In researching the history and origin of Presidential china, I was not surprised by the beautiful and interesting choices made by the various First Ladies when ordering china over the centuries.
Martha Washington chose blue and white Canton ware for entertaining at at Mount Vernon in Virginia; the White House as we know it was not built during George Washington’s administration.
While Dolley Madison was a premier hostess, Presidential china wasn’t a major issue at the White House until the James Monroe administration, the next president. So it was the Monroes who ordered the first official set of Presidential china.
Manufactured by the Dagoty-Honoré factory in Paris in 1817, the Monroe service included 30 place settings and a matching dessert set. The plates were decorated with a Napoleonic eagle with a red, white and blue shield and banner that reads “E Pluribus Unum.” The motif was not out of the ordinary, but the price certainly was. Here’s the real shocker: The set cost $1,167 in 1817.
Heated criticism over this first set of Presidential china set was based on the fact that it was not made in America. Those in the know realized that it would take another century for American china manufacturers to measure up to the fine porcelain made abroad.
To put it plainly, Mary Todd Lincoln was a shopaholic. She had a budget for decorating the White House and her extravagant expenditures angered her husband. President Lincoln made a famous statement about his wife’s spending: “I gave her an unlimited budget and she has exceeded it.”
So, in 1861, when Mrs. Lincoln chose the Lincoln Presidential china from E.V. Haughwout and Company in New York City, there was heated discussion about it as the President dealt with pressing issues. While American-made, the china caused a stir because of its nontraditional color and unbelievable cost. The Lincoln china had a red-purple border known as solferino, and the set was often referred to as the “Royal Purple” set. The center of the plates featured an image of the U.S. Coat of Arms with an American bald eagle perched above a shield highlighting the national motto.
While Mary Todd Lincoln’s china choice made waves, the Hayes State Dinner service is arguably the most unusual of all the Presidential china. In 1879, First Lady Lucy Hayes asked for the integration of American flora and fauna onto the design of the new Presidential china set. Artist Theodore Davis, of Asbury Park, N.J., offered the First Lady 130 choices featuring American plants, animals and scenic views of our country as designs for the plates and accessory pieces. The Hayes set cost $3,120. Those are some pricey plants.
“America First” was the slogan popularized during Benjamin Harrison’s campaign. First Lady Caroline Harrison wanted her new White House china to be “symbolic and meaningful to all Americans.” She made a common choice asking for the U.S. Coat of Arms imagery on the center of the plates and then added a personal touch — an image of corn with a goldenrod motif etched in gold around a wide blue band at the border of the pieces. The corn motif was added in recognition of the First Lady’s home state of Indiana. Also integrated into the design on the inner border of each plate were 44 stars that represent the number of states in the Union at the time.
In fact, Mrs. Harrison not only chose some interesting china, but she also directed a room remodeling that included the construction of a china closet to display all past Presidential china services. Presidential china says a lot about our culture, our progress and our Presidents.
If you are collecting Presidential or other historic or antique china pieces, follow First Lady Caroline Harrison’s advice and store and display your china in a cabinet to protect the pieces from breakage and other damage. Be sure to open the cabinet occasionally in order to allow trapped heat to escape from the glass-enclosed china cabinet.