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A Day in the Working White House: Early 19th Century


Diaries, memoirs, and other historical records served as the basis for this speculative glimpse of an ordinary day for domestic servants in the Jefferson White House.


The third of April 1807 dawned chilly, and the steward, Étienne Lemaire, would have been up early to start the footmen laying fires in the hearths. The footmen were soon to get on with the dusting, tidying, and silver polishing, and at least one would change into a livery uniform and greet visitors at the door. While other servants fed the chickens in the yard, readied the bed and table linens, or cleaned the privies, Lemaire and Honoré Julien prepared the menu for the four o’clock evening meal: a quarter of bear, a French-style partridge-and-sausage specialty, a custard dessert, and European wines served with fruits, nuts, and olives.

In the small dining room, uniformed footmen waited on the president’s table, discreetly withdrawing after delivering each course. Enjoying after-dinner coffee and tea with his guests in the oval drawing room, the president could summon a servant from the cellar with the ring of a bell. The staff meanwhile was in the process of washing dishes and putting away linens and cutlery, with Lemaire ensuring that all was in order and the house secure.

Jean Pierre Sioussat, c. 1815.

Born in Paris in 1781, the charming Jean Pierre Sioussat was known as “French John.” Jefferson had appointed him doorkeeper, “an office of greater dignity than that of a mere hall porter,” as White House chronicler Esther Singleton noted in 1907. Sioussat advised Dolley Madison on the evacuation of the White House during the War of 1812.

The White House Historical Association

Adapted from “‘A Well-Ordered Household’: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House” by Lucia Stanton in White House History, 2006




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graphic detail