New York City was electrified n the early 1880s, but the White House would not be on the grid until 1891.
Benjamin Harrison Arrives in Washington
Incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland was running for a second term against Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana in 1888. It was another one of those peculiar elections where the one who received the most popular votes (Cleveland) did not win the most electoral votes (Harrison).
Grandson of a President and waver of the “bloody shirt” reminder of the Civil War, Ben Harrison (1833-1901) was the not most popular person to come down the pike. In fact, between Harrison and Cleveland, it was said that the former had no friends, the latter only enemies.
Nevertheless, Benjamin Harrison was the new President.
Caroline Harrison Inspects the White House
Of all the First Ladies to occupy the White House, then or now, Caroline Scott Harrison (1832-92) takes first prize as housekeeper par excellence. She cooked, sewed, planted, canned, designed and ran a household to a perfection that could win a Martha Stewart competition. She also was a water colorist, and gave classes in china painting in their Indianapolis home. In her spare time, she soloed in her church choir and served as President of her Woman’s Club.
True to form, she bustled into the White House and gave it a thorough white-glove inspection from top to bottom. She was not happy. There were rats, termites, rot, assorted bugs, and a kitchen that had not been updated in forty years. And, there were exactly five bedrooms and only one bathroom – insufficient for the large extended family the Harrisons brought with them. It would definitely not do for Carrie.
Mr. Edison Inspects
Benjamin Harrison was a willing advocate for major renovations. He was surprised to learn that candles and gas lamps were still the only means of light – and here it was a decade after Thomas A. Edison had invented the incandescent bulb!
Knowing nothing about electrification, the Harrisons went straight to the best source. They invited the great inventor to make a feasibility study. Mr. Edison was happy to oblige, and came to Washington with a small team of scientists and engineers. It took two days, but they made a thorough examination, and declared it was not feasible: the place was a firetrap that could go up like a tinderbox.
That announcement laid the groundwork for Mrs. Harrison’s new plan: a new White House. After all, the old mansion was nearly a hundred years old. Times had changed
Planning A New White House
It was a major problem: old kitchen, insufficient private rooms, inadequate office space, no bathroom accommodations, outdated everything – and no hope for the modern conveniences people seemed to be enjoying everywhere else.
Congress considered the proposal for a new White House. They formed a committee – with Mrs. Harrison assigned a key place. She had suggested building a palace comparable to our European counterparts – part a working-residence, and part a museum. Designs were solicited from several well-known architectural firms. Their drawings and bids are still housed in the National Archives.
Then Congress decided otherwise. They believed that the “house” of Jefferson and Lincoln should be maintained, not razed. They authorized around $35,000 to make the necessary repairs, the first of which would be to implement Edison’s lighting requirements. It would take a full two years before those improvements were completely installed. In September, 1891, the Washington Post had a front page article declaring that the East Room was darkened, and the electric lights were turned on.
The Harrisons Are Afraid of the Light
The words “electricity” and “firetrap” and “tinderbox” were, and still are, fearful words, especially to those naïve in the ways of modern inventions. The Harrisons begged Edison to assign a special electrician to the White House to oversee any problems that might arise. He was happy to oblige, which was how Irwin (Ike) Hoover was first brought to the White House, where he would spend the next forty-plus years.
First and foremost, Ike Hoover was in charge of turning the lights on and off. If the President or his family or his guests planned to enter a darkened room, Hoover was summoned to turn the lights on. The reverse was true if the room was to be vacated. Neither Benjamin nor Caroline Harrison would go near that switch, for fear of electric shock or worse – an incident that could spark a fire.
It is said that when Ike Hoover was to be out of town, the First Family would leave the lights burning all night.
The Harrisons did not have a long time to enjoy their newest technology. Carrie developed tuberculosis, and died before their term was over. Benjamin Harrison, in mourning, only made a half-hearted attempt at a re-election campaign. He would lose to none other than Grover Cleveland, the man he had nosed out of the White House four years earlier.
Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – 1960, McGraw Hill
Irwin Hood Hoover, Forty-Two Years in the White House, 1934, Greenwood Press (reprint,) 1974