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This 1853 print illustrated a presidential reception in the East Room

The White House of Franklin Pierce represented the best domestic technology of its time. This 1853 print illustrated a presidential reception in the East Room.
1850s

The 1850s saw many improvements and expansions to the mansion's existing conveniences. By this time many Americans who had gaslight wondered how they had ever lived without it. President Zachary Taylor ordered an enlargement of the gas system into the White House's offices, family quarters, and basement. Millard Fillmore determined that the house should be comfortable in any season and had the heating system improved. The White House of Franklin Pierce came to represent the best domestic technology of its time (1853). The heating plant was modified again with the addition of a hot-water furnace that was more efficient and healthful because the air was warmed directly by coils rather than "cooked" from outside the air chamber. Pierce also made significant improvements to the plumbing and toilet facilities, including the installation of a bathroom on the second floor with the first permanent bathing facilities. The new bathroom was luxurious in having both hot and cold water piped in. Before 1853 bathing on the second floor required portable bathtubs, and kettles of hot water had to be hauled up from the existing east wing bathing room.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 283, 291, 315-16; and William Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea, 90.





Major Benjamin Henderson reads a message in the White House telegraph room, c. 1890

Major Benjamin Henderson reads a message in the White House telegraph room, c. 1890. Library of Congress
1860s

The second floor quarters occupied by President Abraham Lincoln and his family were used much as they had been during the 1850s. The Lincolns also had the added convenience of cold running water for washstands in their rooms. During this time the gas system was also expanded, and a new spring-bell system enabled Lincoln to signal the reception room and his secretaries without leaving his desk. With the remodeling of the office areas in 1866, Andrew Johnson installed the first telegraph room in the southeast corner room next to his office. As the decade drew to a close, an electric call- bell system was added to the mansion, connecting the State and second floor to the servants' hall, and additional stations were added to the old manual system which was activated by levers and cords.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 379, 385, 426, 469.





Telephones in the White House executive offices, c. 1890

Telephones in the White House executive offices, c. 1890. Library of Congress
1870s

Social functions at the Grant White House attracted so many visitors that the Red, Blue and Green parlors became extremely hot and stuffy. For this reason, a special ventilation system was added to circulate the air. Exactly how the system worked is not known, but it was operated from the ceiling by a pair of long tasseled cords-like bellpulls-in each room, near the fireplace; one opened the ventilator and the other closed it. The device became indispensable when there were thousands of callers. The first White House telephone was installed for Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879, but it was used rarely as there were so few telephones in Washington. His telephone number was "1."

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 477, 494.





Drawing of a hydraulic elevator similar to that installed in the White House

Drawing of a hydraulic elevator similar to that installed in the White House. Smithsonian Institution
1880s

On February 12, 1880, a wooden crate arrived at the White House containing a new contrivance which would make a more immediate difference than the telephone: a Fairbanks & Company Improved Number Two Typewriter. From that time on presidential letters began to appear in ragged little lines of type, instead of a clerks' fancy pensmanhip. A year later an experimental form of air-conditioning with an electric blower was installed in the sick room of mortally wounded James A. Garfield shot on July 2, 1881. The device forced air through a box with screens that were kept wet with cold ice water and cooled the president. In the month of his inauguration, Garfield had ordered a hydraulic elevator for the house, but the project was postponed during his illness for fear that the noise of the construction would outweigh the resulting convenience. The elevator was finally installed in the fall of 1881, after Chester A. Arthur succeeded Garfield.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 495, 524, 534.





A light fixture converted from gas to electricity, c. 1899

A light fixture converted from gas to electricity, c. 1899. Library of Congress
1890s

Electric lighting was installed in the White House in 1891. Few people at the time had enough faith in electric lighting to use it exclusively-its use was barely a decade old. The electrical work at the White House was planned as part of a well-funded project for wiring the State, War & Navy building next door. The Edison company installed a generator for both buildings that was put in the State, War & Navy's basement, with the wires strung across the lawn and introduced into the White House under the conservatory. The relatively new method of illumination was initially intended to be only a supplement to gaslight. Wires were buried in the plaster, with round switches installed in each room for turning the current on and off. President and Mrs. Harrison refused to operate the switches because they feared being shocked and left the operation of the electric lights to the domestic staff.

Source: William Seale, The President's House, 594.



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