Eleanor Roosevelt with staff members Malvina Thompson and Edith Helm. (FDRL)
This article is adapted from a public inquiry response about a Canadian email claiming that Michelle Obama has maintained a larger staff than any of her successors.
Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)
Documentation suggests that during the presidencies from 1789 until 1877, family members who were hired as federal clerks to serve the President also responded to incoming correspondence to First Ladies from those unknown to the presidential wives. Housekeepers and ushers aided in carrying out formal dinners, invitations for those related to foreign nations being coordinated with the Secretary of State. Press inquiries were rare, but were usually processed by the federal clerks working for the President.
Often, friends or relatives making lengthy visits during the winter social season assisted First Ladies in planning and executing social events. For example, Polly Lear, the wife George Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear, worked with Martha Washington. Louisa Adams’ niece (and later daughter-in-law) Mary Catherine Hellen worked as her social aide. Julia Tyler’s sister Margaret Gardiner aided her during the 1844-1845 social season.
George Cortelyou aided Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. (Commerce Dept)
By the latter 19th century, the Personal or Private Secretary of the President or a clerk began to answer public mail for First Ladies, as seen in the examples of Orville Babcock doing so or Julia Grant, Stanley Brown for Lucretia Garfield, George Cortelyou for Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. Mail clerk Ira Smith also answered mail for Mrs. McKinley.
Since the turn of the 20th century, First Ladies have relied on a growing number of regular clerical staff that is assigned to work in the Executive Offices to carry out the growing responsibilities of true expanding public role.
Belle Hagner (right), at a White House social event. (WHHA)
As First Ladies took a more direct role in planning social events, they relied upon and worked more closely with the chief usher, housekeeper, cooks, florists, and others on the permanent domestic staff.
Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)
Edith Roosevelt was the first to have a Social Secretary who was a salaried federal employee – Isabelle Hagner.
Nellie Taft was given the same congressional appropriation within the executive branch government and had a series of three different women fulfilling that job including Alice Bech and Mary Spiers.
Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson both rehired Belle Hagner. Florence Harding hired Laura Harlan and Grace Coolidge’s Social Secretary was Polly Randolph.
Laura Harlan looks at audience as Florence Harding addresses them. (carlanthonyonline.com)
In 1929, Lou Hoover became the first to have multiple secretaries – a total of four by the time she left the White House. One or two of these “private secretaries” were paid a salary by the Hoovers.
Eleanor Roosevelt had two staff members Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, as did Bess Truman.
Mamie Eisenhower dictates to secretary Mary Jane McCaffree. (Life)
Mamie Eisenhower had only one Social Secretary but by this time, her responsibilities were far greater than planning social functions.
She acted also as correspondence and press secretary, and had a staff of typists and clerks working for her.
Jackie Kennedy with Pamela Turnure, prior to a press event. (JFKL)
Jacqueline Kennedy hired the first Press Secretary, Pamela Turnure. In the press office was also an assistant.
There was also a head of correspondence.Letitia Baldrige was given the ostensible title of “Social Secretary” but was already functioning as a de facto Chief of Staff. Mrs. Kennedy also hired the first White House Curator, who worked under her direction, as did the Housekeeper and Chief Usher.
There were many clerks answering her mail.
Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)
Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary Liz Carpenter was functioning as Chief of Staff. In addition to Social Secretary there was also added to the First Lady’s staff the position of Project Director.
Under Pat Nixon, the position of Advance woman was added. Under Betty Ford, the position of speechwriter was added.
Mrs. Reagan with the first of several of her Social Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff, Mabel Brandon and Peter McCoy. (RRPL)
Rosalynn Carter was the first to have a single designated figure serve as Chief of Staff.
Barbara Bush employed the first African-American press secretary and Michelle Obama hired the first male Social Secretary.
Under the department heads of East Wing directors (Press Secretary, Social Secretary, Personal Aide, Project Director, Correspondence, Speechwriting, Advance) there are often deputies and assistants who carry the title.
Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)
Under a more general “staff” designation there are typists, and researchers working for First Ladies.
On many occasions, it may be hard to trace what specific federal positions work for a First Lady because often they are hired through the West Wing or a Cabinet department and are requisitioned due to their expertise, either for the full term of the administration or part of the time, depending on the endeavor.
For example, at the time of the weddings of LBJ’s daughters, Press Secretary Liz Carpenter requisitioned the temporary services of one of the President’s press aides, Tom Johnson.
Michelle Obama with members of her staff in 2010. (WH)
Or, during her initial drug abuse education program planning, Nancy Reagan had the president’s advisor on illicit drug use work with her staff.
The claim about Mrs. Obama having the biggest staff in history may be due to the greater transparency of the Obama Administration in delineating the names, titles and salaries of those who have or are working for her.
While this has always been a matter of public information, the Obama Administration is the first to publicly disclose it.