James Hoban's Design for the White House

An illustration of a reception given by President Lincoln on January 1st, 1862 in the Blue Room. In all likelihood, President Lincoln is the tall figure standing on the left near the doorway and Mrs. Lincoln is the lady in dark colors two figures to the right of President Lincoln.

The White House during Mary and Abraham Lincoln's Residence

by Sarah E. Mitchell

President and Mrs. Lincoln, and their sons Willie and Tad, moved into the White House in March of 1861 (around the 4th). Congress had recently authorized previous President Buchanan to spend $20,000 on refurnishing the White House and building a new conservatory, so the White House was presumably in very good shape at the time. Of course, the Lincoln family would want to make their own arrangements of the interior.

First, a couple of descriptions of the White House and its grounds from those who saw it at the time:

W. M. Morrison reported in 1862, "The grounds about the President's house are tastefully adorned with artificial mounds, gravel walks, trees, and a fountain. . . . . Appended to the main building, at either end, are long, low ranges of stalls with flat roofs, which are used for various household purposes. That on the west is surmounted by a beautiful greenhouse, which is filled with exotic plants. The public approach the President's house on the north side, except on Wednesday evenings in summer, when a sort of out-of-door reception is given, accompanied with music in the grounds on the south side. The entrance from the north porch is into a long vestibule, through which the visitor passes to the right into the President's reception room. This communicates with the Round room, formed by the south bow front, and this with a Square room, which adjoins the great East Room. This last is the grand parlor of the President. As its name indicates it is in the east end of the building, and extends entirely across the house, from north to south. It is 80 feet long by 40 wide and 22 high. These rooms are elegantly but not extravagantly finished and furnished. They can be seen at all times by strangers -- the President only at certain hours set apart by himself."

William Crook, one of the Lincoln's bodyguards, described the property: "The White House and is surroundings during wartime had much the appearance of a Southern plantation -- straggling and easy- going. On the east side of the house . . . was a row of outhouses, a carriage-house and a woodshed among them. Back and east were the kitchen-garden and the stable where the President's two horses were kept [Editor's note: or perhaps holding Willie and Tad's ponies; according to other sources, when the stable burned, those two animals died in the fire]. South of the house was a short stretch of lawn bounded by a high iron fence. Still beyond was rough undergrowth and marsh to the river. North and to the west was a garden, divided from the rest of the grounds by tall fences. It was a real country garden, with peach trees and strawberry vines as well as flowers. . . . [T]he people about the house told me that Mrs. Lincoln [picked during the summer] strawberries for the table herself." (To this day, the interior of the White House attracts visitors and tourists alike. The floral designs throughout the White House are an integral part of the decoration. Each flower arrangement is meticulously chosen by the Chief Floral Designer, ensuring a bright and vibrant feel for each room, much like an individual would carefully pick where to place an Avas Flowers delivery in their home.)

The first levee of the new administration

The Lincolns held their first levee on the night of March 8. At that time, the Lincoln family had probably not had opportunity to make many changes to the interior of the White House, so the house still looked much like it had during Buchanan's administration. Some facts about the interior decoration can be derived from an account:

Avas Flowers

"The first evening reception, or levee, of the new family of the White House came off this evening. Advertised as limited to the two hours between eight and ten, it continued nearly two hours longer. It was a jam, it was a rush, it was a cram, it was a crush, it was an omnium gatherum of all sorts of people. . . . The ladies are dying to see how Mrs. Lincoln fills the place of Miss Lane [President Buchanan's niece, who acted as his hostess]; . . . how she looks, how she will do; what ladies are assisting in the honors of the occasion, how they are dressed, and how they will do. . . .

"After an hour's crushing and pushing and suffocation in this energetic mob, fresh and strong from the body of the people, we are rewarded with a propulsive movement in the rear, which nearly precipitates our whole part of five into Abraham's bosom. Our ladies blush with shame and indignation; but promptly recovering their self-possession, the are introduced to 'Old Abe,' who shakes their hands cordially, smiles graciously, address them familiarly, and we pass onto Mrs. Lincoln, who, nearer the centre of the room, maintains her position with the steadiness of one of the Imperial Guard. She is neither tall nor slender in her figure, but rather below the medium height, with the well-rounded proportions of a wholesome little Western matron . . . . dressed on this occasion in what the ladies call a Magenta (brilliant red) watered silk, with a lace cape, and with her abundant light brown hair tastefully relieved by a half-dozen red and white japonicas in a wreath behind the ears. . . . The debut of Mrs. Lincoln was pronounced satisfactory by the ladies competent to decide. . . .

"The reception [was held in the] Elliptical Saloon, and with is large, cosy and luxurious chairs and lounges, its Japanese curiosities in the way of parlor ornaments, its plentiful supply of natural flowers, etc. is elegantly furnished; and, when not overcrowded with men, but conveniently full of beautiful women and tasteful costumes, presents a charming picture. . . ."

During Buchanan's adminstration, in 1860, a group of Japanese ambassadors had visited the White House, bringing 15 large boxes of Japanese articles as gifts. Lacquered ware, swords, a tea set inlaid with pearls and gold, saddles, bed curtains, screens, and a cabinet were among the articles given. Presumably, the Oval room was still decorated with some of these "Japanese curiosities," as mentioned in the above account.

Changes according to the taste of the new occupants

Abraham and Mary Lincoln, of course, did some redecorating in the White House. Mary chose a new carpet for the East Room. It was pale green in color, and "in effect looked as if [the] ocean in gleaming and transparent waves were tossing roses at your feet."

The Lincolns reportedly favored black walnut furniture, an example of which is the famed 9-foot tall Lincoln bed. In Springfield, Illinois, the couple had owned some American Empire-style furniture, but they seemed to favor Victorian styles when in the White House.

A surviving photograph of the East Room taken during the period that the Lincoln's inhabitated the White House shows two large chandeliers with many prisms; wall-to-wall carpeting with strips in different colors and decorated with figures (probably of roses); busts and paintings on the walls; the mantle visible in the picture is white (presumably marble), floral arangements festoon the top and a mirror is hung over it. A few chairs are placed by the walls, and the ceiling appears to be decorated with very busy figures, though I cannot make out what they are.

A photograph of the President's reception room features a large Victorian chandelier with globes over the lights; a large mirror over the mantle; the mantle has what appears to be a clock on top. All the chairs in the room have slipcovers over them; however, the photograph may have been taken during the summer, when it was common to cover much of the furniture to protect it from dust, etc. coming in through open windows. The floor is coverd with wall-to-wall carpeting, which is fairly dark in color and has a border and a central medallion. The walls are wall-papered with a design that features a fairly light background with a small, repeated figure and a heavy, dark border.

Mrs. Lincoln purchased new china for the White House, purple-bordered Limoges-Haviland pieces decorated with the arms of the United States of America. Mrs. Lincoln also had the kitchen moved to a different part of the basement, perhaps to provide better natural light.

Boys will be boys...

And they are frequently hard on furniture! The Lincolns' two younger sons, Willie and Tad, lived with them in the White House. Tad was in particular a rambunctious young man.

One day, a group of ladies were admiring the East Room. They were startled by the appearance of Tad and his pair of pet goats. The goats were hitched to a kitchen chair, on which Tad was seated as he drove them through the house. (One of Ted's goats was once found on his bed upstairs, so evidently the goats enjoyed visiting in the White House!)

Another time, Tad was throwing a ball in the house and broke a mirror. When Tad said that he didn't think his father would care, his older brother Willie reminded him that the mirror did not belong to their parents, but the United States government.

For a joke, at one point Tad stacked chairs on a settee, then hid behind the pile. When President Lincoln stepped into the room, Tad sent the whole pile, chairs and settee, tumbling into the middle of the room at the feet of his father. Abraham reportedly roared with laughter.

Bigger concerns than furniture

However, the Civil War would quickly overshadow any emphasis on redecorating and maintaining the White House. Tumultous days would follow, when carpets were ruined by the continual coming and going of soldiers, guards would sleep on couches in the White House, and the last thought on anyone's mind was preserving the furniture.

At one levee, furniture had to be used as a podium from which to greet the crowds. General Grant, who was visiting, was almost overwhelmed by the crush of people; finally Secretary Seward pulled Grant up onto a nearby sofa, from which Grant bowed to the crowds as they passed. Grant called the experience his "warmest campaign in the war."

Mrs. Lincoln stopped holding receptions for a period of time after the death of Willie. She reportedly would never again enter the room where Willie lay in state after his death.

The continual problem of souvenir takers

Vandalism and pilfering has continually been a problem in the White House in almost every administration. However, the Lincolns seemed to have a particularly hard time with it. During one levee, a piece of the red brocade curtains in the East Room almost a yard square was cut out and taken away; a smaller piece disappeared from a curtain in the Green Room; and flowers from the floral design in the lace curtains were cut and secreted away. Evidently other odds and ends also disappeared during the evening, and some arrests were made after the reception. At other times, guests actually were caught cutting pieces of upholstery fabric off furniture!

Often so many people came to receptions that it was hard to keep an eye on valuables. On the day of Lincoln's second inauguration, an estimated 15,000 people poured into the White House. (At the inaugural ball, held elsewhere, the crowds were unruly and gentleman hoping to get food for themselves and companions had to fight their way to the tables holding refreshments. Often by the time the gents got back to the ladies, other people along the way had snatched much of the food off the plates, leaving very little behind.)

A sad ending to the Lincoln years

Shortly after Lincoln's second inauguration, he was shot at Ford's Theatre and died soon thereafter. Lincoln's body was held in state in the East Room before being moved to the Capital, and then onto his eventual final resting place.

Mrs. Lincoln stayed in the White House for a short period of time after Abraham's death, due to her being ill. New President Andrew Johnson and his family would find the White House in sad shape when they finally did move in. His daughter, Mrs. Patterson, would direct the re-decoration of the White House.

Illustrations from Esther Singleton, The Story of The White House, Vol. II, The McClure Company, New York, 1907. No credit is given for the origin of the illustration of President Lincoln's New Year's Reception, 1862. The photograph of Mrs. Lincoln is attributed to the F. H. Meserve Collection. Digital editing of images by Sarah E. Mitchell.

Resources used:

Copyright © 2003, 2009, 2014 Sarah E. Mitchell