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White House Kitchen, c. 1890. A great kitchen in the basement story was at the heart of the servant and workspaces of the White House throughout the 19th century.

White House staff who lived at the President’s House during the nineteenth century, including enslaved and free African Americans, usually had rooms in the basement. Open at the ground level on the south, the basement (referred to as the Ground Floor today) had windows on the north side facing a dry moat that was entirely hidden from view. Visitors on the public tour of the White House walk through the long cross-hall of this space with rooms on both sides. The Library, China Room, Vermeil Room, Diplomatic Reception Room, and other offices occupy the physical space where staff once lived and worked at the President’s House. This vaulted corridor once accessed a great kitchen forty feet long with large fireplaces at each end, a family kitchen, an oval servant’s hall, the steward’s quarter, storage and work rooms, and the servants’ bedrooms. An inventory for the year 1826, taken during John Quincy Adams’ administration, records the typical furniture used by servants in the first half of the nineteenth century. For example, the cook slept on a cot, and had a pine wardrobe and a pine table; other servants’ rooms were similar, with cots and mattresses and “low post” bedsteads, blankets, and sheets; sometimes they had benches, chairs, and tables. Often the furniture was described as “worn out” or “in want of repair.” Accounts suggest that these living arrangements were uncomfortable with extreme temperature disparity, damp conditions, and rodent infestations.

Footnotes & Resources

Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; William Seale, "Upstairs and Downstairs: The 19th-Century White House," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 16-20.