Last fall, my husband had the exciting opportunity to become an extra in Steven Speilberg’s new film, Lincoln, based on the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. This upcoming movie is based off of the book, ‘Team of Rivals,’ written by Doris Kearns Goodwin and the cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Speilberg and his crew set up shop in Richmond and Petersburg, VA for a good 6 months for filming and my husband worked on set for about 2 months, portraying a clerk in the House of Representatives. Every evening, I would ask the Mr. to describe in full detail every nuance of the movie sets…from the lighting, to the carpeting, to the furniture and crown molding! When the Mr. told me that they had a special warehouse that had antiques stacked upon antiques, I almost fainted! I know I definitely drooled on myself a little…just imagining all that beautiful civil war era, Virginia made furniture, just waiting for it’s time to shine on camera!
Shopping or Addiction?
It’s no secret that Mary Todd Lincoln had a true passion for decorating. Her good taste can be traced back to a privileged upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky, where she grew up within an elegant 14-room home with her father, her stepmother and her siblings. Quite the contrast from Abe’s pioneer-like childhood in a small cabin in Kentucky, wouldn’t you say?
When Mary moved into the White House with President Lincoln, she was appalled at the condition of the home. Back in those days, the White House was a public building where anyone could visit. Due to the high volume of people that came and went on a daily basis, the home’s contents were in disrepair. The President approached Congress for a total of $25,000 to renovate and decorate the White House. Imagine what kind of treasures you could snag for that kind of cash back in 1860!
Mary traveled north to purchase many of the new objects for the home in New York and Philadelphia and sadly, ended up spending more than what was lent to the couple by $6,000. Mary’s shopping habit teetered on obsession (some say it fed her nerves and the objects replaced those that she had loved and lost throughout her lifetime). She bought it all…from drapes, china, sofas, cut glass, bedspreads and bolts and bolts of expensive fabric. It is said that the most expensive items that Mary purchased during her White House years were the wallpaper for the rooms and the carpeting. The hefty price tag for the carpet in the East Room was a whoppin’ $10,000!
Mary’s problem with over-spending haunted her throughout her life, but was especially worrisome to her husband during those years in the White House. President Lincoln didn’t want to receive the backlash about his wife’s extravagant taste while the entire country was falling apart during a war. Nor did he want the Democrats to use this as ammunition during his re-election campaign. But all the while, Mary kept spending and decorating, claiming that the First Family had to keep up appearances.
Where are the Goods?
The saddest part about this story is what happened at the White House directly after Lincoln’s death. Desperate to have some sort of memorabilia from Lincoln’s time in office, the public roamed freely throughout the White House and ransacked it’s contents. Drapes were torn and furniture was stolen. By the time Mary Todd Lincoln had to leave this beautiful building, there was very little left that she could take with her to remember her time as First Lady.
Currently there is a room at the White House called the ‘Lincoln Bedroom’ that is made up of a hodge-podge of Victorian style furniture that was used by Lincoln’s administration. Lincoln in fact, never slept in this room and it is believed that none of the furniture was actually his. However, the room is in the style that Mary would have liked and probably resembles some of the items she would have purchased.
Note: To learn more about the extraordinary relationship between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, you must watch this amazing documentary by PBS – “Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln: A House Divided.”
Copyright 2012. The Savvy Seeker blog by Erin Hurley-Brown. All Rights Reserved.