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A Day in the Working White House: Early 20th Century


"Every day is wash-day at the White House,” housekeeper Elizabeth Jaffray recalled. The three maids assigned to the laundry when Jaffray first arrived in 1909 did not use electrical appliances; the immense amount of daily washing was done manually, then pressed with flat-irons. At least once a day, while the laundrywomen were at their tasks downstairs, a houseman ran a large carpetsweeper over the floor coverings throughout the house. A thorough vacuuming occurred each Saturday morning.

Every weekday morning at 8:30, Jaffray, who resided in the White House, consulted with the first lady about meals, personnel, and general management issues. At nine, the cook brought menus to Jaffray’s office for review. By ten o’clock, Jaffray was on her way to the market stalls to make bulk purchases of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, game, and butter. She might be back in time to oversee the daily delivery of flowers from the White House gardens and conservatories, or to inspect broken china and glassware and worn table linen.

The head cook and two or three assistants prepared almost all the food, not only for the president’s table, but also for receptions, state dinners, and for the servants. Kitchen staff washed dishes and flatware by hand, with the aid, after 1920, of a silver-cleaning machine.

Dolly Johnson in the White House kitchen, c. 1902

In 1889, Dolly Johnson came from Louisville, Kentucky, to serve as chief cook for President Benjamin Harrison. Her immediate predecessor, Madame Madeleine Pelouard of France, was known for her haute cuisine, but several newspapers of the time deemed Johnson’s cooking more suitable for the president’s “plain American taste.”

Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston; Library of Congress

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