Measuring George Washington

After the American Revolution ended, the State of Virginia wanted to honor its most renowned son with a commemorative statue.

Finding A Worthy Artist

Fine art and fine artists were a rarity in Colonial America. Perhaps it was because people were more concerned with survival and earning a living than they were with fine accouterments. The earliest American artists of stature, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, began their careers in the US, but relocated in London, where their talents and skills would be better appreciated – at least financially.


Jean-Antoine Houdon was the most famous sculptor of his time in Europe. He had produced marble and bronze busts of Jefferson, Franklin and Voltaire.

But Virginia, which was in the process of building its new State House in its new capital in Richmond, wanted to honor General Washington with a statue. There was no prestigious sculptor in America in 1782, so they asked Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, representing the new country in Europe, if they could make appropriate recommendations.

It was Thomas Jefferson who suggested Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), one of the foremost sculptors on the continent, and who had already created busts of Jefferson, Franklin and Voltaire. The Virginia legislature was amenable, and likewise commissioned Philadelphian Charles Willson Peale, the foremost artist in America, to paint a full length portrait of the famous general.

young GW

One of many full length portraits done by Charles Willson Peale, one of Americas prominent painters in order for the sculptor to have proper reference materials of Franklin and Jefferson himself.

Houdon was eager to sculpt George Washington, France’s ally and successful hero. But he insisted that even the finest painted portrait would not be sufficient enough a likeness for his work. He insisted that he must travel to America and undertake Washington’s exact measurements personally.

Houdon Visits Mount Vernon

The State of Virginia agreed to commission the great French sculptor, including paying for (and insuring) his ocean voyage to and from America. George

mount vernon

Houdon visited Mt. Vernon for around two weeks. It took far longer to travel back and forth across the ocean.

Washington also agreed, and was pleased to extend the hospitality of his estate at Mount Vernon.

Houdon came with his assistants, his notebooks and casting materials, his measuring tapes and whatever other tools he required. Washington made time and allowed the artist to measure every inch from the length of his nose to the circumference of his fingers. Then Houdon made a plaster mask of the General’s face, by having Washington lay still for several hours with a plaster concoction on his face. He inserted hollow straws in Washington’s nostrils so he breathe. The plaster face-mask would go back to Paris with Houdon. So would the terra cotta bust the sculptor made of the General.

The life-mask of George Washington was made at Mt. Vernon. Houdon took it back to Paris to replicate.

Discussions then ranged about “how” this life size sculpture would be presented. It had been fashionable for centuries to garb the honorees in classical style – togas or Biblical robes, or the armor plate of a thousand years before. Houdon wished to portray the General as he truly was, garbed in the clothing of his own time. It was a revolutionary idea – suited to the hero of the Revolution, who preferred that image as well.

The Classical and the Timeless

If Houdon’s decision to present a “modern” Washington in his own clothing was accepted, the sculptor was still deeply entrenched in the classical style adorned with the symbolism of art. He needed to present the “Cincinnatus” Washington. The civilian who took up arms for his country, became a hero, and then returned to his civilian life. A balance of war and peace. The accoutrements of the sculpture were not only accepted as essential, but they would also tell the story.


The Houdon bust of George Washington.

Washington is clothed in his uniform, but carries a civilian walking stick. He rests his hand on a bundle of rods, the Roman symbol of civilian authority. Of course there were thirteen rods in the bundle, symbolic of the thirteen States. The symbolic arrows are still reasons for conjecture, although some historians believe it represented the “wildness” of America. His farmer’s plow and his sword are behind him.

It would take the better part of five years for the life sized sculpture to be completed, carved from fine Carrera marble, and exactly to the measurements Houdon made of his subject. The statue itself stands six-foot-two-and-a-half inches, including the half-inch for the heel of Washington’s boots. It also stands upon a Houdon-produced pedestal which gives heroic height to the image.

It was delivered to the State of Virginia in pieces, where it was assembled somewhere around 1791, and placed in the Rotunda of the Virginia State House in Richmond, where it remains today.

Emulating the Original

houdon washington

Houdon’s classic statue of George Washington is one of Virginia’s treasures.

There is never any assurance against Mother Nature, and the Virginia Legislature was understandably concerned that fire, or damage to the rotunda roof might also destroy the statue. They commissioned bronze reproductions to be cast of the original, in case of any permanent damage. Between 1840 and 1910, additional casts were made, and today there are 33 life size reproductions housed at various locations across the country, notably in New York City, the University of Virginia, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But the original, the one sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon himself, exactly measured from life and still considered  by those who knew him, the most accurate likeness of George Washington, still stands in its original location: in the Rotunda of the Virginia State House in Richmond.


Cunliffe, Marcus – George Washington: Man and Monument – Little, Brown, 1958

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The Short Sweet Life of Willie Lincoln

  Despite the fact that Willie Lincoln died before his 12th birthday, he was arguably the happiest of the Lincoln family.

Willie Lincoln in Springfield, IL

William Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862) was named for his uncle-by-marriage. Dr. William Wallace, married to Mary Lincoln’s sister Frances, had been devoted to caring for little Eddy Lincoln, a sickly boy, who died, shortly before his fourth birthday, only a few months before Willie was born.


Willie and Tad Lincoln were playmates from the start.

Willie was a healthy baby and thrived. His older brother Robert, was seven years his senior, and by the time Willie was old enough to play, Robert was in prep school with other interests. But by the time Willie was old enough to have memory, he had a baby brother to play with. Thomas, called Tad from birth, was two years younger.

Mary Lincoln, the boys’ mother, was a pleasant middle-class housewife who did her own cooking and most of the housekeeping. She was devoted to raising her family, and caring for her husband, who was “her all,” in the Victorian sense of the word.

Perhaps most importantly, Willie’s father, Abraham Lincoln, was by the mid 1850s, a successful Illinois attorney, who no longer spent weeks and months away from home, riding the “court circuit” in order to earn his living. Now he could work nearby, and his time on-the-road was far less. He had the time to be a father, and in his mid-forties, wanted to. Nothing made him happier than engaging in horseplay and other antics with his two young sons, perhaps because he did not have that luxury with Robert. Or with his own father, for that matter.

mary and boys

Mary Lincoln was a devoted wife and mother, pictured here with Willie and Tad.

Lincoln’s office was within walking distance, and as the boys got a little older, he brought them to the office from time to time, to the annoyance of  William Herndon, his law partner. Willie and Tad proceeded to make a mess of everything, throwing papers and spitballs and spilling ink. Lincoln smiled benignly and made no effort at discipline.

The Character and Personality of Willie

Willie Lincoln, unlike Robert and Tad who favored the Todds in looks, was the most like his father. His legs were long, promising a tall fellow. He was also better looking than his brothers, but it was his character and personality that seemed to be most compelling.

Even at school in Springfield, Willie showed an  aptitude for learning, and appeared to enjoy study. He loved to read – but then, both his parents were avid readers. His disposition was a sweet one, patient and kind, and with a sense of humor – qualities usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln himself. His mother once commented that Willie was surprisingly religious for such a small boy, and also noted that he was “the idolized one” of the household.


One of the few photographs taken of Willie Lincoln.

Willie also seemed to share his father’s deliberative thought processes as well. Lincoln once told a visitor that he could watch the boy at breakfast and know every step of the process Willie took to find the satisfactory answer to a problem – since it was exactly the slow and deliberative way he himself arrived at an answer.

The Happy Year: 1861

Within days of arriving at the White House, the Lincoln boys found boon companions their own age in Bud and Holly Taft, whose parents were long time Washingtonians. The four youngsters became inseparable, enjoying sleepovers and dinners and even lessons together. It was a huge relief to Mary Lincoln to know that her boys were happy in their new surroundings, since both the President and First Lady had so many other obligations.

Lincoln family

One of the many images produced of the Lincoln family in the White house. Willie is seated next to his mother.

No child could have been happier living in the White House that year! Willie and Tad were the perfect age: old enough to find excitement and fun in all the soldiers camping out all over town – and young enough to be semi-oblivious to the harsh realities and sorrows of war.

The sadness of the Civil War still managed to affect the youngsters, however. Lincoln’s law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth, had joined the Union Army and was one of the first to give his life. Edward Baker, Oregon Senator and newly commissioned Colonel was another old friend and great family favorite, also killed in action. Eleven-year-old Willie was so moved by Colonel Baker’s death that he wrote a poem eulogizing the man. The poem was even published in the local newspaper.

The Death of Willie Lincoln

Lincoln family3

Another family depiction of the Lincolns in the White House. Willie is shown next to his father.

Nobody would have predicted that Willie Lincoln would have such a short life. He had been strong and healthy, smart and sensitive, and indeed what his mother would later refer to as her hope for solace in her old age.

But early in 1862, both Willie and Tad caught colds, as young boys do in the winter, and were treated and dosed accordingly. They seemed to be on the mend. The Lincolns had planned a gala party since they believed the activities of government needed to continue despite the War. The Lincolns had modified the festivities accordingly, and thought to cancel, but the doctors had assured them that Willie was not in any danger, even though his recovery seemed to be erratic. Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping away from the party to sit with their sick son.

But Willie was in danger. His cold became typhoid fever, and without antibiotics and modern treatment, usually resulted in death. He lingered only days after the only gala event the Lincolns ever hosted in the White House.

The Lincolns were devastated. Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Washington. When Lincoln was assassinated little more than three years later, Willie’s body was removed from it’s temporary location, and his small coffin rode alongside his father’s larger one on the train back to Springfield. When the Lincoln tomb was finally completed, Willie’s coffin was finally re-interred where the other members of the Lincoln family are laid to rest.


Bayne, Julia Taft – Tad Lincoln’s Father – Bison Books (reprinted) – 2001

Randall, Ruth Painter – Lincoln’s Sons – Little, Brown & Co., 1955



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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: A Book Review

TJ and Tripoli

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the new best seller by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates has been sitting on the Best Seller list for several weeks now, and hooray! It does exactly what it wants to accomplish: interest the reader in an informative-but-not-didactic manner, and prove the point that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Or, if you will, the old axiom that history repeats itself.

According to the authors, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, (and this is perhaps the most important crux of the book) piracy along the Barbary Coast (i.e. Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, or modern-day Libya) has been going on for centuries. In fact, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were European diplomats, representing the Articles-of-Confederated United States, in the mid-1780s, such piracy had already been going on for centuries. Pirates cruised the Mediterranean preying upon merchant ships or other vessels that did not belong to them, and exacting “tribute,” or, calling it by its rightful name, “extortion.” To wit: pay us for not beating you up.

Both Adams and Jefferson were seriously involved in efforts to safeguard American ships from these predators. Both were men of the Age of Reason, and both were essentially men of good will: dedicated to resolving problems to the general satisfaction of all parties, with no real inclination for personal glory.  Adams, crustier than most, was also a basic Puritan. He believed that Mahometans, or Musselmen, which is what people were calling followers of Islam in those days, were people of the Book – or some Book at any rate, and could be reasoned with. Besides, he believed that engaging in any war with Islam would be costly and perhaps unwinnable.  He made a strong point. Jefferson, who had actually purchased a copy of the Koran years earlier, had his doubts. When their genial, but somewhat smarmy Barbary coast diplomatic counterpart met with the Americans, he indicated that their Holy Book countenanced killing the infidels in order to get an express ticket to Paradise. Mr. J., the cool deist, decided then and there that “reason” was not viable when dealing with religious fanatics.  Another strong point.

Nevertheless, paying off the Barbary pirates became policy for the new United States. We were poor and needed the trade. We also did not have the military might to put an end to it. Other countries like England and France had been paying off for years.  Sort of a pesty situation – and we had far more important issues to deal with.

But since the authors are writing adventure history rather than pure philosophical history  (not to mention the authors’ eye on Hollywood), fast forward to the Jefferson Administration. We were building a Navy, and had already been training an elite Marine Corps. The “millions for defense” was starting to become more important than the “one cent for tribute,” especially since the “tribute” was bleeding us dry. Besides, the piracy was not ending. And these were not merely renegade bandits; this was criminal mayhem, state-sponsored by various beys, deys, bashaws and pashas, the various chieftain-style leaders along the North African coast. And, to complicate the already complicated situation, these beys, deys, bashaws and pashas did not always get along with each other (what a surprise!).

Meanwhile, our ships, merchant and otherwise, were still being plundered and captured, and our sailors and merchantmen were still being enslaved at hard labor, or left to rot and die in North African fortress-prisons. President Jefferson, who was a very unwarlike man, had had enough. Like it or not, he would hold his nose, and deal with the situation once and for all. Giving his underlings a “take care of it” blank check of sorts, in goes the Navy, in go the new ships, including the Constitution, which later became Old Ironsides, and in go the Marines. All twelve of them.

The authors grab the reader’s interest from the start, and make an actual historic event into the adventure story it truly was. It combines diplomacy (sort of), playing one side against another (sort of), ships with sails happy to hoist false colors (not unheard of), consuls, captains and generals working together (sometimes) and at odds (what else is new?), and some fine, brave Americans who were willing to defend the right of free trade. And oh yes, there was that long, hard trek across the desert, with a handful of trained American soldiers trying to help reclaim a previously-usurped bashawship with unruly sub-armies of divergent characters, methods, and reasons for going in the first place.

It is all done with a minimum of notes and citations and the usual i-dotting that one now expects from history and produces little more than zzz’s. Bravo to the authors for putting the “story” back in “history.” Thank you.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Sentinel Publishing, 2015

  • ISBN-10: 1591848067
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591848066


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Abigail Fillmore and the White House Library

Abigail Fillmore is one of those early First Ladies who has faded into oblivion. She needs to be re-explored.

Miss Powers, Teacher

Abigail Powers (1798-1852) was only two when her father died. She later claimed to have inherited two important things from the father she never knew: his love of reading, and his vast (for upstate New York in 1800) library.


One of the rare etchings of Abigail Powers Fillmore, wife of the 13th President.

By the time she was sixteen, she was the local “school marm,” credited as being the first First Lady to work outside the home.

One of the few stories known about Abigail Fillmore, was that she taught Millard Fillmore, (1800-1874) a husky farm boy her own age who wanted to learn. The usual image is of a young woman teaching a big fellow his A-B-C’s.

Yes, but not quite. Millard Fillmore knew his letters and numbers and basics, but his education fell far short of his ambition: not being a farm boy. A neighbor offered him a chance to read law, a then-acceptable means of become an attorney – but only if young Fillmore could improve his basic education. Friends suggested that Miss Powers, the local teacher, might tutor him.

Abigail was happy to oblige, and in the process, the farm boy and the school marm fell in love. It would be a long courtship, while Fillmore continued his education, and his fiancee continued to educate others.

Some years later, when Fillmore passed the New York bar the couple married and began their life together.

Abigail Fillmore: Wife, Mother, Librarian

Once Abigail Fillmore was a lawyer’s wife and mother of two she “retired” from teaching, since Millard Fillmore could support his family very nicely. He was not only a practicing lawyer, but eventually was elected to Congress as a Whig.


Millard Fillmore, Congressman, Vice President and 13th President. He was considered a handsome man.

Once her children were school-aged, Abigail had some time on her hands, and needed an outlet for her energies and intellect. The Buffalo suburb of Aurora, New York, where the Fillmores made their home, had grown sufficiently to begin its own lending library, and Mrs. Fillmore became one of its earliest supporters.

Some of the extant letters between Abigail and Millard Fillmore contain lists of books she wished for him to purchase for the library. En route to Washington, Congressman Fillmore had to pass through New York City and Philadelphia, where book stores were numerous.

Congressman and VP Fillmore and Family

Millard Fillmore’s career was somewhat spotty. He won some elections and lost some elections; his law practice was mediocre. Certainly nothing to make him any more than middle-class, and certainly nothing to qualify him for his future role.


The restored home of Millard and Abigail Fillmore, now a Presidential site outside of Buffalo, NY.

Abigail had spent some time with him in Washington – and did not like it. She missed her children (still in school), her six-room house (boarding in Washington was cramped) and her activities in Aurora. She also grew to dislike social Washington. She was a bookish woman, and believed the women she met were superficial.

The Unexpected POTUS & FLOTUS

No one ever expected Millard Fillmore to be elected Vice President in 1848, let alone President. He was barely known outside of upstate New York and in small Washington circles. He had never made a big impression, and was certainly not anyone’s idea of a presidential candidate. To balance the Whig ticket, the politicians needed not only an Easterner, but a Northerner, since General Zachary Taylor, the hero-of-the-day, was Virginia born, everywhere-bred, and currently a Louisiana resident.

Fillmore’s views on slavery, which was quickly moving to the top of the political hot-potato list, were moderate. This meant that he would be acceptable in the South.

The Whigs were successful. Millard Fillmore was now Vice President.

No one ever expected President Zachary Taylor to die a year and a half into his term either. But he did. Mediocre Millard Fillmore was now President. Middle-class teacher-librarian Abigail Fillmore was now First Lady – a position she did not relish at all.


Mary Abigail Fillmore was around twenty when her parents were in the White House. She helped host their social duties.

The thought of receiving lines and entertaining the “superficial” women she thoroughly disdained was unappealing. Several months earlier, she had broken her ankle. It had been a bad break, poorly set and poorly healed. It continued to give her a good deal of discomfort, plus a ready (and acceptable) excuse for her to avoid the receptions; she was happy to dispatch her now twenty-year-old daughter as a willing and able substitute.

But when they moved into the White House, Abigail Fillmore discovered there wasn’t a book in the entire place – not even a Bible. For a studious and scholarly woman by nature, this was unacceptable. She asked her husband to lobby Congress to provide funds for a permanent White House library – a place where the President, the Presidential family, and Presidential secretaries and aides could research whatever information they required – or even find an hour’s respite from their daily duties.

Fillmore obliged. Congress, as is their wont and privilege, dickered and dithered. Fillmore was not the most popular fellow ever elected. A “generous” budget for books was duly whittled down to a modest sum of around $500 (depending on which source you espouse).

But it was the great contribution of the Fillmore Administration, and certainly the most lasting. First Lady Abigail F. was well qualified to manage the appropriation, select the books to be purchased, and to handle them with care and diligence. She arranged for the White House maintenance carpenters to build bookshelves, and prepared long lists of requested volumes.

One could easily picture the former teacher-librarian spending many happy hours when her requests were delivered, unpacking the books, organizing and cataloging them properly and placing them on the shelves. It was the job she was meant to do.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995


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TR and the White House Gang

When Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, he brought his wife and six kids – the largest group of youngsters in the White House.

The Young Roosevelts

1903 --- A portrait of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) with his family in 1903, prior to his election to President in 1904. His oldest daughter Alice stands at the rear. He is serving out the term of his predecessor, William McKinley, assassinated in 1901. Roosevelt's most durable achievments include reform of trusts, clean food, and the national park system. --- Image by © CORBIS

Theodore Roosevelt had the largest family living in the White House. (l. to r.: Ethel, TR, Ted, Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith and Quentin.

At 42, Theodore Roosevelt was our youngest president, and not surprisingly, his family was filled with youngsters. Alice, at seventeen, would become an immediate hit: pretty, and totally outrageous. Ted, at fourteen and Kermit, at twelve, were away at prep school most of the time. Ethel, at ten, was in a local school in Washington.

That left Archie and Quentin, seven and three respectively, when their father came to the White House. Smart, impish and full of the rambunctious exuberance associated with Rooseveltian activity, once they started school, they became the leaders of a select group of local boys whose antics in and out of the White House actually made the newspapers – sometimes. They were dubbed “The White House Gang.”


Archie Roosevelt and Algonquin, one of the Roosevelts’ numerous pets.

If Archie and Quentin were the gang-leaders, the Supreme Commander, albeit honorary, was the President of the United States himself, who, as his wife Edith frequently remarked, “was her seventh, and oldest, child.” Edith Roosevelt, while technically not a member of the gang, was more like a participating den mother. She was so enthusiastic and involved, that little Archie once remarked, “When Mother was a little girl she must have been a little boy.”

Gangster Activities


Quentin was three when he began living in the White House. He was an immediate hit.

The activities of the White House Gang ran the gamut of sublime to ridiculous – and always noisy. They plotted obstacle courses in the corridors, played hide-and-seek wherever they wanted, created a baseball diamond on the grounds (without permission!) and even threw spitballs at some of the presidential portraits. They “borrowed” trays from the kitchen, and sledded down the backstairs. Nothing was sacred. When Quentin was sick  measles, Archie smuggled Algonquin, his pony, upstairs in the White House elevator to cheer up his ailing brother.

The gang teased White House staff, visitors and diplomats, and was even said to throw snowballs from the White House roof – until forbidden by the Supreme Commander.

Time, visitors, and even the august stature of their father’s position was meaningless to the pint-sized purveyors of mayhem. In fact, TR was almost as enthusiastic a participant as the rest of the gang.


No President enjoyed romping with his family more than Theodore Roosevelt. Pictured here with Archie and Quentin.

Once, when the POTUS was in his office discussing matters of state with an important visitor, Quentin appeared and announced, “It’s four o’clock, Father.” TR checked his watch and said, “So it is.” Then he promptly terminated his meeting saying, “I promised the boys I would play with them at four o’clock…and you know you must not keep a small boy waiting.”

The Later Gang

Theodore Roosevelt was President for seven and a half years, and kids, as kids do, got older, went to school and began to mature, at least somewhat. The “Gang” however, continued, albeit sporadically once schooling got underway, and time was needed for study. Some gangsters moved away, others were added, like Charlie Taft, when his father, William Howard Taft became TR’s Secretary of War. Charlie and Quentin were the same age, and became boon companions.

One “gangster” who remained throughout was Earle Looker, a Washingtonian who became a well-known journalist and wrote a book called The White House Gang, recalling his youthful glimpse into an extraordinary opportunity. His memories added to the overall perspective of all the Roosevelts from the eyes of a child – eyes that seldom deceive. What is particularly refreshing is his observations about the closeness of parent-to-child, and in this case, parents-to-children. Theodore and Edith were always active and engaged parents. The family always came first.

The “gangsters” stayed in touch, some more closely than others, as they grew up to follow their individual paths.

Quentin Roosevelt, who most resembled his father in looks, build, exuberance, leadership qualities, varied interests and general intellect, had a talent all his own: mechanics. Growing up in the Age of the Airplane, he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. World War I interfered.


Quentin Roosevelt enlisted in the French Air Force even before the US entered World War I.

All four Roosevelt sons, including Quentin, volunteered well before the U.S. became involved. Kermit joined the British Army in the Middle East. Ted and Archie were severely wounded, and their recoveries would take months before they were up and around. “Q”, as his gang called him, joined a French squadron, looping-the-loop in little more than a box kite with a motor. He was shot down and killed. He was only twenty.

Still Later


All four of TR’s sons served in World War I. Ted and Archie were severely wounded. Quentin was killed in action.

Quentin’s death devastated the family, particularly the former President and the Gang’s Supreme Commander. TR died at sixty, only a few months after learning that his youngest son had been killed.

There was a natural outpouring of sympathy when the news of Quentin’s death was made public, to include the now-adult members of the White House Gang. Edith Roosevelt cherished to letters she received from some of the young men who had been little buys, racing through the White House hallways, waylaying the most important people in the country.

According to Earle Looker, some of the Gang stayed in touch with their den mother for the rest of her long life. She lived to be eighty-seven.


Bishop, Chip – Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War – CreateSpace, April, 2014

Hagedorn, Hermann – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill – Macmillan, 1954

Looker, Earle – The White House Gang – Amereon Ltd., 1940


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Mary Lincoln’s Old Clothes

The close but unlikely friendship between Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley would be permanently shattered by what Mrs. Lincoln would consider a gross betrayal. It was not intended as such.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Debts

When Mary Lincoln was First Lady, merchants in New York and Philadelphia were delighted to grant her unlimited credit. She ran up huge bills that her husband knew nothing about.

inaugural gown

Mary Lincoln wanted to be the great setter-of-styles as First Lady. She purchased a large and expensive wardrobe.

Once Abraham Lincoln was dead, however, the merchants had no reason to court his widow. They began dunning her for payment. Mary confessed to Elizabeth Keckley, her mulatto dressmaker and close confidante, that she believed she owed about $38,000 – an enormous sum. Modern historians have tried, but have never been able to make an exact calculation. Historian Jean Baker surmises the debts were more like $10,000 – still an enormous sum. In Lincoln’s best financial year in Springfield, he only earned $6,000.

Lincoln had died without a will. It would take more than two years to settle his estate, and even then, it was divided equally between Mary, his widow, and his two sons: Robert and Tad, a minor.


When Lincoln died, he died intestate. His estate was tied up for two years, and his widow would be consumed with fear about money for the rest of her life.

Congress had been miserly with the Widow Lincoln. There was no such thing as a Presidential Widow’s pension. They gave her the balance of Lincoln’s one-year salary of $25,000. That is what they had given the widow of William Henry Harrison, and that was a quarter-century earlier.

Congress as a whole did not like Mrs. Lincoln. They believed she was extravagant (probably very true), and some still believed she was a Confederate sympathizer (not true).

Meanwhile Mary was panicked by her mountain of debt, compounded by her need to keep it as private as possible.


Elizabeth Keckley was a Washington modiste, who became not only dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln, but her closest friend and confidante.

Mary had prevailed upon Elizabeth Keckley to accompany her and her children back to Chicago. “Lizzie” stayed for about six weeks, and later claimed that “listening to Mrs. Lincoln sob for three months was about as much as she could stand.” More importantly, the former First Lady could no longer pay Mrs. Keckley, and the dressmaker was neglecting her own business. Mary was very generous in her promises, and sincere in her willingness to repay Mrs. K. She would be happy to share whatever pension or contributions Congress or the rich Republicans would give her, but they were not giving her anything. Meanwhile Lizzie was just as broke as Mary Lincoln claimed to be.

The Old Clothes Scandal: A Brief Overview

mary in mourning

Mrs. Lincoln never wore anything but black after her husband’s assassination.

Mary Lincoln wore only “widow’s weeds” after her husband’s death, but she had accumulated a large First Lady wardrobe of elegant and expensive gowns that she would never wear again. In an effort to raise money, she decided to sell some of her clothing.

This was 1868 – long before the Smithsonian began its First Ladies collection. If any one of Mary’s dresses were available to the public today, it would bring thousands of dollars. But in 1868 it was not only tacky, but was considered scandalous.

The former First Lady went to New York under an assumed name, and with a reluctant Elizabeth Keckley, the only person she trusted in tow, they haunted the thrift stores and resale shops, hoping for a buyer. Nobody was going to give “Mrs. Clarke,” as she was calling herself, the money she sought.

Finally she became entangled with a shady pair of salesmen who sold her the proverbial bill of goods. They had guessed her true identity, and convinced her that it would be beneficial to hold an auction. Mary took the bait.


The auction of the former First Lady trying to sell her clothing was a huge scandal in all the newspapers. Her son Robert, and Lincoln’s many friends, were mortified.

It became a complicated and convoluted series of events. Mrs. Lincoln finally returned to Chicago, leaving a completely unequipped Lizzie Keckley to manage. Then the auctioneers compounded the problem by coaxing Mrs. Lincoln into providing “personal letters” they could show to potential buyers. Sort of a shiny version of blackmail. The auction became a huge scandal and was reported in all the newspapers, completely humiliating the former First Lady, and her son Robert as well. Her mortification was further exacerbated since the event was a total failure and she had to pay more than $800 to retrieve her own clothes.

“Behind the Scenes”

Elizabeth Keckley never had any intention or desire to harm Mrs. Lincoln or any of the Lincoln family. Whatever she did was motivated by her own financial need.

Her dressmaking business in Washington was failing rapidly without the First Lady’s patronage.  The Widow Mary had no money to pay a seamstress, but was still commandeering an enormous amount of Mrs. Keckley’s unpaid time.

Leaving Lizzie in New York to oversee the auction was a foolish decision in many ways. First and foremost, the seamstress was totally unequal to handling delicate business responsibilities. Secondly, she was desperate for money. She was approached by a writer who suggested they collaborate on her story: the memoir of a Negro woman who had purchased her own freedom and had become the seamstress to the First Lady of the land. They titled it Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The publishers wanted to make money.  Lizzie Keckley wanted to avoid poverty.


When “Behind the Scenes” was published, it further mortified Robert Lincoln and Lincoln’s old friends and associates.

When Behind the Scenes was published, Mrs. Lincoln (and Lincoln intimates) were horrified at the invasion of the Lincolns’ privacy. Mary was particularly devastated at the publication of several of her personal letters to her seamstress.

Her son Robert and some of Lincoln’s old friends quietly bought up as many copies as possible, and Behind the Scenes was as much a failure as Mary’s old clothes auction.

Elizabeth Keckley never made any money from the book, and would die forgotten and in the poverty she justly feared.

And Mary Lincoln never spoke to her – or of her – again.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009

Fleischner, Jennifer –  Mrs Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.

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Caroline Harrison: White House Artist


The formal White House portrait of Caroline Harrison was a gift from the Daughters of the American Revolution. She had been the organization’s first President-General.

In the late 1880s, bustles were in fashion, and Caroline Harrison was the most “bustling” of all the First Ladies

Mrs. Harrison: Domestic Diva

Most women today will readily admit to disliking the drudgery of housework, to include cooking and cleaning, laundry and ironing. A good many will admit to liking cooking but not cleaning, or sewing and knitting but not laundry. A rare few, the “Martha Stewarts” among them, will claim to love all the details and mechanics of home-making. Those rare few are usually extremely creative as well, turning straw into gold.

Better house

The Harrison home in Indianapolis, Indiana, where visitors can see some of Carrie’s artwork – and her excellent taste in decor.

Caroline Scott Harrison (1831-1892) was one such woman. Not only was she well educated, but her own mother taught home economics. Carrie, as she was always called, learned well. She cooked and baked, canned and gardened, sewed and knitted, raised children and moved the furniture. She did it, for much of her adult life, on limited income. Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), her husband, was an attorney, but it would not be until after the Civil War that his practice became successful. Carrie was forced by necessity to make do the best she could with what she had. And what she had was creativity and talent for “everything home.”

Once her children were past school age, and once the Civil War had ended and her resources had improved, she had both the time and the wherewithal to take her many talents to the next level.

Mrs. Harrison: Indianapolis Matron


President Benjamin Harrison struggled with his law practice until after the Civil War. By then, an attorney, a Republican, and a Civil War general was a hot political prospect. It did not hurt to be the grandson of a former president, either.

Carrie Harrison may have been a homebody by nature and circumstances, but once she had reached forty, she was more than ready to expand her stage.

Always a church-going woman (her father was a minister-educator), she naturally gravitated to her Presbyterian Church activities, which included signing in the choir. She had always had a lovely singing voice, and frequently was given solo roles.

In the early 1870s, as a direct result of the enormous activity women undertook raising money and goods and services for the soldiers during the Civil War, the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs was founded. It enabled women to use their education and organizational skills in ways unheard of a generation earlier. As a fringe benefit,the some enjoyed it! They were useful, and liked the challenges!  Since most of these clubs were dedicated to charitable efforts, husbands usually acquiesced and they met with approval all the way around. Within a short time, the good that they were doing was quantified and recognized. By the end of the 1870s, every state had numerous chapters, and there was hardly a town or city that did not organize hundreds of women to worthwhile causes – outside their homes. Modern historians have coined the phrase  “community housekeeping.”

Caroline Harrison was no exception. The Woman’s Club movement appealed to her “bustling” nature, and she became active, and eventually the president of her Indianapolis chapter.

Mrs. Harrison, Artist:

china painting

China painting became a popular hobby after the Civil War. Carrie was a talented artist and gave classes.

Carrie Harrison had displayed artistic gifts since childhood, and was encouraged to sketch and paint in watercolors from early on. Painting and sketching was a popular pastime for girls, and most schools taught and encouraged it. Carrie’s existing floral water colors demonstrate her considerable talent.

carrie orchids

Most of Caroline Harrison’s china painting were floral.

Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, “china painting” became a popular hobby. Women would learn to apply transfer prints to plain porcelain plates and cups, then paint them, and fire them in the kiln to produce decorative accessories. A rare few gifted women could create their own designs.

Caroline took some lessons in this new media, and found it very much to her liking. She installed a small kiln in her house, and even began giving lessons to some of the local women who wanted to explore a new hobby.

First Lady  Harrison: The Baby Cups and The Collection

When Benjamin Harrison was elected President in 1888, Mrs. Harrison had a hard act to follow. Her predecessor, Frances Cleveland, was younger than her own daughter, dimpled, pretty and enormously popular. Mrs. H. was a plus-size with gray hair and no dimples. She was a grandmother. But she was also a dynamo.

1899, Washington, DC, USA --- Caroline Harrison and Relatives --- Image by © CORBIS

President and Mrs. Harrison with their daughter and two grandchildren.

She bustled into the White House, inspected every nook and cranny and set out to fix what she believed was unsatisfactory, which was mostly everything.

But under her administrative skills, necessary changes were made, the staff “shaped up,” and it is said that the conservatories were never more beautiful or bountiful.


Bustles were in vogue – and FLOTUS Caroline Harrison was a “bustling” woman!

Carrie still managed to find a bit of spare time to paint, however. As usual, First Ladies receive a good deal of unsolicited letters from plain citizens, and common courtesy has always demanded a respectful response – especially from the White House. Carrie was no exception in that regard, and all respectfully written letters were answered.

There is a story that in a rare move, she determined that any couple who wrote to her advising that they had named their newborn baby either Benjamin, Harrison or Caroline would get a special gift – a baby cup hand-decorated by the First Lady.  It may be apocryphal, but it still a good story and in keeping with Mrs. Harrison’s talents and character.

But one accomplishment is absolute!  It was Carrie Harrison who “discovered” remnants of old presidential china services gathering dust in the White House attic.  It was Carrie Harrison who researched their provenance and began the catalog, which eventually became  the White House China collection that is so popular today.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995




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