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White paint has nothing to do with covering the burning of the house by the British in 1814, although every schoolchild is likely to have heard the story that way. The building was first made white with lime-based whitewash in 1798, when its walls were finished, simply as a means of protecting the porous stone from freezing. Congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote to a colleague on March 18, 1812 (three months before the United States entered war with England):

"There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's" (quoted in W. B. Bryan, "The Name White House," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 34-35 [1932]: 308).

Close-up image of burn marks on the walls of the White House.

The White House

Meant to wear off for the most part, leaving cracks and crevices filled, the whitewash was never allowed to weather, but was refreshed periodically until the structure at last was painted with white lead paint in 1818. By that time it had for more than a decade been known as "The White House." The name, though in common use, remained a nickname until September 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official.

James Hoban's North Elevation, 1793.

Maryland Historical Society

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