finally had an inherent in the White House, they were disappointed by Frances Cleveland on another account.
At one of their annual conventions, they issued a proclamation calling on the youthful First Lady to set a moral example for the nation’s young women who looked up to her as a role model in everything from her posture to her hairstyle.
At her first public appearance, at a formal evening function after the organization had issued its demand of her, the First Lady made clear her reaction to the group attempting to dictate what she wore.
As she descended to the White House state floor, Mrs. Cleveland was wearing a low-cut and sleeveless gown.