The White House, then and now, requires a huge amount of china place settings.
The Precedents of China
Formal Presidential dinner services have always been needed for formal occasions since the time of George Washington’s terms of office in New York and Philadelphia. It is a mark of sophistication and elegance. It shows the world that the United States can hold its own among nations when it comes to gracious entertaining. Not only are traditional five-piece place settings required, but there are soup plates and bowls, including “handled” cream soup bowls. There are usually oyster plates. Plates for other fish and fowl. Service chargers. Serving bowls and trays. Dessert bowls and plates for any number of dessert types. Even finger bowls.
“Every day” settings (still elegant) are used by the President for less formal occasions. Then of course, there is a humungous need for cups, saucers and cake plates for afternoon luncheons, teas and receptions. The White House regularly replaces them by the gross – if not more. Today, the needs of a large White House staff, with its own need to feed and entertain, requires china services befitting the hosts and guest list. Despite all precaution, breakage occurs. So does “souvenir” hunting.
The Lucy Dishes
In 1879, First Lady Lucy Hayes found need to replace the Grant china service with one of her own.
Her tenure in the Presidential mansion had been one of mixed reviews: she was nice looking, charming, educated and morally upright. She was also firmly committed to “temperance” and no alcoholic beverages would be served in the Hayes White House, earning her jeers from the less morally upright personages of Washington.
Nevertheless, a new set of formal tableware was needed, and she decided to break all tradition with her choices.
Lucy’s inspiration was to have the dessert service depict some of the ferns and flowers that were planted along the promenade to the conservatory – a “must see” tour following a White House dinner. Several manufacturers submitted estimates for the project, and Haviland & Co. of Paris and New York won the bid – for $2996.50, later revised to $3120.
Coincidental to the project, Theodore Russell Davis, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, one of the prominent magazines of the time, was visiting the White House, and by chance met Mrs. Hayes. She discussed her “china” idea with him. The artist praised the concept, and according to William Seale, of the White House Historical Association, he “suggested that she go a step further and consider decorating the entire banquet set with American flowers and wildlife.”
The First Lady was fascinated. She immediately decided that while Haviland would manufacture the china, the design and supervision would fall to Davis. Davis was thrilled. It gave him a chance to be a creative artist as well as an illustrator. Harper’s Weekly was delighted, too. They donated Davis’ time to the project.
The idea of the service was to depict the flora and fauna of America the beautiful and bountiful. Dinner plates would be adorned with game animals, usually served at the most formal of banquets: deer in a forest, wild geese in flight, and even a buffalo falling prey to wolves. Fish plates, obviously depicted with shad, lobster, trout and even bullfrogs, would be for seafood. Plates featuring pheasant and quail would be used for game poultry. Soup bowls would be decorated with tomatoes, beans, buckwheat and corn. Fruit plates with apples, berries, pecans and persimmons. And the most original – ice cream plates – decorated with a snowshoe.
Even more unusual and avant garde for the time, was the shape of the plates and bowls and trays. Rather than the customary round plates and oval or rectangular trays, the shapes were oddly fashioned, with upturned and under-curled edges and asymmetrically sculpted trims, all decorated in gold. All in all, there were 592 pieces made, with 130 different decorations – suitable for a nine-course dinner. They were works of art, and so unique, that Haviland produced an 88-page catalog describing the china in detail.
When the service was finally delivered in 1880, Haviland-hallmarked and signed by Davis, the Hayes’ used it at banquets honoring President-elect James Garfield, and later at a dinner honoring General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant who had recently returned from a round-the-world trip.
The Public Reaction and the Price Tag
The Hayes china service astonished the public, who, for the most part were accustomed to the traditional designs favored by more sophisticated Europeans. Some people thought it was magnificent; other believed it to be gaudy. Art critics were, well, critical. The service was seldom used by other Presidents. Many pieces today are in museums.
But it was (as might be expected) such an expensive service for the time, that the Haviland manufacturers found that they were producing it at a great financial loss. It was determined then, with artist Davis’ (and presumably the Hayes’) approval, that a limited number of modified sets of specific plates would be produced for public consumption, and retailed in only the finest department and jewelry stores in America. Those pieces bear a different hallmark on the reverse side, and are not signed by the artist.
It is said that Galt’s Jewelers, Washington’s leading jewelry store, was one of the retailers who were permitted to sell reproductions of the Hayes’ service. They had been one of the oldest mercantile establishments in Washington. Thomas Jefferson had been a customer. Mrs. Lincoln had been a customer. And thirty-five years after Mrs. Hayes purchased her dishes, the widow of Norman Galt, once owner of that prestigious landmark, became Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.
Landau, Barry H. – The President’s Table – HarperCollins, 2007
Rhode Island School of Design Museum: http://risdmuseum.org/
Seale, William – The President’s House – White House Historical Association, 2008