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Detail from a 1800 watercolor by William Birch of stone cutters at work at the Capitol. Many of the same workmen and craftsmen also had worked on the White House

Detail from a 1800 watercolor by William Birch of stone cutters at work at the Capitol. Many of the same workmen and craftsmen also had worked on the White House. Library of Congress
1790s

Inventories of the tools in the stonecutting sheds suggest that some of the stone was sawed, a technique that bypassed usual tooling used to "finish" the stone's surface. The cut resulted in two stones, each with a smooth face. This had particular advantages in cutting ashlar, for only one face had to be exposed. Another plus was that it could be accomplished by unskilled labor under direction. Even at best it was a long, tedious process. The saw, unserrated, had a sharp copper or iron blade fixed in a heavy wooden frame. One or two men worked the saw, while another poured wet sand into the cut. To speed completion of the house, "composition ornaments" bought in Baltimore, made of plaster of Paris and reinforced with wire, were used as the moldings and the plasterwork decoration on the house's interior - architraves, friezes, cornices, and chimneypieces.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 69-70, 76.





A schematic drawing of an early 19th century boiler similar to a Pettibone furnace

A schematic drawing of an early 19th century boiler similar to a Pettibone furnace. Smithsonian Institution
1800s

Thomas Jefferson gave orders for the demolition of the outdoor wooden privy and had two water closets installed upstairs, one on each end of the house. He also had a wine cellar built just west of the house and called it an "ice house." Jefferson made changes to many of the fireplaces, including equipping the kitchen with its first iron range fitted to the existing firebox and adding hob-grates for coal to several others. A call bell system was installed for summoning servants, and artificial light came in part from "patent" oil lamps that featured innovative Argand burners. On the outside of the building, lead and wood gutters were replaced with iron ones. The White House's first heating system, the gravity-based Pettibone furnace, was installed when James Madison took office in 1809.

Source: William Seale, The President’s House, 90-91, 92, 100, 103, 114, 117, 126; and William Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea, 94.





Demolition work in the entrance hall in 1950 exposed Hoban’s plaster cornice

Demolition work in the entrance hall in 1950 exposed Hoban’s plaster cornice. National Park Service
1810s

Considering that it had taken nearly ten years to build the first White House, it was remarkable that James Hoban was able to direct a reconstruction of the house (after the British torched the house in 1814) in slightly less than three years. This was possible in part because some of the stone walls could be reused, but the main reason was that Hoban altered the structural scheme of the house by substituting timber for brick in some of the interior partitions. The shortcut saved time, but produced a weaker structure than the one George Washington watched over in the 1790s. The ill effects of this decision would cause the virtual demolition and rebuilding of the White House some 130 years later in 1948-1952. External forces also contributed to the hasty rise of the President's House: innovation, business prosperity, and the success of manufacturing in the United States. In the invoices of the 1790s, the names of individual craftsmen and tradesmen abound, but in the reconstruction records after 1814 were bills from manufacturers, merchants, suppliers, contractors and other businessmen predominate.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 142-143.





A detail from a watercolor of the White House grounds about 1827. Shown with the White House are Jefferson’s stone wall; the orchard and vegetable garden, fenced in rails; and several workmen’s shanties left over from the reconstruction.

A detail from a watercolor of the White House grounds about 1827. Shown with the White House are Jefferson’s stone wall; the orchard and vegetable garden, fenced in rails; and several workmen’s shanties left over from the reconstruction.
1820s

President John Quincy Adams was an avid gardener who expanded the White House garden to two acres. An iron garden pump with "nine spout holes" was attached to a well at the Treasury building and provided water for the grounds. The Committee on Public Buildings discussed piping running water into the house in 1829 for fire protection, not convenience. President Monroe had purchased a fire engine, no doubt with the destruction of 1814 in mind, which was kept parked with the White House coaches.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 169, 173.





An 1830s hand pump shower similar to those once used in the White House bathing room

An 1830s hand pump shower similar to those once used in the White House bathing room. Smithsonian Institution
1830s

Running water was introduced into the White House in 1833. Initially its purpose was to supply the house with drinking water and to fill reservoirs for protection against fire. An engineer named Robert Leckie built the system of reservoirs, pumps, and pipes that supplied the White House, and the Treasury, State, War, and Navy buildings with water. Very soon, a "bathing room" was established in the east wing to take advantage of the fine water supply. The room featured a cold bath, a shower, and a hot bath heated by coal fires under large copper boilers.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 199-200.





A boiler for an 1840s gravity hot air heating system

A boiler for an 1840s gravity hot air heating system. Smithsonian Institution
1840s

Installation of a gravity hot-air heating system began in the spring of 1840. The system used a self-contained furnace with an inner firebox of iron enclosed by a shell of plastered brick where the air was warmed. Ducts ran from both the outer shell and the furnace room itself (oval room in the basement, now the Diplomatic Reception Room) and extended through the floors and walls to the chambers above. It served only the state rooms and transverse hall on the principal floor. Five years later President James K. Polk ordered a furnace and duct system be built to warm the State and second floors. The furnace system was improved to increase its capacity and plaster-lined air ducts were built to the State rooms, bedrooms, and offices terminating in registers of silver plate, brass, or iron in the least important rooms. At the start of the Mexican War, Polk and his cabinet assembled in the State Dining Room for a photographic portrait in May or June of 1846. This dim daguerreotype is the earliest known photograph taken inside the White House. Two years later the mansion made the transition to gaslight, to the dismay of Polk's wife, Sarah, who preferred to illuminate the rooms with wax candles.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 216-17, 254, 268.



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