Furnishing the White House

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!

The Mr. with our friend Gregg, as extras in the movie...

Shopping or Addiction?

Shop-a-holic, Mary Todd Lincoln

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!

The White House during the Lincoln Administration (photo: Library of Congress)

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!

The famous east room, with it's $10,000 wall to wall red and blue floral carpeting (photo: White House Historical Assoc)

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.

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln Hand Painted Dinner Plate, circa 1861

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.

The Lincoln Bedroom in 2007 (photo: Newsweek, Gary Fabiano)

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: For more information about Mary Todd Lincoln’s shopping addiction, check out Mr. Lincoln and New York (The Lincoln Institute).

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.

3 thoughts on “Furnishing the White House

    • Rita – the documentary that I shared a link to is one of the best, most in depth documentaries I’ve ever watched on the life of Abe and Mary. It looks at their upbringing, how they got together and the difficulties they suffered while Abe was President. VERY interesting. Lots of interviews with scholars who are very knowledgeable on Mary’s shopping problem!! Thanks for sharing the link too!

  1. I’m reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and in it he claims Mary Todd likely sold a copy of Lincoln’s address to Congress (1861, I think) to a man who was one of her friends called the Chevalier Wykoff for cash to pay some of the overspending on the WH renovations. Most sources I have just read say she spent $6,000 over the $20,000 of the standard Congressional appropriation for each new Administration. She was a rich girl used to spending money and easily swayed by salesmen and she had styled herself the “Republican Queen” as friendly newspapers called her.

    I am half way through the book so far and Mary is afraid to be implicated by Wykoff who was arrested and faced a Congressional inquiry about his source for the leaked speech. He was arrested after he sold the speech to the New York Herald. According the Vidal, she could have faced a charge of treason (or a great scandal that would have questioned her loyalty to the Union) but that doesn’t make a lot of sense in that Lincoln’s speech to Congress would have been public, wouldn’t it? Vidal has so many obscure facts it’s hard to check him up.

    As I understand it – The expensive new decorations – all $26,000 of them – were ruined even before Lincoln was assassinated. Troops were billeted in the WH East Room even before Fort Sumter was fired on. Washington was effectively isolated without rail of telegraph connections even before Lincoln was inaugurated. The city was afraid the Confederacy would invade so a rapid call up of Volunteers was issued and the early troops were put up in Washington anywhere they could be put up. Later in the war they were also quartered in the White House and the capitol building. The $10,000 carpet in the East Room was very dingy after that. He also mentioned the stupid habit of the time for ladies to clip swatches of fabrics from drapes and upholstery to make souvenir pincushions from White House materials and elsewhere.

    I’m brushing up on Civil War history real fast.

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