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Elizabeth Jaffray

Elizabeth Jaffray. Literary Digest 91 (December 11, 1926): 40. Library of Congress

Mrs. Jaffray Makes Some Changes

Historian William Seale identifies a "strange hierarchy" that had developed among the White House domestic staff by the first decade of the 20th century.  At mealtime, the "top-ranking men," black and white, were seated together in a pantry, where they dined upon the President's leftover food. Maids ate in the servants' dining room with the footmen. This group was also racially mixed. Servants farther down the ladder, such as scrubwomen, sat at yet another table.1

Elizabeth Jaffray joined the White House staff in 1909 under the Tafts. Hiring Mrs. Jaffray represented a major change in White House management: substituting a female housekeeper for a male steward. Mrs. Jaffray claims to have "immediately ordered that all the colored servants, regardless of rank or  position, should eat at a single table and at a given hour."  When objections arose, Mrs. Jaffray threatened the complainers with dismissal.2

The New York Times presented this racial separation of servant tables as a positive move, because "the same consideration is shown for one set of workers as for another. There are still two tables, the white and black being served separately, but the quality of the food is the same for both."3 The Times credited the first lady, not Mrs. Jaffray, with this solution. Although not acceptable today, Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Jaffray’s mandated “separate but equal” eating arrangements were viewed by the mainstream press as representing fair treatment of employees.

1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington, The White House Historical Association, 1986), 741–744.

2 Elizabeth Jaffray, Secrets of the White House (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1927), 19–20.

3 "All Servants Equal by Mrs. Taft's Rule," New York Times, Oct. 11, 1909: 9.

Read more: Helen Herron Taft, Recollections of Full Years. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914: 349. Rene Bache, "A Busy Day with the Wife of the President," Washington Post, Dec. 5, 1909, M6.

Woodrow and Edith Bolling Wilson

Woodrow and Edith Bolling Wilson. Library of Congress

A White House Worker Remembers: President Wilson's Grief and Joy, 1914–1915

White House staff in the Woodrow Wilson administration experienced both the death of Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, on August 6, 1914; and Wilson's second marriage, sixteen months later. Chief Usher Ike Hoover recalls this sensitive period in the life of President Wilson, and its effect on the White House as a home and workplace.

After Ellen Wilson's death, writes Hoover, "the place [became] strangely lonesome and different. Mrs. Wilson had . . . endeared herself to all."1 The President, comments Hoover, "accepted the inevitable with a grace and a charm that was inspiring to all about him."2

Within a few months, Wilson began seeing a widow, Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt.3 By the summer of 1915, notes Hoover, "Everyone about the place still had sweet memories of [the first Mrs. Wilson], and yet their sympathies were with the President in his new enterprise. . . ."4

The couple married on December 18, 1915. Ike Hoover records that Wilson had to arrange for the marriage license "in the regular way. . . . He had to pay his fee of a dollar out of his own pocket, and answer all questions just like the humblest citizen."5

1 Irwin Hood Hoover, Forty-two Years in the White House, 1934 (Westport: Greenwood Reprint, 1974), 60.

2 Ibid.

3 Hoover, 62.

4 Ibid., 64.

5 Ibid., 71.

Read More: William Seale, "The White House Staff," in The President's House. Washington: White House Historical Association, 1986, 818–822.

Maggie Rogers’s handwritten notes

Maggie Rogers’s handwritten notes. Lillian Rogers Parks Papers, Kiplinger Library, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

A White House maid remembers a moment of panic

For evening receptions, Grace Coolidge favored gowns with trains. Columnist Vylla Poe Wilson remarked  in January 1926, " Mrs. Coolidge does not let the fact that she wears a train . . . interfere with the careful line of the gown itself. . . . [It] is never allowed to drag the gown."1

Maggie Rogers, who served as Grace Coolidge's maid, regularly ensured that the First Lady's costume was in order before the Coolidges greeted their guests. One night, as Mrs. Coolidge came down the grand stair, the first lady tossed her train over her arm. Rogers could not see the train. She was seized with anxiety, fearing that it might be caught on something, or that it had been left upstairs. Just then, Mrs. Coolidge let the train fall to the floor. Rogers straightened the flowing fabric, and the Coolidges went into the Parlor. But the experience left Rogers "[panicky] for the rest of the evening."

Howard Chandler Christy painted the portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge in 1924. It hangs in the China Room of the White House. Mrs. Coolidge wears a red dress with a train. The First Lady presented this dress to Maggie Rogers; her daughter, Lillian Rogers Parks, wore it often.2

1 Vylla Poe Wilson, "Fashions of Capital Women," Washington Post, Jan. 17, 1926: S5.

2 Lillian Rogers Parks, My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House (New York, Fleet, 1960), 189.

Visit of Their Britannic Majesties, June 8, 1939

Visit of Their Britannic Majesties, June 8, 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Royal Visitors: The Butler's Role at a State Dinner

Prior to the 1939 visit of the queen and king of England, Eleanor Roosevelt received a State Department memorandum, listing various rules of protocol. Mrs. Roosevelt became concerned about the order in which the Roosevelts, and the queen and king, should be served at the state dinner honoring the royal couple.1

"I told Franklin," Mrs. Roosevelt recalled, "that British protocol required that the head butler, [Alonzo] Fields, stand with a stop watch in his hand and, thirty seconds after [the president] and the king had been served, dispatch a butler to serve the queen and myself.

 . . .  I [mentioned] the White House rule that the president was always served first."2

The president declared, "We will not require Fields to have a stop watch. The king and I will be served simultaneously and you and the queen will be served next."3

Fields did not use a stopwatch. The evening was a success, but the armchairs ordered for the occasion were apparently too low for the queen. Fields recalls that, after she was seated, she requested her favorite cushion. Fields sent for it, and, as the queen lifted herself up, the head butler "gently slipped the pillow on the chair."4

1 Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember (New York: Harper, 1949), 186.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.; Alonzo Fields, My 21 Years in the White House (New York: Coward McCann, 1960), 74.

This 2000 painting by Al Alexander, depicts Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Blue Room of the White House

This 2000 painting by Al Alexander, depicts Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Blue Room of the White House. White House Historical Association

A White House Usher Remembers Winston Churchill

After the United States entered World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a frequent guest in the Roosevelt White House. Although the Prime Minister's visits were associated with weighty issues, White House workers remembered Churchill with delight and amusement. "The most colorful visitor ever to appear at the wartime White House was Winston Churchill," J. B. West records in his memoir.1 West was Assistant Chief Usher during the War, and he relates many stories about the Prime Minister. One of these concerns Churchill's well-known fondness for cigars.

Churchill's meetings in the U.S. between December 22, 1941 and January 14, 1942 had a code name, the Arcadia Conference. For security reasons, the Prime Minister's arrival in the White House on December 21 for the Arcadia Conference was kept under wraps. The Secret Service had given instructions that no one was to enter the halls between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. on the 21st, but the staff did not know who was coming. When the pungent odor of tobacco wafted down the corridor, "It didn't take long," says West, "for the cigar smoke to announce Mr. Churchill's presence."2

1 J. B. West, Upstairs at the White House (New York: Coward, McCann, 1973), 38.

2 Ibid., 39.

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