Jul 03, 2023

How White House furniture is a living lesson in US history

Furnishing a big house is challenging enough. Imagine one more than two centuries old, with 132 rooms that must meet the needs of a family and a global executive office. And make it a showcase for high ceremony and official entertaining, while accommodating 500,000 visitors each year. And a major tourist attraction with thousands of museum-quality objects.

The story of White House furnishings – including furniture, ceramics, glass, metals, lighting fixtures, clocks, textiles and other decorative objects – reflects continuous changes in our nation’s tastes and styles. With each passing year, the White House has become a historic site where the past and present coexist.

“There is a unique community to knowing your predecessors have walked these halls, have written on these tables, have sat in these chairs,” Laura Bush said.

George Washington was given $25,000 a year for expenses and stocked his presidential residences in New York and Philadelphia with furniture, linens, carpets, glassware, china, flatware, clocks, lighting fixtures and bedding. Though Washington sought a “plain and neat” look to avoid the trappings of luxury, political opponents accused him of extravagance. (Visiting Europeans disagreed.)

Washington’s successors dressed up the state rooms and filled the new executive mansion. But when British invaders swept into the house in August 1814, they piled the furniture in the center of each room as they set fires that destroyed everything except Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of Washington, which was saved along with a few other items.

As he rebuilt the White House, James Monroe acquired works of some of France’s finest craftsmen that still endure as White House treasures, including a bronze centerpiece, clocks and candelabras, porcelain dessert services and gilded furniture. But Monroe’s cosmopolitan tastes triggered a backlash, and Congress passed a law saying that White House furniture needed to be made in America “as far as practicable.”

A growing populist wind ensnared Monroe’s successor John Quincy Adams, who was attacked as he ran for reelection for the purchase of a secondhand billiard table. A widely published poem read:

John Adams Q, my Joe John,

Now don’t you think ‘twas rash

For billiard balls and cues, John

To spend the people’s cash?

Adams lost to Andrew Jackson, whose supporters poured into the White House after his inaugural, smashing china and glassware and standing on satin-covered chairs with muddy boots to see their hero. The new president had to be rescued through a window. Jackson purchased high-quality furnishings of his own, including cut-glass chandeliers and cutlery made by Napoleon’s silversmith. (Along with 20 East Room spittoons for $12.50.) He carved ornamental rays over a doorway with gilded stars.

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Martin Van Buren’s regality – silver wallpaper, gold leaf and fashionable Bourbon Restoration bedsteads – also fueled attacks that helped cost him reelection.

“What, sir, will the honest locofoco say to Mr. Van Buren for spending the people’s cash in foreign Fanny Kemble green finger cups in which to wash his pretty, tapering, soft, white, lily fingers, after dining on fricandeau de veau and omelet soufflé?” said Congressman Charles Ogle from the floor of the House of Representatives, in what has become known as the Gold Spoon Oration.

The post-Civil War years included historic purchases such as Ulysses Grant’s Renaissance Revival cabinet table, which has been used many times since for the signing of international peace treaties.

The Resolute Desk, made from oak timbers from the British ship HMS Resolute and gifted to Rutherford Hayes by Queen Victoria, has served as the Oval Office desk for many presidents.

As the decades passed, older pieces were often sold. Chester Arthur packed up 30 barrels of china for sale and sent 24 wagon loads of furniture, carpets, mantles, chandeliers and lace curtains off to auction. He commissioned Louis Tiffany to install “new aesthetic” works that infused art into lighting fixtures, upholstery and glass-tiled fireplace mantels – along with a showpiece stained-glass screen encrusted with topaz, ruby and amethyst.

But as fashions changed, this late 19th century era of busyness and pattern gave way to a Colonial Revival that looked back to our country’s origins and early years, dignified and tasteful with simpler, more spacious-feeling interiors.

“It seems to embody,” said one adviser, “many of the characteristics of rugged worth and stern necessity that were identified with the early struggles of our ancestors.”

First ladies often played a personal role in shaping the character of White House furnishings. Ellen Wilson bought woven textiles and baskets from Appalachian craftswomen, while Eleanor Roosevelt bought four coverlets made at a New Deal Works Progress Administration project. Grace Coolidge crocheted her own coverlet for the Lincoln Bed – and published the pattern in leading newspapers.

It was the Kennedy presidency and Jacqueline Kennedy’s leadership that brought White House furnishings into a new era. She pored through old photos, scoured storerooms and launched a broader vision to ensure that the White House would be a living museum, representing the finest examples of American furnishings and offering a vital source of history for Americans. Scholarly research on White House furnishings was commissioned, and a professional White House curator was hired.

A new Fine Arts Committee for the White House helped locate and raise funds to buy older White House furniture that had been dispersed. It also set down a new governing philosophy that endures today – that the White House and its furnishings should represent the living, evolving character of the presidency and the variety of styles of all eras.

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Mrs. Kennedy also launched a printed White House guidebook, with the proceeds paying to restore and buy objects. When she went on national television to offer Americans a tour of the White House, a third of the nation watched, responding with a flood of telegrams (and offers of their own family heirlooms).

Jacqueline Kennedy also founded the nonprofit White House Historical Association to help ensure that historic furnishings could be regularly acquired, preserved and shared with the American people. We’re proud to be publishing a comprehensive, lavishly illustrated new book – with contributions from four White House curators representing more than a hundred years of experience – that shows how the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue tells a story of America’s history, room by room.

More than two centuries after the White House was burned to the ground, a computerized inventory now tracks 60,000 objects. An off-site storage facility provides acid-free storage and temperature and humidity controls for fragile antiques. The White House is even accredited by the American Association of Museums, and its museum-quality furnishings have made it an unparalleled resource for the study of American decorative arts.

The White House also offers a living history of our country for everyone who enters, from presidents to grade school students.

As Lady Bird Johnson said, “When I walked through the rooms of the White House, I had a constant sense of a host of companions. I knew that I walked with history.”

Stewart D. McLaurin is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund maintaining the museum standard of the White House and to provide publications and programs on White House history.

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