Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Special Report: Setting the First Table

Our president's dishes have led to debate, scandal, and even congressional intervention. In this Inaugural year - I thought it would be interesting to see what has graced the First Table throughout American history. (Promise this will one day serve you in a social setting...)


After the White House burned in the War of 1812, the Monroes (President James and First Lady Elizabeth) undertook its extensive renovation. Upon moving into the restored White House in 1817, the first official presidential china created for a President was ordered from Paris.

Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

The design features a Napoleonic eagle (very popular during the period) in the center carrying a banner which reads "E Pluribus Unum." The five vignettes surrounding represent strength, agriculture, commerce, arts and science. The Dagoty-Honoré manufactured 30-setting dinner service and dessert service cost less than $1,200.

The Monroes took some heat for all of the French furnishings in the renovated White House and later Congress passed a bill stating that all furnishings for the President's home needed to be "practicable domestic manufactured." Note: It would take nearly a century for America china manufacturing to be on par with France and England.

Although the Monroes had the first official service - that's not to say that all preceding Presidents entertained on tinware.

Two examples...

Image courtesy of the Woodmere, Presidential Collection.

Martha Washington's monogrammed service, a gift from the East India Company in 1796, features her initials at the center as well as the names of all 15 states in the union at that time. A Latin motto, "Decus et tutamen ab illo" - "a glory and the defense of it" appears under Mrs. Washington's initials on a ribbon motif. The design was inspired by Benjamin Franklin's design of colonial Pennsylvania currency.

Image courtesy of the Woomere, Presidential Collection.

Thomas Jefferson included his own monogram along with a fleur-de-lis design in blue and gold for his White House china. Jefferson, a man of impeccable taste, was heavily influenced by the time he spent as foreign minister to France.

Presidential China Highlights Post-1845:

Image courtesy of the Hoover Archives.

The Polk State Service was purchased for $979 in 1846. Parisian firm Edouard Honoré produced the 400 rococo-style dinner and dessert pieces, which are considered to be among the most beautiful of all presidential china. The pieces feature a green border, molded and gilded scrolls, assorted floral motifs and was the first to be designed with a shield of stars and stripes.

Image courtesy of Graydon Wood and Lynn Rosenthal.

Mary Todd Lincoln realized a state dinner would require more dishes than were in the set bought during President Pierce's administration. Much of the Pierece set had been used and broken. Mrs. Lincoln, chose a French design with an American eagle in the center and a border of a brilliant purple-red color called "solferino," a fashionable new shade at the time. However, many saw Mrs. Lincoln's purchase as frivolous and in poor taste considering the state of America and the looming threat of civil war.

Image courtesy of www.whitehouse.gov.

First Lady Edith Wilson chose a pattern designed by Lenox's chief designer, Frank Holmes, featuring two bands of matte gold encrusted with stars, stripes, and other motifs. The Seal of the president was raised in gold in the center. The china set and the administration were heralded for the first wholly American manufactured presidential service. It was used by three later administrations.

Image courtesy of www.whitehouse.gov.

In 1966, three years into the Johnson presidency, new china was ordered. The service, designed by Tiffany & Co, cost of $80,028.24 and was the first purchased with non-appropriated government funds. The White House Historical Association funded the china project.

The pieces featured the eagle from the Monroe china, and the borders were decorated with over forty different wildflowers found throughout the United States. The flowers were hand painted on each plate, delaying the delivery of the full service until 1972, four years into the Nixon administration.

(Both Images of Bush china courtesy of AP Photos/Ron Edmonds)

Laura Bush unveiled two new sets of china in early January of this year - just days before the official end of her husband's administration. One, a traditional Lenox gilt-edged with a green basket-weave border. The other, the Magnolia Residence China Service designed by Hungarian-born Anna Weatherley of Arlington, is the first in White House history: a less formal pattern to be used in the private quarters.


All of the pieces of White House china are kept in the China Room, located on the ground floor of the White House. The First Lady mainly uses the space for entertaining smaller groups for teas, luncheons and less formal affairs.

FYI gang, every piece of china is carefully counted following each state dinner - so don't even think about scoring a Wilson finger bowl on your way out the door. There are options if you are that desperate for a presidential piece.

Woodmere China of New Castle, PA, has a White House Collection which is a full line of Presidential China reproductions. Dinner taste doubly delicious when dining on President Millard Fillmore's pattern.


If you are interested in more information about Presidential China there is an excellent exhibition currently on view at the Concord Museum, Setting America's Table through October 21, 2009.

Also these books:

American Presidential China: The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Susan Gray Detweiler.

The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy by Barry Landau.

There - don't you feel informed? Now head over to The Superficial and counteract all our good work...

We now return to your regularly scheduled program.


Legallyblondemel said...

Lovely. Thank you for the fun run-through.

No surprise that Mr. Jefferson's china is my favorite, but to my surprise, I also like the Johnson set. I spy what I think is a bluebonnet on there, a spring wildflower in the area of Texas the Johnsons are from (ie, here).

Off to dork out in other areas ...

News Readin' Wife said...

Good eye, LBM.

Lady Bird's china reflects her passion for the beautification of America and our native flora. Each of the dessert plates in her collection features one of our 50 states' official state flower.

Who's the dork, now? Ummm...yeah.

Kiki said...

I like the Polk set...the color seems kind of whimiscal...not sure I'd want to eat off of it though, for myself, I choose all white, I have to keep it clean and simple.

This was a great post, I love history!!

The Mrs. said...

Ever so informational and fabulous. I feel informed.

GrannySmithGreen said...

This is the kind of post that makes my heart go "pitter patter"! I LOVED it!

Thanks for your kind comment. I missed all of you!

The Doctor's Wife said...

I heart Anna Weatherley. I also really hate it when people spell out "I heart". Anyhoo. I have been collecting AW salad plates for a few years. Damn, they're expensive! I was really happy to see that LB picked AW for her china. And the Magnolia's? Classy.

thepreppyprincess said...

We are loving this post, looking at china is always fun! And as bad as it seemed at the time, we've always been glad Mary Todd Lincoln purchased that set.