Private Wives ~ Public Lives

Private Wives ~ Public Lives

February 28, 2006 - September 30, 2006

This exhibition is made possible through collaboration with the following individuals & institutions:

Mr. & Mrs. Set Charles Momjian
Mr. & Mrs. John Tietjen
Shirley Wolf, Stitches in Time, Plymouth, Ohio
Carole Lazarus, Paper Peddlers, Cleveland, Ohio
National Park Service Adams National Historical Park, Quincy, Massachusetts
Girl Scouts of the USA National Historic Preservation Center, New York
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, West Branch, Iowa
Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia
The Woodrow Wilson House, A National Trust Historic Site, Washington, D. C.
Division of Political History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The term “First Lady” is a privileged title – according to some, the United States equivalent of royalty – a title that comes with a certain amount of scrutiny and adoration, criticism and respect. Private Wives ~ Public Lives celebrates some of the private, personal interests of four of our nation’s First Ladies: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Jane Pierce. The exhibit also highlights the public causes championed by four additional First Ladies: Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Wilson, and Lou Hoover.

Private Wives
In 1759, First Lady Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802) married George Washington (1732-1799) at the age of twenty-seven. Two years before, she became a wealthy widow with two small children and a large tobacco plantation to manage. After marrying George, Martha’s main job at Mount Vernon was to supervise the household and oversee more than one hundred slaves. She coordinated their spinning, weaving and sewing of cloth, tending the gardens, and cooking for the large numbers of family and friends that were frequent visitors to the estate. She doted on her children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. What few of her letters that remain contain countless concerns regarding their health and welfare.

Like Martha Washington, First Lady Abigail Quincy Smith Adams (1744-1818) spent a great deal of her marriage running affairs at home while her husband, John Adams (1735-1826), was away founding a country. Quick-witted, opinionated, with an eye for the political scene, she was also an exquisite seamstress and could make bullets from melted pewter spoons during the Revolutionary War. Abigail managed the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, while raising four children. She did all this sometimes for years at a stretch while John was away. In her lonely letters to her far-away husband she frequently chides him for his own letters that are too infrequent, not long enough, and lack affectionate phrasing.

Though the two were not close in the beginning, Abigail Adams and daughter-in-law and First Lady Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams (1775-1852) grew to have mutual respect and admiration for one another. Louisa Adams grew up in France and England and spoke fluent French. She loved music; she sang, danced, and was an accomplished harpist and pianist. Louisa was a woman of great stamina, as evidenced by the difficulties she overcame during a six-week journey she took from Russia to Paris with her 3-year-old son. She endured travel through dangerous war zones in treacherous weather.  Louisa’s love of art and true grit sustained her through her difficult life with her husband.  Often depressed, she found great comfort in eating chocolate. She gave outlet to her feelings through writing autobiographical poems, plays, and memoirs of her life.

As a young girl, First Lady Jane Means Appleton Pierce (1806-1863) played the piano. She had a life-long love of literature. In many ways, Jane was the stereotypical 1800s Victorian-era woman – shy, submissive, physically frail and prone to sickness. She relied heavily on family members to help her carry her burdens. Though Jane mourned deeply the deaths of two infant sons, the death of her last son, Bennie, at age 12, caused her profound, ever-lasting grief. In 1853, Bennie was killed in a train derailment a few months before Franklin Pierce took his presidential oath of office. During the Pierce administration, she was known as “the shadow in the White House.” Jane wore black mourning clothes for the rest of her life. 

Public Lives
Born into the Quaker faith, but expelled after her marriage to non-Quaker James Madison, First Lady Dolley Payne Todd Madison (1768-1849) set a very high standard when it came to the power wielded from social and political entertainment in the White House. She was the master of mingling political opponents and bringing women into the political discussion. She used what she called “props” to get people talking. She would carry small books, offer dips of snuff from her snuffbox, or carry a parrot on her shoulder to engage small talk. She readily played cards for money and enjoyed the racetrack. Dolley presided at the head of all formal Washington dinner parties, happily bringing her shy husband, James Madison (1751-1836), into the conversation. Through her natural good nature, flair for fashion, and vast amount of entertaining, she earned her nickname, “Queen Dolley.”

Few First Ladies have suffered as many public attacks as Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882). Mary Lincoln’s visitation of the hospitalized Union troops never received much publicity during the Civil War. She reviewed the troops in Washington on a regular basis on her own and beside her husband, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). She personally bought and served food to injured soldiers. She brought flowers, wrote letters, read books for the wounded, and raised money for their hospitals. The Union soldiers were so touched by her personal concerns on their behalf that they named one of their camps “Camp Mary Lincoln.”  Mary Lincoln also raised private donations for the Contraband Relief Association, an organization which provided housing, employment, clothing and medical care for recently freed slaves.

Unlike Mary Lincoln, First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961) received much more public acclaim for her activities during World War I. Rationing became a major part of life in America, so Edith put the White House on a budget. American citizens observed different days of rationing during the week, including heatless, meatless, wheatless, and gasless days. Edith received the media nickname “the shepherdess” after she purchased a flock of sheep that grazed on the White House lawn. When the wool was sheared, she donated the proceeds to the Red Cross. Her dedication to the Red Cross included a White House unit where White House employees, friends, and family sewed a variety of clothing for the soldiers.

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) was an early advocate for women’s organizations and activities. Her commitment to the Girl Scout organization is one of her most distinguishing accomplishments. She was a local troop leader, Honorary President, and National Girl Scout President. Lou also utilized her involvement in the Girl Scouts to promote physical fitness for women. During her tenure as First Lady she gave many radio talks encouraging young women to become active in their communities.

Private Wives ~ Public Lives honors both the intimate lives of these exceptional women as well as the civic causes they supported as First Ladies. The National First Ladies’ Library is dedicated to exploring the lives of all First Ladies in order to better understand the history of women and the impact that history has upon our nation and our culture today.