The Enslaved Household of President George Washington
On April 16, 1789, George Washington left his home at Mount Vernon to travel to New York City to be inaugurated as...
When George Washington began his presidency in 1789, the government appropriated funds for a house in New York City, then the nations capital. Dinnerware likely consisted of English and Chinese exports, readily available and commonly used in the Federal period.
Before Congress appropriated funds for china after the 1814 fire destroyed the Presidents House, presidents used a mix of both personal and common china.
James Monroe ordered the first dinner service created specifically for official use by an American president. Dagoty and Honor of Paris manufactured the 30 specially decorated place settings and matching dessert service, which cost $1,167.23. A handsome eagle with wings spread, designated in the shipping list as the arms of the United States was at the center of each plate. Five vignettes with an amaranth border represent Strength, the Arts, Commerce, the Sciences and Agriculture.
President Andrew Jackson purchased a new china service in 1833 with marbleized blue border and an ascendant eagle. The government purchased the 440-piece dinner set and 412-piece dessert set from L. Veron & Co. of Philadelphia at a cost of $2,500.
The Polk porcelain china service of 1846 was manufactured by Edouard D. Honor in Paris and purchased from the merchants Alexander Stewart & Co. in New York City. Both dinner and dessert services consisted of 40 pieces and cost $979.40. The dinner plate featured a shield of the United States behind a ribbon bearing the national motto at the top of the plate and had a lobed rim molded and gilded in a scroll design. The 120 dessert plates displayed a wide selection of boldly painted flowers.
When President Franklin Pierce dedicated the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City in July 1853, a porcelain display by Haughwout & Dailey impressed him and soon afterwards an order was made for a 241-piece White House dining service costing $536.24. The dinner plate had a scalloped edge, dark rim, stippled border and a dark line enclosing the border.
When Abraham Lincoln was president, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, went to New York City and ordered new china from E.V. Haughwout & Co. The 190-piece china set, produced by Haviland & Co. in Limoges, France, was delivered in September 1861 and cost $3,195. The distinctive dinner plate has a royal purple border lined with gold dots and edged with a gold cable design. A version of the arms of the Unites States is painted in enamel colors in the center of the plate.
In 1869 President and Mrs. Julia Dent Grant authorized Washington, D.C. dealer J.W. Boteler & Bro. to order china from Haviland and Co. in Limoges, France. Delivered to the White House in February 1870, the 587-piece service cost $3,000. The dinner plate had a buff band framed by gold and black lines overlaid with flowers in different colors and a version of the Great Seal of the United States in red and gold.
First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes wanted to commemorate North American flora and fauna in her new White House china and commissioned artist Theodore R. Davis to create 130 designs for the set. Cost for the order came to $3,120. Davis designs were so lifelike that Washington socialite Clover Adams observed that when she dined at the White House she could hardly eat soup peacefully if she had to watch a coyote leap at her from behind a pine tree.
First Lady Caroline Harrison enjoyed painting china as a hobby and was interested in acquiring a new set of china for the White House. The design featured a wide, dark blue border decorated in gold with corn and golden rod, a symbol of American agriculture and as a tribute to the Harrisons home state of Indiana. At the center was the arms of the United States. Washington, D.C. china importers M.W. Beveridge filled the order, and the china was manufactured by Tressemannes & Vogt of Limoges, France. The new 288-piece china set cost $732.00 and arrived at the White House in December 1891.
Until the 20th century, the brilliant presentation of dessert, which included a tremendous variety of sweets, fruits, ice creams, and nuts, was a sign of a homes sophistication and social status. Baskets, coolers, and china sets of elegantly decorated porcelain bowls were needed to stage this key and often breathtaking last course. Every presidential china service ordered in the nineteenth century included a beautiful dessert service.
In the summer of 1901 First Lady Ida McKinley granted permission to Abby Gunn Baker to research and write the first history of the White House china. Ms. Baker (1860-1923) was a journalist who wrote articles on White House china for popular magazines. She assisted First Lady Edith Roosevelt in selecting pieces of White House china from the collections of earlier presidents and displaying them in custom made cabinets in a hallway on the ground floor of the White House.
President Theodore and First Lady Edith Roosevelt wanted their set of official china to be manufactured in the United States. However, when Knowles, Taylor and Knowles Pottery Co. of East Liverpool, Ohio received the Roosevelt china order, it turned down the purchase request on grounds that it was too large and filling it would unsettle their business. The china was manufactured instead by Wedgwood in Great Britain and ordered from Van Heusen Charles Co. of Albany, New York. The 1,344-piece set, decorated with the Great Seal of the United States, with a border pattern of gilt bands and lines called Ulanda by Wedgwood, cost $8,094 and arrived at the White House in 1903. Mrs. Roosevelt began displaying past sets of official state china in a museum setting by having them placed in a specially-made cabinet by Gustav Stickley on the ground floor of the White House.
First Lady Edith Wilson moved the china collection to a specially designated China Room on the ground floor.
In March, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned Lenox of Trenton, New Jersey to produce the first American-made state service. All services in the past had been manufactured in England or France. Wilsons 1,326-piece china set had a dark cobalt border framed by a heavy gilt line of stars and stripes at the shoulder and featured the presidential arms in raised 24-carat gold in the center.
As a result of continued breakage of china, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt announced in November 1934 that a new Lenox set would be purchased that contained 1,722 pieces and cost $9,301.20. The dinner plate had a narrow blue rim bearing gilt stars for the then forty-eight states lined by gilt roses and plumes interrupted by the presidential arms in enameled colors. It made its debut on January 24, 1935, at the annual dinner given for the heads of diplomatic missions in Washington.
President and Mrs. Harry Truman purchased a china set for use in the newly refurbished State Dining Room following the extensive White House renovation of 1948-1952. The china was ordered through B. Altman and Co., of New York City, a department store that had been granted the contract to redecorate the White House after its repair and redecoration. The service plate had a heavy gold rim and celadon-green border. The presidential arms are at the center and the eagles head was turned towards the olive branch by Trumans 1945 executive order redefining the seal. The 1,572-piece china service cost $26,944.10 and was first used on April 3, 1952 at a lunch for Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The Trumans had moved back into the White House from Blair House just a week earlier.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decided to supplement the new Truman china set with 120 gold service plates with a raised-medallion border in coin gold from Castleton China, Inc. of New Castle, Pennsylvania at a cost of $3,606.40.
During the Kennedy administration the Truman china was used along with gold service plates that had been ordered by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1955. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to order a new china set and studied some design proposals; however, an order for new china was not placed.
When Lady Bird Johnson in 1968 requested the first new china set since 1952, for use at ever-increasing state visits in 1968, an anonymous donor funded its purchase through the White House Historical Association, setting a new precedent for the private funding of state services. The 2,208-piece Johnson china was decorated with American wildflowers. Tiffany and Co. of New York City executed the design and the set was manufactured by Castleton China of New Castle, Pennsylvania. The total cost was $80,028.24. The china was first used for a state dinner (for Australian Prime Minister John G. Gorton) on May 27, 1968, 18 days after it had been first presented to the public.
The Reagan state china service was manufactured by Lenox China, New Jersey and consisted of 4,370 pieces, enough to accommodate a 19-piece place settings for 220 guests. The service featured gold-latticed bands on a scarlet border and cost $209,508, contributed by the J.P. Knapp Foundation. The china was first presented to the public on February 4, 1982.
A presidential service was added in 2000 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the occupancy of the White House. The plates, enough to accommodate 300 12-piece settings, incorporate architectural motifs from different White House rooms into their yellow and gold borders, and some show images of the mansion itself a first for White House china. The set was purchased by the White House Historical Association for $240,000.
First Lady Laura Bush unveiled the Bush set of official china on January 7, 2009. Lenox manufactured the state china set of 320 14-piece place settings, which was purchased by $492,798 in private funds raised by the White House Historical Association Acquisition Trust. Mrs. Bush also presented to the public a smaller set of 75 place settings for use in the private family quarters of the White House, manufactured by Pickard China of Antioch, Illinois. The additional $75,000 cost was also funded by the White House Historical Association.
There are 320 place settings and 11 pieces in the Obama service, including seven plates, a tureen with saucer, and a cup with saucer. First Lady Michelle Obama designed the service with inspiration from the china of Presidents Madison and McKinley. It was purchased for $367,258 by the White House Historical Association. There are 18 full state services prior to the Obama China: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln (2), Ulysses S. Grant (2), Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, William J. Clinton and George W. Bush.
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First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $50 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.
To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.
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