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The occupational culture and management of the 19th-century White House reflected the social climate and ethnic composition of Washington, D.C.

The White House staff, like that of many elite Washington households, was racially and ethnically mixed. Because managerial roles were usually assigned to white employees, tensions sometimes developed between white stewards and African American house workers.

The Executive Mansion was run according to accepted practices for operating a prominent mid-Atlantic household. Washington’s social elite had a high standard for entertainment and household service, and expected the same when attending White House teas, dances, and dinners.

The mansion and grounds were open to the public during certain hours of the day; any visitor who dropped in unannounced might be taken straight to the president’s office. Women of society left cards to let the first lady know they had come to call. Ushers, guards, doormen, and messengers often did double duty in the executive offices and the residence, screening visitors and carrying out tasks associated with social and domestic life in the White House.


Jerry Smith, North Portico, c. 1889

Jerry Smith started working at the White House during the Ulysses S. Grant administration in the late 1860s, and served as butler, cook, doorman, and footman until his retirement some 35 years later. He was often seen with his signature feather duster. Shortly before dying at age 69 in 1904, Smith was visited at his home by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston | Library of Congress

Image: Jerry Smith, North Portico, c. 1889.
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