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Thursday, November 8, 2012
WHY EDITH WILSON CHANGED THE WHITE HOUSE CHINA
The Clinton Service also used by the Obamas
Editor’s note: The Obamas chose Lenox china
from the White House’s historic china collection to set the tables for their
first state dinner on November 24, 2009.
The china the Obamas selected was from the Clinton and second Bush
LENOX PICKED BY 6 PRESIDENTS--Between 1918 and the present, six presidents have commissioned Lenox to
issue new state services, each reflecting both period tastes and the timeless
beauty of Lenox's renowned ivory china.
Walter Scott Lenox
"We are dependent
upon foreign factories for the very dishes from which the Chief Executive of
the United States must eat," thundered President Theodore Roosevelt in
exasperation at the lack of quality American china in the early 20th century.
Even though Congress had decreed in 1826 that all furnishings purchased for the
White House be manufactured in the United States, no president had ever deemed
domestic porcelain worthy of the State Dining Room. Little wonder. Until the
Roosevelt administration, no American pottery had dared compete with the
prestigious porcelains imported from China, England, and France. Consequently,
first families from the Washingtons to the Tafts dined and entertained using
tablewares, tea sets, and dessert services that had been produced abroad, even
if the designs had been developed or the decoration applied in the United
Walter Scott Lenox
changed that. In his determination to devise the perfect porcelain, the
ambitious potter created wares that were indeed fit for presidents, and Lenox
became the first American china to be used in the White House.
The Wilson Service
Woodrow Wilson, and his wife, Edith, arrived at the White House in 1913, the
"newest" china was already 10 years old, having been ordered by
Theodore Roosevelt from an English pottery. Even though pieces had been
replaced through the years, a complete new service was needed by 1918.
The Wilson Service
Mrs. Wilson, like
first ladies before her, hoped to purchase an American china. Upon visiting
Dulin & Martin Co. — a fashionable shop in Washington, D.C. — to view a
display of Lenox china, she was so impressed that she asked the store to obtain
designs from the pottery.
developed by Lenox's chief designer, Frank Holmes, was as restrained and
dignified as the Wilsons themselves. It features a deep ivory border
surrounding a brighter ivory body and two bands of matte gold encrusted with
stars, stripes, and other motifs. Each of the 1,700 pieces also bears the
presidential seal in raised gold.
The service was delivered
to the White House between August and November 1918. After the first shipment,
Mrs. Wilson brought chocolates to the Trenton factory employees to convey the
family's appreciation. Wrote one New York newspaper, "The proud day has
arrived when the White House dining service [was] designed by an American
artist, made at an American pottery ... and decorated by American
The Roosevelt Service
Durable and popular,
the Wilson china remained in use during the administrations of Presidents
Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Because of the bleak economic picture when
President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, no replacement china had
been ordered for a year and a half, and the service was nearly depleted. First
Lady Eleanor Roosevelt championed the need for new china, stating that it would
keep American workers employed.
The Roosevelt Service
ordered 1,722 pieces of Lenox china through a New York store in October 1934.
The design was suitably patriotic, bearing a border of 48 gold stars — one for
every state — and the presidential seal in enamel colors on a lustrous ivory
body. But it was also personal to the Roosevelts. The stars glimmer against a
band of marine blue, inspired by the president's interest in all things
nautical, and are complemented by a scroll-like inner band of gold roses and
feathers, motifs adapted from the Roosevelt family crest.
The Lenox factory
worked overtime, reported the media, so that the china would be ready for an
important state dinner in January 1935, one of the largest affairs ever held in
the White House to date. For the first time, every guest dined from a single
service — from first-course oysters to after-dinner coffee.
The Truman Service
Truman and his wife, Bess, presided over a major renovation of the White House
between 1948 and 1952. The State Dining Room, which had been paneled in oak in
the early 20th century, was painted a soft celadon green, and the Trumans
wanted a new service to coordinate with the décor.
Working with the New
York department store B. Altman and Company, which was managing the interior
decoration, the Trumans ordered 1,572 pieces of Lenox china in 1951. The
pattern includes a border of celadon green flanked by an etched gold band and a
24 karat gold rim on an ivory body.
Perhaps the most
significant feature of the Truman service is its raised gold presidential seal,
which is surrounded by 48 gold stars. Concerned about the varying design of the
insignia over the years, the president issued an executive order in 1945 to
standardize the seal. The china reflects that order, with the head of the eagle
turned toward the olive branch of peace clutched in its left talons, instead of
toward the arrows of war at the right.
The service debuted
on April 3, 1952, at a luncheon for the Dutch royal family. The Trumans, who
had lived in the nearby Blair House during the renovation, had moved back to
the White House just a week before.
The Reagan Service
Thirty years after
the Trumans had ordered their china, state dinners became so large that none of
the White House china could accommodate the number of guests. President Ronald
Reagan and his wife, Nancy, turned to Lenox in 1981 to provide 4,370 pieces,
enough placesettings of 19 pieces for 220 people — nearly twice as many as
other recent services.
The Reagan Service
The first family was
accustomed to formal entertaining and chose a pattern to reflect their tastes.
Also, in the intervening years since the White House renovation of the early
1950s, the State Dining Room had been painted white, so the Reagans wanted a
china with a strong presence for the large, subtly colored room.
Mrs. Reagan worked
closely with Lenox designers to develop a pattern with bands in a striking
scarlet — her favorite color. The bands vary in width depending on the scale of
the piece and are framed on each side with etched gold, creating a sparkling
contrast with the soft ivory china. The presidential seal, in raised gold, partially
overlays the red border. On certain pieces, such as the service and dessert
plates, fine gold crosshatching overlays the red — a decorative technique that
required extensive special handling and nine separate firings in the kilns.
The Clinton Service
The Clinton service
is remarkable not only for its revolutionary design but also for its
significance to the history of the American presidency.
administration coincided with the bicentennial of the White House as home to
America's first families, a role it had played since John Adams, the second
president, took up residence there on November 1, 1800. To commemorate this
event, and also replenish the stock of official state china for the first time
in nearly two decades, President William Clinton and his wife, Hillary,
commissioned Lenox to create 300 12-piece placesettings in 2000.
In a dramatic
departure from previous White House services, the Clinton china features a
border of pale creamy yellow, instead of a bright primary color, and images of
the White House facades, in place of the customary presidential seal. Each
piece in the placesetting is decorated with a different pattern, the motifs
derived from outstanding architectural elements found in the State Dining Room,
East Room, and Diplomatic Reception Room.
Fittingly, the china
was used for the first time at a dinner attended by former Presidents Gerald
Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, their wives, and Lady Bird Johnson, former
The Bush Service
The most recent
acquisitions to the White House collection, made during President George W.
Bush's term, were in the works for several years. These acquisitions included a
Lenox china state service for 320 people.
First Lady Laura
Bush chose Lenox, in part, because it is an American company. She consulted
with the White House floral designer, Nancy Clarke, to determine a color style
that would be different from the red Reagan Lenox china, from the yellow
Clinton Lenox china. They chose green because it works with any flowers and
with any season. The set was designed to be used for large dinners in both the
State Dining Room and in the East Room. The chargers bear the seal: "The
White House 2008 Lenox, made in the U.S.A."
administration used all of the White House china services — all the time.
Upstairs in the dining room, which is the presidential residence, the Bushes
used the Reagan china — the same china used for State Dinners — for lunch,
small family dinners and other occasions. Mrs. Bush noted that the new china would
be used by the next First Family and those to follow. "I'm very, very
grateful to have had... the Reagan china, and the Clinton china, to be able to
use for entertaining here," she said.
Funding for the new
china was provided through the privately funded White House Historical
Association, the White House Endowment Trust, or the White House Historical