Mary Lincoln’s Tablecloth: A Metaphor

The Lincoln composite

This is a composite likeness of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. They were never photographed together, since the difference between their heights was so great.

In an apt metaphor, Mary brought the tablecloth and the good dishes to the Lincoln table.    

Mary Lincoln is unquestionably a divisive figure. She was divisive in her own time, and nearly two centuries later, remains so. People either disliked her, or pitied her. Few actually “liked” her for herself.

There are some, then and now, who have insisted that Lincoln married a termagant who made his life a living hell. Others say that while the Lincoln marriage may not have been wedded bliss, it was no more problematic than the next.

Mary Lincoln, Kentucky Belle

young mary lincoln

The young Mary Todd Lincoln was petite and attractive, and considered particularly cultured and mannered.

Lincoln’s humble beginnings are well known. His parents were illiterate, or barely literate. There was no money. There were no opportunities, other than what Lincoln could create for himself.

The polar opposite could be said of Miss Mary Todd, born to Kentucky pedigree (third generation Lexingtonian – and that was in 1818!), with all material comforts except for the fact that her mother died when she was seven, and she would come to dislike her new stepmother.

Mary had an education. She went to finishing school. She learned to speak fluent French. She learned the social graces, which included dancing and fluttering her fan. She was nice looking. She had elegant manners.

She also had an older sister who had married the son of Illinois’ first governor. Elizabeth Todd Edwards disliked her stepmother even more than Mary did, and she was determined to bring her sister to Springfield – permanently, if possible. The possible part, meant marriage.

Abraham Lincoln, Backwoods Lawyer

Both Elizabeth Edwards and her husband had known Abraham Lincoln for some time before Mary became a part of their household. They liked him and respected his ability as an up-and-coming attorney. When it became a distinct possibility that he could become their in-law, their attitude changed abruptly. He was not socially acceptable.

Lincoln had no social graces to speak of. He was clumsy, he could not dance very well, his parlor conversation was awkward. His clothes were shabby and did not fit. His outstanding debts were not a secret.

In short, he was not fit to be Todd.

Nevertheless pretty, cultured, somewhat-snotty Mary Todd did marry poor-but-honest Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln House on 8th and Jackson

lincoln house better

The one and only house that the Lincolns owned. It was at 8th and Jackson Sts. in Springfield, IL.

When the Lincolns were married just over a year, with a baby in tow, they purchased their one and only house. It was a small, one-story house on 8th and Jackson Street in Springfield. As their family grew, the house was enlarged to the size it remains today. It is still a small house by most standards.

lincoln parlor

The living room of the Lincoln home in Springfield. The black horsehair furniture was very popular in the 1850s.

lincoln sitting room

Their parlor was an assortment of prints and flowers and fabrics – again, a very popular decor for early Victoriana.

Mary bought whatever furnishings they could afford, and the house is kept much as it was in 1860. Her overspending binges were in the future. In Springfield, Illinois, Mrs. Lincoln ran a tight ship. Their black horsehair furniture and corner what-not was popular fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, and the penchant for Victorian clutter is apparent. So is the penchant for mishmash of fabrics and prints. Taste is taste, of course, and the Lincolns were content with it. Lawyer Lincoln and Presidential candidate Lincoln was happy to bring “the boys” over for a cup of tea or lemonade.

The Tablecloth

Lincoln did not have a long history of social interaction with women, particularly women of breeding. He was past thirty when he met Mary, and she may have been the first well-bred, attractive single woman who ever spoke more than a brief greeting to him. But Lincoln was also no fool. And he was a man who had ambition. Mary was no fool either. He was not, as she would famously say, “very pretty,” but she did like his ambition and his good heart.

Given the fact that Lincoln knew her disposition was high-strung with a quick rapier temper, what did he see in her? What did she bring to the table? It is a legitimate question.

Lincoln knew that if he was going to get ahead, he would need to present a more polished image, including table manners. He would need to have a home where he could entertain his friends and associates. He needed to be “parlorized.” And Mary was the perfect vehicle for it.

It would be Mrs. Lincoln who would make sure Lincoln’s suit and hat was brushed every night (in those days before dry cleaning). It would be Mrs. Lincoln who made sure he had a clean shirt and collar, and that he “blacked his boots” regularly. It was Mrs. Lincoln who taught him to dance a little, to balance a teacup on his gangly knees, to make a fairly acceptable bow, and to improve his table manners. Not that Lincoln was rude, or ignorant. He just lacked polish.

Mrs. Lincoln would also be the one to create a pleasant home for him, in the sense of giving small dinner parties (their house was not large), giving his associates a cordial welcome, along with coffee and cake. In other words, presenting an image that would compare nicely to the homes of prominent people throughout Illinois who exchanged social visits with the Lincolns.

As Abraham Lincoln advanced in his profession and had become well known in political circles, Mary Lincoln was in her glory.  Like all Victorian wives, she was the star of the show in her home, and all indications are that Lincoln was well pleased by his wife’s ability to flit and fuss and do-the-honors.

By the time the Lincolns went to the White House, Mary’s tablecloth had done its job. The President was socially the equal of everyone in Washington.

SOURCES:

Clinton, Catherine –  Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Harper Collins, 2009

http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/abrahamlincoln/

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/sites/home.htm

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to Mary Lincoln’s Tablecloth: A Metaphor

  1. Interesting approach to a subject–I like it! It bothers me how writers attack Mrs. Lincoln in biographies, and how she was maligned in her lifetime. She had a difficult job. I read one biography that claimed she was “a hysterical woman” and told how she was prevented by standing by her husband’s side while he was dying–so cruel.

  2. Mary was human, with virtues and flaws. Despite all, she was truly very difficult to be with. Few people liked her. – FSF

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