Sauce Boat. Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Sèvres, France, c. 1778. Purchased in 1790 by Washington from Comte de Moustier for the New York house near Federal Hall.
In 1789, the U.S. government rented a house in New York City for President-elect George Washington and authorized funds to furnish it. An extensive list of objects purchased for the house included furniture, plates, looking glasses, linens, carpets, glassware, and china. When compared to the palaces of European monarchs, the President’s House was simple, but few Americans lived on the scale of the Washingtons.
In February 1790, George and Martha Washington moved to a larger house near New York’s Federal Hall. To supplement the government’s purchases, the Washingtons also bought furnishings from Comte de Moustier, the French minister and previous occupant of the residence. When the government relocated to Philadelphia in 1791, the furnishings from the President’s House in New York were moved there.
When John Adams took office in March 1797, Washington offered to sell him some personal items to complement the furnishings provided by the government. Having less personal wealth than Washington, Adams declined the offer and worried about moving into a sparsely furnished house. A congressional bill appropriating $14,000 for new furnishings and another authorizing the sale of furnishings that were “out of repair, or unfit for use” eased his worries.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 19-26.
Soup Tureen & Stand, Preserves Stand. Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Sèvres, France, 1782. John and Abigail Adams may have acquired this family service for official entertaining while he was American minister to France in 1785.
John Adams spent the majority of his presidency in Philadelphia, but later occupied the President's House in Washington, D.C., which officially became the new federal city on November 1, 1800. The house was unfinished, yet habitable, and the president and First Lady Abigail Adams made six rooms comfortable, and had others prepared for official entertaining using furniture shipped from Philadelphia. They purchased a portrait of George Washington for $800, the only object remaining in the White House from the Adams period.
Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams and moved into a home that was still unfinished. Jefferson spent the majority of a $25,000 appropriation on structural improvements to make the house habitable and purchased items that were utilitarian in nature: crockery ware, kitchen furniture, floor cloths, and window blinds.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 26-37.
Tea Box. China, c. 1811 (box); Jacquemart et Bérnard, Paris, France c. 1809-11 (wallpaper). A rare surviving artifact from the pre-1814 President's House.
In 1809, James and Dolley Madison moved into the completed President’s House that contained worn furnishings from past administrations. Mrs. Madison employed Surveyor of Public Buildings Benjamin H. Latrobe to refurbish the state floor, and he custom-designed furniture for the Oval Room.
On August 24, 1814, British forces invaded Washington, D.C. and set fire to the public buildings. The conflagration destroyed Latrobe’s interior design for the state parlors along with all of the furnishings that had been purchased for presidential use since 1789. Dolley Madison saved the Washington portrait and some of the silver service. The responsibility of rebuilding and refurnishing the house fell to the new president, James Monroe, who took office in March 1817. His goal was to restore the dignity and grandeur of the President’s House as a conspicuous symbol of a strong, united country. He ordered the elegant French Empire furnishings that are integral to the historic White House collection today.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 43-53.
Hannibal Clock. Case by Deniére et Matelin, Paris, France, c. 1817.
Reconstruction and refurbishing of the burned President's House continued into the 1820s. To refurnish the large house, President James Monroe exceeded funds appropriated by Congress and had even sold the government some of his own pieces to fill the rooms. He employed local craftsmen for some items, but imported most of the furniture from France. Few Americans had seen such grand objects, and visitors to the White House remarked on the splendor and elegance of vases, clocks, tables, gold centerpieces, and candelabrum.
John Quincy Adams took office in 1825 and found many of the house’s ordinary furnishings to be in poor condition. However, in the wake of Monroe’s extravagance, he needed to be conservative with the spending of public funds. As a consequence of the criticism of Monroe’s foreign purchases, Congress enacted legislation requiring that furniture bought for the President's House would be manufactured domestically. As a result, Adams commissioned local cabinetmakers, among them M. Bouvier, great-grandfather of future first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, to create quality pieces for the President's House. Other items were bought at auctions and private sales.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 53-75.
Center Table. Anthony Gabriel Quervelle, Philadelphia, c. 1829. Three monumental mahogany tables with black and gold inset into their round tops stood under Jackson's East Room chandeliers.
Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inaugural reception drew throngs of supporters to the President’s House. Their exuberant descent on the house left a wake of broken china and soiled seat cushions. A $14,000 appropriation was used to repair and refurbish the interior and replace the broken china and glassware. Additional funds were acquired to finish and then furnish the East Room with blue upholstered furniture and mahogany tables made in Philadelphia. During his second term, Jackson sold off old furniture to buy an elegant silver service. Andrew Jackson left the presidency in 1837 having spent $45,000 for new furnishings, an enormous sum at that time.
Despite a severe economic depression triggered by a bank crisis in 1837, President Martin Van Buren purchased fine glassware, gilt-bordered tableware, marble tables, and large chandeliers. His White House took on a regal tone, and a guest referred to Van Buren as the “prince of Democracy”. Notably, he replaced the crimson wall coverings and fabrics of the Oval Room with silver wallpaper and light blue satin. It would be called the Blue Room from that point forward. Criticism of Van Buren’s aristocratic lifestyle would contribute significantly to his loss in the 1840 election.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 81-93.
Side Chair. Charles A. Baudouine, New York, c. 1845. The Polks commissioned forty-two rosewood chairs covered with purple velvet for the State Dining Room.
The clamor over Martin Van Buren's perceived abuse of the furniture fund continued after he left office in 1841. Successor William Henry Harrison found the family quarters of the President's House lacking practical furnishings. Congress did approve $6,000 for new furniture. However, Harrison died of pneumonia only a month after taking office. John Tyler moved in with seven children and invalid wife Letitia, who died in the White House in 1842. Tyler did not receive money for furnishings from Congress, and it was rumored that the president’s second wife Julia Gardener used family funds to refurbish the house after their marriage in 1844.
James K. Polk received a $14,000 appropriation for repairs, maintenance and furnishings at the start of his term in 1845. He entrusted William W. Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as his agent for the furniture fund. Corcoran turned to fashionable New York merchants for goods for the President’s House, such as forty-two purple velvet covered chairs bought for the State Dining Room, which remained until 1882. President and Mrs. Polk also purchased a rococo French dinner and dessert service decorated with the shield from the Great Seal of the United States.
Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families, 96-105.
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