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.
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
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, they 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:
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.
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.
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.
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