I was doing some research on Martha Jefferson Randolph, the older of President Jefferson’s two daughters, and I stumbled a short little book published by the United States Bureau of National Literature and Art in 1903. The book provides portraits of each of the women who presided over the White House household staff from the time of Martha Washington through Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt as well as short one or two paragraph biographies.
The book is Presiding Ladies of the White House Containing Biographical Appreciations Together with a Short History of the Executive Mansion and a Treatise on its Etiquette and Customs by Lila G. A. Woolfall with an Introduction by Margaret E. Sangster.
This volume is not suitable for serious academic or historical research but it is still a lovely book with wonderful illustrations that is fun to leaf through. We have posted the women’s portraits on the Accessible Archives Facebook Page.
I have included an excerpt from Mrs. Sangster’s introduction here and below that you can page through the book.
Margaret E. Sangster’s Introduction
Margaret E. Sangster
There are two attributes of the American woman which are undeniably predominant in her nature, and these are adaptability and individuality.
They are displayed by the members of all ranks and classes, but probably the twenty-five women who form the coterie of “First Ladies of the Land” in our republican court at Washington, have had as great, if not greater, opportunities for exercising these qualities than any who have entered only into court life abroad.
“Noblesse oblige” is true in all stations of life, whether it be the nobility of honorable living or of high social birth, but in royal circles there is a code of etiquette which is enforced from generation to generation, just as royal sons and daughters are born to royal parents, and so its followers abide by its mandates as a matter of course. In a democratic country like America, no such rule obtains, for the children of a President of the United States, after their father’s term expires, may relapse into social inconspicuousness and seldom appear before the public, instead of, as in royalty, inheriting their father’s official greatness.
The wife of a President may have been born in affluence and social prominence, or she may have passed her early years in the humblest environment, as was the case with a number of the women who have presided at the White House, but in every instance the duties of hostess have been faithfully and creditably discharged, while natural ease, grace and tact, combined with this wonderful power of adaptation, have rendered the hospitality of the White House unquestionably refined, and marked by the highest breeding.
Some of the women who have held this exalted position have been called to it while little more than young girls, and others have assumed its responsibilities and obligations late in life, yet all have upheld the dignity of the nation of whose social life they were, for the time being, the highest exponents.
The individuality of each hostess has left its imprint upon the history of her time from the pomp and ceremony of Martha Washington’s regime, to the greater freedom from restraint of that of “Dolly” Madison. We hear also of the extreme “simplicity” of Jefferson’s administration and the social festivities which marked Mrs. Grant’s residence at the White House. Mrs. Polk abolished dancing, while Mrs. Hayes banished wine, from their entertainments. Mrs. Fillmore founded the library, for of books there were none when she was installed as mistress of the White House; and Mrs. McElroy marked the administration of her brother, Chester A. Arthur, with the acme of refined hospitality.
The author who has with marvelous industry and good taste, written these condensed biographies of our country’s most eminent women, deserves the thanks of all; yet such short sketches as are embodied in this volume, can give but little knowledge of facts concerning lives with so much interest attaching to them that a history of each would offer absorbing entertainment to the lover of biography, but they can serve to enlighten every intelligent reader sufficiently to arouse a desire for more information relating to these women, famous in the story of their country’s social and political events, and to awaken a feeling of pride that these queens of a republican court have no peers in any foreign realm.