|Joan Witt prepared this talk for a DAR event.|
Our topic for today is one concerning the first ladies of this country --- nothing earth shaking but rather interesting -- the First Ladies and their gowns--which are on display at the Smithsonian. In doing some research I found that the idea for collecting the gowns of the first ladies began in the early 1900's after two Washington ladies had visited the Smithsonian and had seen a costume display.
Mrs. William Howard Taft was the first to present her gown in 1912 to the Hall. It was the one she wore to the President's Inaugural Ball. Other outfits have been presented by the first ladies themselves or by family members. The gowns are now displayed in the First Ladies Hall in the National Museum of History and Technology. The gowns are displayed on mannequins all based as closely as possible to the photographs, paintings or written description of the individual first ladies. The collection is installed in period-setting rooms. They display the dresses in the types of surroundings in which they were originally worn. Changes are made in the room settings from time to time to improve the First Ladies Exhibit.
I plan to give a slight background on the outfit and on the lady herself. I have chosen to highlight some of the outfits that at least a few years ago were most in need of repair and also those of the ladies of Ohio!
SARAH YORKE JACKSON, the wife of Andrew Jackson's adopted son served as hostess for Andrew Jackson part of the time. Jackson's wife Rachel had died before Andrew had entered the White House. Sara was the smallest of the first ladies. History records that she greeted all with unfailing courtesy.
Sara's wedding dress is the one on display at the hall of the Ladies. It has a white mull skirt, embroidered with silk floss in a floral design. The tightly fitted bodice is of white satin. It has shoe type lacing down the back and a wide bertha face collar. There are six tracings from waist to about fourteen inches from the hem on the skirt.
JULIA GARDINER was 24 when she became the second wife of John Tyler who was 54. They were married in a secret ceremony in New York while her father was senator. Tyler's term of office was not too popular. He worked hard to have Texas admitted to the union. That was a controversial subject. One of his last acts as President was the signing of the bill making Texas a state.
Julia Tyler was gracious smiling, serene and hospitable according to her biographers. She was called "Her Serene Loveliness". She established a regular court at the White House with "Maids of Honor". Julia is the one who started the tradition of playing "Hail to the Chief" whenever the President was introduced.
The gown, which Julia wore, is fashioned of sheer white mull with a tiered- skirt edged with silver bands and delicate pastel embroidered flowers. The neck, waist and edging of the sleeves are of the same embroidery.
JANE APPLETON was from a small Maine town when she married Franklin Pierce. Pierce was elected president at age 49 almost against his will and certainly against her will. She loathed and despised politics. Pierce was very popular and won by a land-slide. Even so his wife never felt comfortable and she feared an active social life. She never recovered from the loss of two young sons – one only two months before the Inauguration. At the White House she was a "gentle grieving first lady."
The dress on display is a black silk taffeta gown over-layed with cotton tulle embroidered with silver dots. The tight bodice is covered with a black tulle jacket with large bell sleeves. Two long pointed panels of the jacket fall into the folds of the full skirt.
FRANCES FOLSON CLEVELAND was the youngest of the first ladies. She was only 22 years old when she married Grover Cleveland in the White House. He was a law partner of her father's. This slim, dark-haired lovely lady was quite a hostess. She captured the fancy of the nation. The Cleveland's named the house the "People' House, and she was a most able and likeable first lady. The Cleveland's were the only first family to live there for four years and leave and then return for another four years. The second term was not as pleasant and it was more difficult as they were not well liked. Even though it was more difficult " Frank", as she was called by her husband, was still a good hostess.
Mrs. Cleveland's gown is of iridescent taffeta underskirt; the bodice is brocaded with black overlay design giving the appearance of lace. The black satin overskirt and bodice are trimmed with jet beads and black sequins. A fur band borders the skirt.
I thought you might like to know something about the ladies from Ohio who also have their gowns in the first Ladies hall at the Smithsonian.
"LEMONADE LUCY", as she was known or more properly LUCY WEBB HAYES, was the first college graduate among the ladies. While she was a capable hostess, she refused to serve any liquor in the house. She oversaw all of the details and arrangements for the receptions. She took an active interest in many causes. She was known as a crusader and a reformer. Often she entertained wounded veterans and would see that armloads of flowers were delivered to the hospitals for veterans and their children. She was the first of the ladies to be called FIRST LADY. She also is credited with starting the Easter Egg Roll on the lawn for children.
Lucy Hayes dressed simply yet her gown is very elaborate. Heavy ivory satin and silk taffeta brocade are woven with a gold thistle rose pattern. The coat-like bodice fans into a long rounded train. Mrs. Hayes disliked low necklines, so soft net fills the neck opening of her gown.
One individual who didn't have much time to influence the White House was LUCRETIA RUDOLPH GARFIELD called "Cret" by her husband James Garfield. The Garfield's had been classmates at Hiram College in Northeastern, Ohio and they were married in 1858. They had seven children . Mrs. Garfield thoroughly enjoyed her life at her summer home "Lawnfield" in Mentor, Ohio. Six days after they moved into the White House, they had their first reception. Of course, he only served 4 months as President thanks to an assassin in a railway station in Washington.
The gown on display at the Smithsonian is one that Mrs. Garfield wore to an affair at the Smithsonian before the Museum was even finished. Little did she think that someday that very same outfit would return to the Hall to be on display for all to see. The lavender satin silk gown shows the influence of the waist coat with a deep keyhole neck line filled with crushed illusion. Brussels point lace trims the collar and sleeves as well as the tiers of the flouncing on the skirt front.
CAROLINE SCOTT HARRISON should perhaps be one of our most interesting wives as least for us in the DAR since she served as our first national President. Her National Number is 7. Some of her ancestors are buried in mill Creek Cemetery near Laughlin's Corners in Beaver County.
Benjamin Harrison served in the Senate before arriving at the White House, so Caroline had learned her role as hostess early on. She is described as serene beauty with white hair waved back off her ears. Mrs. Harrison was very proficient in music and painting. It is said it was the Harrison's who started the Christmas Tree tradition at the White House for their grandson. Caroline died before Benjamin finished his second term.
Her Inaugural Ball gown was typically American in fabric and design. The heavy silver-gray silk and brocade was woven especially for her. Four front panels have an insertion of apricot satin veiled with lace. The collar and trimmings are of silver and gold band fringe.
HELEN HERRON TAFT is credited with being the first First Lady to give her gown to the Smithsonian. She is also remembered for another fine tradition to Washington D.C. and the country. It was through her efforts that we have the beautiful cheery trees in bloom in the spring. She had toured and lived in Orient while her husband served his country as first governor of the Philippines.
Mrs. Taft loved to travel and she devoted herself to useful work wherever she happened to live. One of her favorites activities was the Cincinnati Orchestra Association. The Taft's were the first First Family to have an automoble. Helen Taft started the custom of riding back from the Inauguration with her husband. Before that the outgoing President traveled with the incoming president.
Sheer white silk chiffon with empire lines was the outfit that she chose to wear to the Ball. She even sent the material to Tokyo to be embroidered heavily with silk floss outlined with silver thread and crystal beads. The straight cut skirt flairs at the hem and then flows into a sweeping train.
FLORENCE KLING DE WOLFE HARDING was called the "Dutchess" by her husband Warren Harding. She opened up the White House after it had been closed due to the illness of Woodrow Wilson. They called it the "People's House." Mrs. Harding was the most liberal of hostesses, with a sense of self-reliance and quickness of judgment. She also had lived in Cincinnati and was a teacher of music and a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Mrs. Harding often visited the sick and wounded veterans of the Great War. She opened the White House to them. The President trusted his friends and so did she. Unfortunately things did not go well for the President and his office was apparently "Used" by many friends. The problems at the White House brought on his sudden death. After his death, Mrs. Harding destroyed most of his papers so the truth was never fully known. She returned to her Ohio home as a bitter widow and did not long survive him!
Mrs. Harding's gown is of white satin with the neckline filled with a net yoke heavily ornamented with pearls, rhinestones and crystal. The beading is reported on the sleeves and patterned around the drape of the ankle length skirt, which falls into a train.
We have a particular reason to talk about MRS IDA SEXTON McKINLEY and her gown. First, she was from Ohio, and secondly, her gown is in much need of repair, but we also have a third reason to talk about her gown. It was made here in East Liverpool, by Miss Campbell and her faithful assistants.
Miss Campbell had a shop on the second floor of the building which faces Market Street and Diamond Alley. Legend has it that the girls in the shop would find out the special of the day over at the Senate Saloon and then order their lunches to be sent up. But that is not the main story. Miss Campbell was a seamstress who did work for Mrs. John Taylor, daughter of Isaac and Hester Knowles. Mrs. McKinley was a frequent visitor here in town and stayed with the Taylor's, so it was that the gown was made in East Liverpool.
Mrs. McKinley made arrangements to have her gown made here in town. It too is quite elaborate and heavy. It is supposedly the heaviest of all the gowns and for that reason is in need of repairs. But the story goes something like this--Mrs. McKinley chose the material and style of her gown and Miss Campbell and crew worked long and hard to make a proper gown for the First Lady. Shortly before the gown was finished, it was noted that the tow sleeves had been cut out exactly alike and one would not fit properly. Both the sleeves had hand- sewn pearls on the material. There was enough material to cut one other sleeve but not enough pearls to go around. So one person had to cut the pearls off the wrong sleeve while another cut out a proper sleeve. Then the pearls had to be put on the proper sleeve. One of the legends is that they were completing the hand sewing as they took the gown to the train station to give it to Mrs. McKinley. I say they, I do not know how many worked on the gown, but I do know Miss Campbell was in charge and one of her assistants was Lydia Rankin who later became Mrs. George Pattison, mother of John and Marie Pattison who still live in town.
The gown is heavy satin featuring a vest of rose point lace filling the deep cut bodice. There are wide lace revers and flounces on the sleeves. Pearls and rhinestones are heavily embroidered on the material. The skirt is framed by an overskirt of rose-point lace. The second over-skirt of heavy satin falls into a fan-shaped train edged with a ruffle. The high tight collar was distinctive fashion note of the turn of the century.
Mrs. McKinley began her adult life as a bank teller in her Father's bank in Canton. It was there that she met William McKinley a veteran of the Civil War and an up and coming lawyer in town. After a reasonable period of courting they were married and became almost inseparable. They were devoted to each other. Within five years of their marriage, Ida became an invalid. She suffered seizures after the death of their two young daughters. She was dependent on her husband and always walked holding his arm and often walked with a cane.
As the first Family of Ohio and later as the first Family of the United States, the McKinley's entertained extensively. She always sat as his side in case she needed help immediately. Ida traveled with her husband whenever possible and was with him in Buffalo that day in September when his life was to suddenly end. She was resting at the hotel while he made a public appearance. After he was shot, he asked his aides to be careful how they told her of his accident. Ida never fully recovered from his sudden death and only survived him by seven years.
Ida Saxton McKinley's home in Canton has been made into a great First Ladies Library. How they would love to have some of the material from her gown on display.