DINING AND DIPLOMACY MERGE IN WHITE HOUSE CHINA
Turkey platter, State china of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881); 19 inches diameter; $12,320. Photo courtesy of Leighton Auctions
Under President Ulysses S. Grant, most of the marble mantels, chandeliers and mirrors were removed from the White House and sold as junk. After James A. Garfield’s assassination, former Vice President Chester A. Arthur went through the White House room by room and had 24 wagon loads of furnishings hauled away.
As late as 1902, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt cringed at the idea of placing chipped White House china up for sale. It wasn’t dignified. She instructed servants to break it up instead.
Throughout history, White House furnishings dating back to its fragile beginning were often treated as scrap, hauled off, and sold for virtually nothing. There were few lists of items sold and few prices recorded.
With a nation keen on its own survival, the attention wasn’t on things.
Priceless memorabilia at bargain basement prices. In such an atmosphere, it’s remarkable anything of the early White House survived.
One particular thread strangely enough, tying the odds and ends of White House history together was china. Dining and diplomacy have always been cozy bedfellows at the First Table. After all, you can’t really serve a meal to the crown heads of Europe on tacky dishes. At least, that’s what my mother would say.
So, history revealed some of its story through china.
George and Martha Washington received a monogrammed tea service as a gift from the East India Company in 1796. Made in Canton, each piece featured Mrs. Washington’s initials and the names of all 15 states in the union. A Latin motto appears under her initials and translates to “A glory and the defense of it.”
Mary Todd Lincoln loved to shop and selected her china shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration. A French design, it combined the American eagle with decorations in a brilliant purple-red hue.
Cloaked in red velvet-lined cabinets and silk taffeta draperies, First Lady Edith Wilson first used what is called the China Room in 1917. It was created to display the growing collection of White House china. Bordering a portrait of Mrs. Coolidge are Chippendale side chairs used by George Washington in the early residences in New York and Philadelphia.
Almost every past President is represented here, either by china, their state or glassware. Most of the administrations, including the earliest, received funds to purchase dinnerware. But in the 19th century, the cupboards were often swept clean, the china hauled off to auction and the money used to purchase a replacement set for the new First Family.
As a result, not all the Presidential china is locked away in the White House or a museum. Most is rare, reproductions abound, and provenance is everything.
On Nov. 9, a selection of Presidential china from the estate of a Fort Lee gentleman went on the block at Leighton’s in Ridgewood, N.J. Here are some current values.
Presidential plate; State china of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881); wild pigeon motif bearing Great Seal of the United States; designed by Theodore Davis; signed and dated 1880; 9 inches diameter; $2,016.
Presidential plate; State china of Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893); coat-of-arms motif surrounded by 44 stars; 7 inches diameter; $2,240.
Fish plates; 6; State china of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881); designed by Theodore Davis; bearing Great Seal of the United States; all signed and dated 1880; ( pieces produced for sale to the public are dated 1881); 8 inches diameter; $8,120.
Turkey platter; State china of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881); napkin-fold edges; bearing Great Seal of the United States; designed by Theodore Davis; signed an dated 1880; 19 inches diameter; $12,320.
Chinese Export plate; George Washington (1789-1797); “Order of the Cincinnati;” with Angel of Fame holding the Cincinnati emblem; Washington purchased the original 302-piece service in 1786; appears to bear museum inventory number; 9 1/2 inches diameter; $31,360.
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