Curated Groupings

A Superb Affair: Social Life in the Lincoln White House

A White House Tradition

The Lincoln family arrived in Washington in late February 1861 and entered upon a tradition of public entertaining.  Throughout the winter months, it was not uncommon for the White House to host public receptions weekly, in most cases on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with Tuesdays being dress receptions and Saturdays less formal.  Some guests attended in full formal attire, while others appeared to have just left the work bench.  During the war years, when Washington was filled with people, it was  common to have 3,000 or more people show up to shake hands with the Commander in Chief.  President Lincoln stood in the Blue Room and shook hands with guests for hours on end until his hand was too swollen for him to use.  Although the President attempted to see everyone, hundreds of people went home without having met him.  The size of the crowd meant that there was often a melee to get into the White House.  And according to a newspaper reporter who attended the Lincolns's first reception, only one out of ten guests went away with the same outer garments--coats, hats, scarves--they had originally worn due to frequent mix-ups in the coat check.

 The First Lady's Duty

It was Mary Todd Lincoln's responsibility as First Lady to organize the receptions, which made her a target of criticism from the media and the public.  She was rebuked for costly entertaining at the White House during wartime, and at the same time, she was criticized for not entertaining more since it boosted the public morale.  By clicking on the images above, you can learn more about Mary Lincoln's White House entertainments by viewing items in the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.