Fruit compote dish – Lincoln White House china service – 2012

Fruit compote dish – Lincoln White House china service – 2012
Brooklyn Nine Nine
Image by Tim Evanson
A fruit compote bowl from the Lincoln White House china service of 1861.

In the 1800s, presidents were expected to furnish the White House with their own beds, furniture, plates, and artwork. When a president left office, he took his things with him. The White House itself owned only a few furnishings. Furthermore, the White House was considered a public building. As such, it was open to the public at all times. It was not unusual to find members of the public wandering in and out of the White House at all hours of the day (and sometimes night). When a president left office, it was not unusual for members of the public to simply steal artwork, serving dishes, flatware, or other objects. Indeed, many souvenir-hunters would simply cut squares of fabric from the wallpaper, upholstered chairs, or carpets. Members of the White House staff also routinely stole items from the building, keeping them as souvenirs or (more often) selling them to the highest bidder or in antique shops.

When the Lincolns moved into the White House in March 1861 (inaugurations did not move to January until the 1940s), they found it in a terrible state. It was shabby, vandalized, and in extensive disrepair. It lacked many rudimentary modern amenities, such as gas lighting and plumbing.

Mary Todd Lincoln discovered that the White House china – which had been purchased in the administration of Franklin Pierce in the early 1850s – was in a sorry state. There were only enough plates, cups, saucers, and serving dishes to serve about 10 guests, and what china did remain was mismatched and damaged.

Each incoming president traditionally received ,000 to furnish the White House. Congress appropriated this money to Lincoln in April 1861, and gave him another ,000 on top of that. Mary Todd Lincoln and her cousin, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley (who was helping the Lincolns set up house), traveled to New York City in May 1861 to shop for furnishings for the White House. They arrived in the city on May 12. On May 15, they visited two firms: Lord & Taylor, and E.V. Haughwout & Co.

Haughwout’s showed her a "specimen plate" they had exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York in 1853. The company had produced the plate in the hopes that President Pierce would like it and buy a set of china based on its look. The "Pierce Plate" was a creamy white porcelain with picture of an American eagle in the Napoleonic style (slender wings outspread, slender neck and head, facing right, leaning left), gripping a shield emblazoned with the U.S. colors (white band at top rimmed in blue, with blue stars on the field, and narrow red and white stripes below). The shield tilted to the right, and the lower southeast corner lost in rosy clouds, which surrounded and were in back of the eagle. Drifting through the clouds left and right of the shield was a ribbon with the national motto ("E pluribus unum"). An olive branch extended to the left, and a sheaf of arrows to the right. A wide dark blue border, its outer rim dotted with tiny white stars, encircled the plate. The beyond that was a twisted gold rope ("in the Alhambra style"). The edges of the plate were scalloped.

Mary Lincoln was thrilled with the design. She asked for only one change, that the blue band be replaced with "solferino." Solferino was a moderate purplish-red color similar to magenta – a highly popular color at the time. A dye that could create the solferino color had only been discovered in 1859, so asking for solferino color was asking for the trendiest color around. It was also close to purple, which was Mrs. Lincoln’s favorite color.

Mary Lincoln was so happy with the china service that she also ordered a small set for the family’s personal use. The Great Seal of the United States was replaced with a Gothic "ML" in the center.

The china was produced by Haviland & Co. in Limoges, France. American porcelain manufacturers simply were not up to the task of producing fine china, and could not have produced as many pieces as Mrs. Lincoln wished. Haviland undoubtedly gilded the edges with the gold rope and painted the solferino band on the plate, then shipped it to New York City. A stencil was used to create an outline of the image, which was then painted in by hand. The final design was slightly different than the Pierce Plate. The eagle faced left, not right; the clouds only formed the lower arc of a circle, and obscured the southwest corner of the shield; the olive branch was more prominent, and the arrows less numerous; and a glowing yellow sun (not glowing clouds) backed the eagle. The stars around the outer edge of the solferino band were now just gilt dots.

Lincoln ordered 666 pieces of china. The dining service (which consisted of two large salad bowls, four pickle bowls, 18 meat platters of various sizes, four fish platters of various sizes, two butter dishes, six vegetable platters, 96 dinner plates, 48 soup bowls, four water pitchers, and two ice bowls) consisted of 190 pieces. The dessert service (which consisted of custard cups, fruit bowls, strawberry bowls, sugar bowls, fruit baskets [some oval, some round], dessert plates, coffee cups, and two large shell-shaped bowls) consisted of 208 pieces. The breakfast/tea service (which consisted of tea plates, preserve plates, coffee cups, egg cups, tea cups, and cake plates ) consisted of 260 pieces. She also ordered four "servers" (large plates for serving chocolates) and four large centerpieces (white pelicans formed a pillar, on which was a large platform on which dishes could be presented).

Mrs. Lincoln also ordered three dozen gilded silver forks, 10 dozen silver-plated and iron-handled dinner knives, and six dozen dessert knives. It’s not clear who manufactured these.

She completed her purchases by ordering glassware. She purchased the glassware from Christian Dorflinger, a glassware company based in Brooklyn, New York. Two sets of glasses were ordered: Tinted-red sherry glasses, and a larger "toddy glass" (a wide-mouth drinking glass similar to a round, shallow martini glass). These had the Great Seal of the United States etched into their front. On the sides and backs were small flowers. A decorative border of umbrella-like shapes was etched into the lip, and the base featured groups of rays, spreading outward.

The china cost ,195. (The family’s personal china, which Mrs. Lincoln bought at a discount since it was ordered at the same time as the government-owned set, cost ,106.37.) She made a down payment of ,500 of her own money, and turned the invoice over to the federal government for payment.

E.V. Haughwout delivered the china on September 2, 1861. It is a myth that Abraham Lincoln thought the expense too much, and refused to pay it. The truth is that Lincoln approved the invoice a week before the china was received, and the federal government paid the invoice two weeks after the china arrived.

The Lincoln china is the first State Dinner Service chosen entirely by a First Lady.

There is, however, a second set of "Lincoln China."

By late 1864, much of the "Solferino" china set had been damaged or broken. It is not clear if there was some flaw in the china which made it easily broken (as the White House staff claimed) or whether the staff disliked Mrs. Lincoln and disliked her china and purposefully manhandled it. What is known as that by late 1864, only three full place settings, some teacups, and some odds and ends were left of the "Solferino" set.

On January 30, 1865, Mrs. Lincoln ordered a new set of china for the White House. This time, the importer was China Hall, a company owned by John Kerr of Philadelphia. The design this time was extremely simple: A white plate, with a buff border edged in gilt lines. This 508-piece set consisted of dining plates, soup plates, dessert plates, ice cream plates, a wide variety of dishes (large and small fish platters, vegetable platters, side dish platters), tureens, sauce boats, pickle dishes, salad bowls, custard cups, fruit baskets (round and oval), fruit platters, sugar bowls, coffee cups, coffee saucers, and other items. This 181-piece set cost ,700.

On February 28, Mrs. Lincoln made an addition order of coffee cups and saucers, water pitchers, and bowls. These 24 items were in the same style, and cost 3.50.

Mrs. Lincoln spent another 2 purchasing four dozen goblets and 28 dozen wine glasses of various sizes from China Hall as well.

The main set of china arrived in the United States via express shipment on February 13, 1865. But it was probably delivered just days before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865.

The receipt for the "Second Administration" buff china was delivered shortly after Andrew Johnson became President. The bill for the main china order and glassware was paid on August 29, 1865. The bill for the additional china was paid on February 10, 1866.

Interestingly, the Andrew Johnson administration decided to replace the entire Solferino china set with an identical set. This second order of "Lincoln china" did not last, either. By the end of the first Grant administration, there was not enough left to set dinner for eight or nine people.

Much of the "first Lincoln Solferino china" set and the Johnson administration "second Lincoln Solferino china" set were sold at auction to raise funds to purchase new china in the Grant administration. This was no unusual at all.

Beginning in 1875, reproduction pieces of the Solferino china was produced in the United States. It is interesting to note that Haviland did not begin stamping their name on the back of their china until 1876. But reproduction pieces usually have "Fabriqué par Haviland & Co./Pour/J. W. Boteler & Bro./Washington" painted or stamped on the back. Others were stamped "Administration/Abraham Lincoln" on the back. A large number of reproduction china services were made for sale at the the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Much of the "Lincoln china" which collectors have in their possession is reproduction china; the original china ordered by Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Andrew Johnson have no markings on the back.

As of 2010, the Smithsonian owned only a dinner plate, a two-handled custard cup, and the coffee cup and saucer used by Lincoln on April 14 (just before he attended Ford’s Theatre). The White House has a larger number of pieces, including a small oval platter, a meat platter, three compote dishes, an oval fruit basket, a coffee cup and saucer, a water pitcher, a fish platter, a dinner plate, a shallow bowl, and a soup bowl.

The buff band china is even harder to find! The Smithsonian has none of it. The White House has just a soup bowl and a gravy boat.

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