When 49-year-old sitting president Grover Cleveland took a 21-year old bride, the country was enchanted.
Frances Folsom: White House Bride
New First Lady Frances Cleveland was not only young, but she was pretty. She had a nice figure, a peaches-and-cream complexion – and dimples! The very antithesis of the grumpy looking and seriously overweight president.
At her very first reception, only a year out of Wells College, Frances delighted the crowds that came to greet her. She smiled easily, shook hands for hours on end (youth smiles on stamina), and had a kind word for all.
Within the month, she was the media darling. Letters poured in with requests for her photograph. The White House ordered 10,000 photos to fill the demand. Within another few months, they had to re-order their supply.
The “Media” of the 1880s
After the Civil War, women began taking on an entirely new importance. Their activism during the Civil War had not only been impressive, it had been essential. They helped raise millions of dollars (North and South) for the war effort: planning dinners, fairs, dances, and bazaars . They organized hundreds of knitting and sewing circles. Most of all, they learned how to organize; how to spend their time effectively and efficiently; how to work together in committees – and some even learned how to speak in public.
To address this huge change in the public perception of women, magazines emerged catering to those domestic issues: personal appearance, household management, child care, and even “suitable” hobbies. McCalls, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping magazines made their initial appearances in the last decades of the nineteenth century – and are still around today. Supporting these magazines were thousands of advertisers of “womanly” and/or domestic products, from hand creams to the latest model sewing machine.
Immediately after the Cleveland marriage, the magazines were pasting illustrations and sketches of Mrs. C. on their covers – with or without President Cleveland. They quickly found that their circulation boomed with every issue featuring the new young FLOTUS.
“Frankie” the Celebrity
To promote mega-interest in their products, advertisers commandeered the likenesses (implying tacit endorsements) of well known persons without their knowledge or consent – let alone any monetary payment. There were no laws against it.
Once the photographs of the new Mrs. Cleveland became available, they began appearing in magazines and newspapers, attached to advertisements for a broad variety of goods.
She was seen in ads patronizing sewing machines, fabrics, a piano, and any number of pills and potions, implicitly suggesting that the First Lady was using, or endorsing said products. One of the products said to be used (daily, no less) was arsenic, claimed to be a beauty treatment for her complexion. Of course Mrs. Cleveland never did any such thing.
Mrs. C. and the Children
By the time of Cleveland’s second term (non-consecutive), First Lady Frances had become a mother. Ruth was born between the Cleveland presidencies. Esther was first Presidential baby to be born in the White House. (Frances was pregnant at the time of Cleveland’s second inaugural.) A couple of years later, their third daughter, Marion, made an appearance – but she was born in their summer home. Their two sons were born after Cleveland’s term ended.
Now, as a young matron still in her late twenties, Frances was receiving letters soliciting advice on child care. Now the magazine covers were sketching idealized portraits of the Cleveland family unit: Mother, Father and children in a garden, or at the dinner table. Department stores ran “tacit” endorsements of Frances and the girls “window shopping” at their stores.
There were still no laws against the President, the First Lady, or even the First Children being “commandeered” in such a fashion – without their permission.
According to the New York Times, “The problem became so widespread that one of the president’s supporters introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit using the image of any real woman without her express written permission. The bill’s failure left the Cleveland’s with no legal recourse, so they could only plead with businesses, usually to no avail, to cease and desist.”
The President grumbled and groused about the intrusions, but the advertisers paid no mind. The Clevelands continued to have their likenesses used commercially.
The End of the Era
Grover Cleveland’s second term was not successful. There were mounting issues, both domestic and international; some even pitted the conservative Democrat against members of his own party. Frances, of course, continued to be popular.
But once the second term ended, and the couple and their children “retired” to private life, the pervasive merchandising of their family dwindled. Cleveland, by that time, was sixty, and never considered “fashionable.” Mrs. C. was now occupied as wife and mother, and active in several community activities, such as the Kindergarten movement, and as a trustee for Wells College, her alma mater.
Cleveland’s health deteriorated, and he finally died at age 71. When Frances remarried a few years later (the first First Lady to do so), everyone wished her well, and for the most part, forgot about her.
Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
C Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw Hill, 1960
Dunlap, Annette – Frank: (Frances Folsom Cleveland) – SUNY/Excelsior, 2009
Foster, Feather – The First Ladies, Sourcebooks 2011