White House servants bathed in tinned sheet iron tubs such as this one. Winterthur Museum
Plumbing in the White House is not for the convenience of the servants
References to the installation of plumbing fixtures began to appear in architectural plan books in the 1840s. Plumbing systems were already known in large hotels and grand mansions by 1833, when water was first piped into the White House. Sometime within the next year, a "bathing room" was established in the east wing. Interim upgrades appear to have been made during the 1840s, by which time a toilet was probably in place on the main floor.
In 1853, a permanent bath tub, with hot and cold running water, replaced the portable painted tin tubs in the President's quarters. But there were no toilets, showers, or tubs for the servants. "Running water, not yet considered a necessity, was available only where it could increase the servants' efficiency—in the pantry on the main floor, in the hall of the basement, in the upstairs hall. [. . .] Servants bathed in tin tubs in the west wing, hauling water in buckets from one of the pumps. Privies, one for men and one for women, opened off the covered passages that ran between the house and the wings."1
1 William Seale, The President's House, (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association,1986), 197–200, 317.
Read more: Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, "The Early History of Cleanliness in America." Journal of American History 74 (March 1988): 1213-1238. Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Maureen Ogle, "Domestic Reform and American Household Plumbing, 1840–1870, Winterthur Portfolio 28:1 (Spring 1993): 33-58. William Seale, The President's House. Washington: White House Historical Association, 1986.
Elizabeth Keckley. Frontispiece, Behind the Scenes, 1868. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries
An uneasy reaction to a White House memoir
One of the most important 19th-century accounts of life in the White House was Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Behind the Scenes was the memoir of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley (her name on some documents is spelled “Keckly”) was an independent businesswoman, and not technically a member of the White House staff. Her memoir, published in 1868, gives many details of Mrs. Lincoln's personality and behavior. The book also contains the text of personal letters Keckley apparently received from Mrs. Lincoln.
Keckley herself seemed aware that her book might raise a public outcry. Her preface states, "If I have betrayed confidence in anything I have published, it has been to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world [. . .]."1
Behind the Scenes did meet with a great deal of criticism, and even a parody, whose title, Behind the Seams, lampooned Keckley's profession as a seamstress. One reviewer called Keckley's book "'the latest, and decidedly weakest production of the sensational press.'"2
In the 20th century, Behind the Scenes has been reprinted many times. Scholars have evaluated the narrative from various angles. Some believe it to represent the voice of a brave and talented woman who bought herself out of slavery and designed gowns for a fashionable first lady. Others believe that Keckley’s unscrupulous editor tricked her into lending him Mrs. Lincoln’s letters, which he then included in the book.
1 Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. 1868. (Oxford: Oxford University Press rpt., 1988), xiv.
2 Review of Behind the Scenes, Putnam's Magazine July 1868: 119, quoted in Carolyn Sorisio, "Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath," African American Review 34 (Spring 2000): 19.
Read more: Jennifer Fleischner, Mrs Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. 1868. Reprinted with an introduction by James Olney: Oxford University Press, 1988. Carolyn Sorisio, "Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath," African American Review 34 (Spring 2000): 19–38.
State Dinner at the White House, March 9, 1871. The shorter man in the lower left foreground, facing right, is believed to be Valentino Melah. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper April 1, 1871; hand-colored 1960s
The frigate United States left Port Mahone, Minorca, arriving in New York City on December 25, 1834. On board was an orphan boy about seven years of age, Valentino Melah, a native of Messina, Sicily. His fortunes would lead him into the hotel business in Manhattan (the Astor House), New Orleans (the St. Charles), Long Branch, New Jersey (the Stetson), and his own establishment in Yonkers, New York.
It was from the Stetson in Long Branch, where President Ulysses S. Grant had a resort home, that Melah came to Washington to be the White House steward.
Newspaperwoman Mary Clemmer Ames observed in 1871 that Melah was known around Washington as the “Silver Voiced Italian.” Ames credited him with the signature White House recipe for a smooth and “aristocratic” stew that lent untold elegance to the 29-course State dinners for which he was renowned.
But President Grant was a man of simple tastes and careful economy. By 1871 he had begun to ease Melah out. Valentino Melah left Washington for Yonkers and New York City, then Chicago, where he died in 1872.
Read more: Mary Clemmer [Ames], Ten Years in Washington (Hartford: Worthington, 1874), 171–172. Also see Emily Edson Briggs, The Olivia Letters, Being Some History Of Washington City For Forty Years As Told By The Letters Of A Newspaper Correspondent (New York and Washington: Neale): 204–205.
This portrait of Thomas F. Pendel appeared in his 1902 memoir, Thirty-six Years in the White House
Three Ushers Foil an Assassin
Thomas F. Pendel was a White House doorman from the Abraham Lincoln administration to the turn of the 20th century. By the time Chester A. Arthur succeeded James A. Garfield in September 1881, Pendel had experienced the assassinations of both Lincoln and Garfield.
Even before Arthur moved into the White House, a man who "seemed perfectly rational" came to the Executive Mansion, asking to see the new President. Pendel sent him on his way, but two weeks later he returned.
Another usher, Mr. Allen, approached the chap, who handed Allen a note. Allen walked over to Pendel and said, "Tom, that man is crazy."1
Chief Usher Eldon Dinsmore tried to persuade the visitor to come along with him to see President Arthur; but the fellow sensed he was being deceived, and he attempted to bolt.
"Dinsmore grabbed him by the collar," recounts Pendel, "and as he did so, the man's hand went down to his hip-pocket." Allen went for the pocket "and drew out . . . a six-shooter, with every barrel loaded." Pendel confiscated the gun. The "ugly customer" was packed off to police headquarters, and "that was the last we ever saw of him."2
1 Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House (Washington: Neale Publishing, 1902), 123–124.
2 Ibid., 124-125.
In this detail of a 2007 oil painting by Peter Waddell, Ike Hoover attends to an electric light fixture in the cross hall of the White House. White House Historical Association
The Electric Career of Ike Hoover
A group of physicians and surgeons meeting in Washington 1891 was treated to a reception at the White House on the evening of September 24. President Benjamin Harrison moved among the gathering, and "extended a hearty grasp to each of the doctors."1 The event included "lively airs" by the Marine band, and a chance to wander through the conservatory and reception rooms.
The guests also had the exciting opportunity to experience the latest technology in the White House. In a front page article on September 25, 1891, the Washington Post reported that as a special treat for the doctors, "The East Room . . . was darkened, and the electric lights were turned on. The brilliant effect was greatly admired."2
Back in May, the Post had remarked on the progress of electrifying the Executive Mansion. "The men are still at work putting in the electric lights, and when they are through," the Post declared, "there will be nearly 1,000 incandescent lamps in the White House."3
One of the young men on the installation job had reported for duty on May 6. He was nineteen-year-old Irwin H. Hoover, known as "Ike." In his memoir, Hoover recalls,
"In due time I got down to the job of wiring and installing the electric appliances. The wonderful old chandeliers, built for gas, were converted into combination fixtures and the candle wall brackets were replaced by electric fixtures in the fashion of the time. . . . The Harrisons were all much interested in this new and unusual device that was being installed; so much so, that we got quite well acquainted with them."4
Hoover had been told he would not be needed after May 15, but the next day he received an offer of full-time employment as White House Electrician. He hesitated to take the job because the salary was so low, but accepted the offer and became, "like the electric lights, a permanent fixture."5
Ike Hoover spent 42 years working at the White House, advancing from electrician into the ushers' ranks. During the Taft administration he was appointed Chief Usher, and he held this job until he died in 1933.
1 "Now Ready to Depart; . . . Brilliant Scene in the East Room of the White House," Washington Post, September 25, 1891: 1.
3 "Again at the Capital," Washington Post, May 16, 1891: 1.
4 Irwin Hood Hoover, Forty-Two Years in the White House, 1934. Westport: Greenwood (reprint,) 1974: 6.
« White House History Timelines