Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Thomas Jefferson was the first President of the United States actually to live in the White House. The Adamses, to be sure, had moved in a few months before the close of their administration, and Mrs. Adams had written her famous description of what a President's mansion should not be; but Jefferson, who spent the eight years of his Presidency there, may really be said to have been its first occupant. It was he who selected its elaborate and forgotten furnishings, and it was he who transformed an unfinished, barnlike structure into the most sumptuous house of the time.

Jefferson found the President's House, as it was then called, lacking every comfort and convenience, as well as any distinction. It was a sorry contrast to the palatial residence of the Comte de Langeac which he had occupied in Paris. B. H. Latrobe has left a cheerless picture of the house as it was at the time of Jefferson's inauguration:

"The roof and gutters leaked in such a manner as materially to injure the ceilings and furniture; the ground surrounding the house, barely enclosed by a rough fence, was covered with rubbish, with the ruins of old brick kilns, and the remains of brick yards and stonecutters' sheds."

There is some uncertainty as to just what furniture was in the White House on Jefferson's arrival. For their brief sojourn John and Abigail Adams had brought with them many of the accessories necessary to make the place livable, as we gather from Mrs. Adams' complaint:

"The vessel which has my clothes is not arrived. The ladies are impatient for a drawing-room. I have no looking glasses but dwarfs in the house, nor a twentieth part lamps enough to light it. Many things were stolen, many more broken by the removal; amongst the number, my tea china is more than half missing."

Liberal appropriation had been made for the purchase of furniture during Adams' administration, but he refused to give his political antagonists and successors any accounting of the spending of this sum and we are thus without a clue as to what his purchases may have been. That some of the first furnishings of the White House had been brought from the President's House in Philadelphia seems certain. On his retirement from the Presidency in 1797, Washington made an inventory of the contents of his house, listing separately those things belonging to the public, those that were his private property, and certain pieces to be sold. Although the articles marked ‘Furnished by the United States’ were mostly small objects, he listed under "cabinet work" some important items of furniture, including: "3 yellow silk Sophas/ a set of lar[rge] dining Tables/ 2 end Tables/ 2 Mahogany dining Tables/ 1 Inlaid breakfast/ 2 circular sideboards/ 1 Mahogany cabinet/ 1 Ditto Bookcase" and numerous chairs. How much of this furniture found its way to the "comfortless, handsome-looking building" to which the Adamses came may never be determined, but it probably formed the basis for the first furnishings.

With his usual energy and passion for perfection, Jefferson threw himself into the task of making the executive mansion livable and giving it a proper dignity. The White House that emerged from his hands reflected the personality of a man of the world, familiar with the duties of his station.

In the spring of 1800, Congress had appropriated a sum not exceeding $15,000 for the furnishing of the President's House. From an unpublished ‘State of Cash drawn for the purpose of furnishing, the President's House’, 1801, among the Jefferson papers, we learn that Adams, during his brief sojourn in Washington, had expended some $6,759 of this. The balance, with the addition of $1,600 from the sale of certain carriages and horses, and $1,100 remaining from an appropriation of the year 1797, gave Jefferson about $10,000 with which to complete the furnishing of the executive mansion. From 1804 on there was an annual appropriation of approximately $15,000, but the greater part of this may well have been spent for completing the building, rather than for its furnishing.

When Jefferson left the Presidency in 1809, he turned over to his successor an inventory listing the contents of each of the twenty-three rooms of the executive mansion. Its forgotten pages inscribed in Jefferson's precise hand, give us a glimpse of a great establishment, fashionably and lavishly furnished to the minutest detail.

It is interesting to speculate on the character of these early furnishings of the White House. The laconic wording of the inventory gives no clue to their style but they are uniformly described as "elegant" and "fashionable," and must have reflected the style of the moment. By far the most numerous items listed are the chairs. Most often they occur as "12 fashionable chairs, gold and green; 6 fashionable chairs, blue and gold; 16 fashionable chairs, black and gold," leaving us the task of attempting to determine just what they may have been. That they were gilt chairs with colored upholstery, or possibly chairs with colored and gilt frames, seems the inevitable, if unpopular, conclusion. When mahogany was meant, Jefferson was careful to say so. Thus it is "14 mahogany chairs, crimson damask bottoms; 22 mahogany chairs, crimson damask bottoms;" or "2 mahogany window stools, covered with haircloth; 4 large mahogany sofas covered with haircloth." Otherwise it was a color and gold - clearly implying that the frames were gold, or painted and gilded. Chairs such as these had been in use in England, as well as in France, since long before the close of the eighteenth century, and the new fashion was, of course, reflected in America. The "black and gold" chairs may have had gilt frames with upholstery of black haircloth, or even satin; but, as they were used in both the small dining room and the state dining room, it is far more likely that they were not upholstered but were of the painted "fancy" type with cane seat, greatly favored at this period.

The furnishing of the public apartments included also a "Square Mahogany Table with leaves," "Mahogany Card Tables," and "Elegant Girandoles and Class lusters," "large Chandelier and 2 Glass shades." To the President's sitting room was added "An elegant Mahogany drink Table with a Marble Top," possibly in the style introduced by Hepplewhite. The "elegant sideboard with pedestals and urn knife cases," found in both the large and small dining rooms, may have been similar in character, and the great dining table described as "1 extra large mahogany Dining Table in 6 pieces" we may well imagine to have been on the order of the long tables familiar in the early work of Duncan Phyfe.

Thus we are able to picture the furniture of the great public apartments of the White House as embodying both the established Sheraton forms and some few introductory Directoire elements, still delicately handled and in tune with what had gone before. That there was a strong French influence cannot be doubted. It has, indeed, scarcely been realized how much French furniture was in use in America at this time.

The oval room in the second story of the White House was set aside as the ladies' drawing room. The "22 Mahogany chairs - crimson bottoms" are doubtless the "crimson furniture" mentioned by Mrs. Adams in 1800, on her arrival at the White House. Except for the thirty-five mahogany chairs in the "Great passage" on the second floor, the "28 Mahogany Chairs with hair cloth bottoms" in the "Great Hall of Entrance," and the fourteen chairs in the south-front chamber, these are the only chairs of mahogany listed. With its crimson damask chairs, sofas, and window curtains, "4 Girandoles with elegant brass lamps, 1 elegant Glass Chandelier, 2 large looking Glasses," 1 pair mahogany Card Tables and 7 pieces elegant Chimney Ornaments," the ladies' drawing room must indeed have been a handsome sight.

At the White House, Jefferson was unable to indulge his fondness for alcove beds, but he achieved the object as nearly as possible. Instead of using the large rooms as bedrooms, he placed the beds in the small rooms adjoining, and used the former as dressing rooms. In each bedroom was a bedstead with curtains, bed, mattress, counterpane, and bolster, along with fashionable chairs, tables, a looking glass, and occasionally a sofa. The dressing rooms were furnished variously with "fashionable chairs, 1 Mahogany Wardrobe, 1 Lady's elegant Mahogany table, wash Stand and Glass, 1 large Mahogany Table," and, usually, "a Machine for hanging clothes on" a device dear to Jefferson's heart and a silent comment on the absence of closets. The "machines" have been described by a visitor to the White House, in 1803, as an "odd but useful contrivance for hanging up jackets and breeches on a machine like a turnstile."

The curtains selected by Jefferson for the mansion are of unusual interest. Instead of the brocades or damasks one might have expected, chintz was used in the principal rooms throughout the house. Thus the President's drawing room was hung with "5 Suits Chintz window Curtains with cornice." In no other important house of the period except Landsdowne, where dimity was used, is this known to have been true. An English fashion magazine in 1807, however, states that "window curtains of chintz with Roman and antique draperies and silk fringes etc. to correspond, are truly elegant"; thus we see that Jefferson was well abreast of the times.

The small dining room of the White House, the familiar room used by Jefferson for his daily dinner parties, was likewise hung with "2 Suits of chintz window curtains and cornice," as were many of the bedrooms and dressing rooms. However, the President's bedroom and his dressing room, as well as the large chamber on the south front (used as a sitting room), and several remaining bedrooms and dressing rooms, had "dimity Window Curtains with cornices." Dimity was also used in the large dining room, in the dignified company of the "elegant sideboard with pedestals and urns," fashionable black and gold chairs, and "elegant Brussels carpet." The only room in which damask is mentioned is, as we have seen, the "Lady's Drawing Room."

The carpets which covered the vast floors of the mansion are of no less interest than the curtains. Brussels carpet, clearly the new fashion, was used in all the important rooms. Then, as now, it was a looped carpet, and at that time it was handwoven. In the drawing room, we learn, there was an "elegant" Brussels carpet; likewise in the President's sitting room, with a fire rug in addition. In the President's bedroom there was "a Brussels carpet on the floor."

The great hall of entrance apparently proved too "monstrous" for any carpet. It was covered with "Canvass, painted Green," as were the small dining room and one or two of the minor rooms. Painted canvas seems to have been a popular floor covering of the early century. We find other references to floors covered with "dark grey cloth" and "green and blue baize."

Despite a lively admiration for things French, Jefferson was swayed by a strong desire to patronize American manufacturers, and it seems unlikely that he sent to Europe for very much. To be sure, the china and glassware were imported from France and the chintz and carpets likewise came from overseas, but most of the furniture was probably of American make.

Such was Jefferson's White House, a building more sumptuous in its furnishings and more splendid in its architectural treatment than any that had preceded it in America. It was thus that it appeared - with its gleaming mahogany, its charming chintzes, its crimson and gold furniture, and the great portrait of Washington - when the British marched upon it in the War of 1812 and used its new furnishings as so much kindling.