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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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