Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

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Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

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presidential-ghost-cleveland

“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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ghost-president-roosevelt

Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

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Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


Lincoln’s Laboratory

I’ve been digging around in bins and folders for scraps of paper for as long as I can remember, and I do recall one item that caught my attention years ago: it was an envelope with a still-bright print of Abraham Lincoln depicted as some sort of wizardly chemist, an alchemist, I also recall thinking, in the midst of a rather wordy laboratory. It had a sticker marked $5 on it which struck me as quite steep at that time. Now I see that this same envelope fetched $2600 at a recent auction! The envelope, produced by the Salem stationery and publishing firm of G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith (1860-1875), has become a highly-coveted example of Civil War propaganda, and I clearly missed out.

Union Alchemist

Whipple and Smith were not only showing their colors; they were marketing a relatively new product: the envelope itself. Before 1851 U.S. postage was charged by the sheet, so people simply folded their letters with sealing wax and mailed them off. In that year a flat postage rate was introduced for mail under a half-ounce and traveling less than 3,000 miles, so protective “covers” were introduced, which became patriotic covers a decade later. More than 10,000 embellished envelopes were produced in the North during the Civil War, much less in the South. They became collectible items even during that time, as many survive unaddressed—like the one I saw some time ago and those below. I can see why the “Union Alchemist” envelope is coveted today: its image and message is a bit more intricate than the majority of pro-Union covers I have seen–many featuring Jefferson Davis swinging from a rope (actually he is there, in the upper left-hand corner, in a specimen jar, next to General Beauregard).

Union Alchemist 3

Lincoln is writing prescriptions in a laboratory full of his distillations, including pure refined national elixir of liberty and metallic soap for erasing stains..for the southern market; he is not only the Great Emancipator (and the Great Distiller) but also the renowned rebel exterminator. It’s such a great image and item: what was I thinking years ago when I passed it by? I’ve found quite a few more in auction and historical archives, but none available, for $5 or $500: this is definitely one that got away, but I did catch a Salem octopus!

Lincoln Envelope Hakes Auctions

Lincoln's Laboratory PMA

Union Alchemist 2

Union Alchemist 5 Cowans

Union Alchemist 8

Union Alchemist Bangor

Civil War Cover

Whipple & Smith’s “Lincoln’s Laboratory or the Union Alchemist” covers, from Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, The Helfand Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John A. McAllister Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Cowan’s Auctions, PBA Galleries, and the Bangor Historical Society.


Presidential Plates

Because I dislike Presidents Day so much (because of its ahistorical morphing of all the presidents together, thus denying their individual achievements, as well as the fact that it never seems to occur on the actual date of either Washington’s or Lincoln’s birthdays, the particular presidents it claims to commemorate), I’m going to downplay the historical and emphasize the material today with a very brief examination of Presidential china. The morphing of presidents is a very popular pastime today (see this viral video), but I prefer not to morph.

I spent (another) snowy afternoon looking through two books (Official White House China by Margaret Brown Klapthor and Susan Gray Detweiler’s American Presidential China. The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and accessing two online sources (the White House Historical Association’s “Picturing the President’s House” digital series (so well done!) and the McNeil Americana Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and quickly formed an impression of presidential plates:  those from the first century of the presidency are far more aesthetically pleasing and interesting than those from the second.  Twentieth-century presidential china is, for the most part, boring.

Here are some of the early presidential plates, starting with that of the Washingtons, a gift to Martha from Dutch East India trader Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, who commissioned the design in Canton, China. I love the chain of 15 states, the state of the union in 1796. The service commissioned by James and Elizabeth Monroe from the French firm of Dagoty-Honoré is considered the first official White House china because of its patriotic motif:  surrounding the eagle are five vignettes depicting Strength, Agriculture, Commerce, Art, and Science, the foundations of the new nation. Successive presidents apparently used the large Monroe service (400+ pieces) for big state dinners but also brought their own china into the White House for daily use:  Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Adams used this neoclassical service (with seahorse motifs), likely manufactured by the La Courtille Factory in Paris and purchased during Mr. Adams’ earlier diplomatic service in Europe, during their time in office.

Presidential China Plate

Presidential China Monroe

Presidential China Adams

Porcelain plates used during the Washington, Monroe, and Adams administrations, McNeil Americana Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There is no doubt that the star of early presidential china was the set purchased by James and Dolley Madison from the Nast Factory in Paris:  an absolutely stunning (and modern!) design featuring wheels, of all motifs. It seems to be very sought after; at first I thought this was because of its relative rarity, given the fact that the Madison White House was burned down by the British in 1814.  But it seems like most of the service survived (did Dolley sneak it out in the last hours, along with that great portrait of George Washington?), so I think its value must be based on the unusual design. I love it, and am even tempted to buy a copy–nearly every presidential library’s shop, including the JFK Library here in Massachusetts, seems to offer reproduction presidential china produced by Woodmere.

Presidential China Madison

Presidential China Madison 2

Presidential China Madison Nast Dessert Cooler 1804

The Madison China, purchased c. 1806 from the Nast Factory in Paris.  Plate and sauce boat, Philadelphia Museum of Art; dessert cooler, White House Historical Association.

The Lincoln “Royal Purple” china, pictured below on the cover of Detweiler’s book, was certainly expensive, like most of Mary Todd Lincoln’s White House “improvements”, but it seems to have stood the test of time and was supplemented and complemented by later sets. The scalloped shape set it apart from its predecessors, and like all White House china commissioned before 1918, it was made in France, by Haviland.

American Presidential China

In terms of their china choices, the two most innovative, or nationalistic (as well as naturalistic), first ladies were Lucy Webb Hayes and Caroline Harrison. Quite by chance, Mrs. Hayes met an artist and reporter for Harper’s Weekly named Theodore R. Davis who convinced her to use native American flora and fauna in the design of a new White House service in 1880; the end result, designed by Davis in collaboration with the Haviland Factory in Limoges, France, was a rather dramatic departure from the traditional styles of the mid-nineteenth century.  A decade later, Mrs. Harrison incorporated the naturalistic theme in her own design, but also paid tribute to tradition with the eagle and stars, and to Mrs. Lincoln’s plates with the  scalloped edge.

Presidential China Hayes Soup Plate 1880

Presidential China Rutherford B Hayes 1880 Haviland

Presidential China Harrison

Soup plate and serving platter from the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, designed by Theodore R. Davis in collaboration with the Haviland Factory, Limoges France, 1880, Philadelphia Museum of Art and White House Historical Association; A soup plate designed by Mrs. Benjamin Harrison (Caroline Lavinia Scott) and manufactured by Tressemanes and Vogt, Limoges, France, 1891.

With the arrival of the twentieth century we come to the era of domestic production (mostly by Lenox) and rather boring bands: lots of gold, along with blue (Roosevelt), green (Truman and Bush), red (Reagan), and yellow (Clinton). The only departure from these restrained designs seems to be the Johnson wildflowers. I’m not sure what the Obama plans are regarding china, but in the mean time, we do have the “Abraham Obama” tea set by Ron English ( I suppose I am engaging in a little bit of presidential morphing after all) and you can also custom order your own flowered presidential plate here; I might go for Teddy Roosevelt myself.

Presidential China

President Plate Rothshank


The Spoils of War and Thanksgiving

I’m going to bypass any politically correct discussion of Thanksgiving this week and return to the source:  William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford was the second governor of the Plymouth Colony, and his personal history of the spiritual and literal journeys of his fellow Separatists out of England and to the New World is one of the earliest and most important sources of British American history. Bradford began writing the book in 1630, and it covers the formation of the Plymouth colony up to 1647, including that first legendary “Thanksgiving”, which did not become an official holiday until two centuries later. Ironically, one factor which rather inadvertently led to the establishment of Thanksgiving as the quintessential American holiday was the theft of the source which first referenced it.

A paragraph from Plymouth Plantation; Paul Manship’s idealistic image of the first Thanksgiving, 1930s, Smithsonian institution.

Bradford’s book was known and referenced by colonial American historians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it remained in manuscript form. After the siege of Boston, when the British occupied downtown, troops ransacked the Old South Church (and turned it into a riding school, of all things) and found Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation lodged in the steeple. One (or several–who knows?) soldier took it as a spoil of war, and it made its way to Canada and later to Great Britain where it somehow (again–who knows?) found  its way into the Library of Fulham Palace, the official residence of the Bishop of London.  There it was used and referenced by several British historians of early America, bringing it to the attention of American scholars–who had apparently forgot all about it?  I know; there are a lot of question marks in this story! In any case, the sole copy of this very important American source  was in England and a movement to get it back began organizing in the 1840s. It took a while–a half-century to be precise– but the British “borrowers” did consent to have the text printed while it was in their possession.  It was published in 1856, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and it clearly revived interest in the history of the “Pilgrim Fathers”.

Old South Church, Boston, apparently threatened after surviving the great Boston fire of 1872, and in 1898, Boston Public Library; Fulham Palace in the later nineteenth century.

The publication of Plymouth Plantation came at a time when the United States was increasingly divided over the issue and expansion of slavery, and the text seems to have stimulated interest not only in the Pilgrims but in the Northern settlement at Plymouth, to counterbalance the earlier Southern settlement at Jamestown. After the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln responded to the continued lobbying of the influential author and editor Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, a strong advocate for the extension of New England values to the rest of the country as a way towards national unity, and proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. George Washington had issued a similar proclamation, but Lincoln formalized the custom and standardized the date, in the spirit of both thanksgiving and union in the midst of war.

Two Winslow Homer views of Thanksgiving Day, 1865 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated:  Hanging up the Musket and The Church Porch, Smithsonian Institution.

And what of Bradford’s manuscript?  It remained at Fulham Palace for nearly the rest of the nineteenth century, despite some high-ranking diplomatic deliberations. Trades were attempted, and some papers of King James I were sent over to Great Britain, with the hope of receiving Plymouth Plantation back.  To no avail:  the Bishop of London had to consult with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had to confer with the Prince of Wales.  It all took some time:  not until 1897 was the manuscript returned to Massachusetts, where it remains, in the State Library.

Two pages from the Bradford manuscript at the State Library:  the title page and a list of Mayflower passengers.  Note the IT NOW BELONGS TO THE BISHOP OF LONDON’S LIBRARY AT FULHAM note on the former.


Little Bits of Lincolniana

I hate Presidents’ Day; it obscures the achievements of those individual presidents which it claims to recognize.  We should celebrate, or at least remember, the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington even if we do not have the day off from work. Today is Lincoln’s birthday, and for the occasion I’ve assembled some scraps of paper which bear witness to his personal life more than his presidential one (but ultimately they become inseparable).  There is a vast sea of Lincolniana, and this was just my way of navigating through it.

The clever little “business card” of young lawyer Lincoln, and the Cotillion Party for which he is listed as a “manager” (I suppose this is the equivalent of today’s “sponsor”), along with a certain Mr. Todd.  As that is his future wife’s maiden name, I like to think that he met Mary Todd at this party, though I could be wrong.  These items, as well as the four images below, come from the William E. Barton Lincoln Collection at the University of Chicago. Because they are quite charming, I’ve included some digitized exhibition labels from the Lincoln Centennial as well as the records.

The Marriage License of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, the last bit of a letter from Abraham to Mary written while he was serving in Congress in Washington:  the majority of it is about money, indicating that Mary’s reputation as a spendthrift is well-deserved, and he closes with “kiss and love the dear rascals” referring to their boys.  A check for $5 to Tad, one of the rascals.

The items above are all from the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress:  a dance card from Lincoln’s first inaugural ball, a Union envelope from the Civil War, a Massachusetts Republican ticket for the election of 1864, and a mourning ribbon for Lincoln from later 1865.  All manner of ribbons survive, as everyone must have worn one; this is a particularly fancy one, I think.


The Life of Lincoln

As this weekend marks Abraham Lincoln’s actual birthday, February 12 (as opposed to the consolidated “Presidents’ Day” which seems to be a holiday of convenience rather than commemoration) I sought out some images of his life in the vast collections of the Library of Congress.  In assembling these images, I  focused on his life as opposed to his death, as my initial impression is that many Lincolniana collections are rather macabrely-focused on the latter, constituting a “cult of remembrance” for the martyred President.  I’m more interested in the man than his death, but I did include a photograph of a late nineteenth-century Smithsonian exhibit featuring only Lincoln’s suit and hat.  The photograph of the President, Allan Pinkerton and General McClellan on the battlefield at Antietam in October of 1862 has been reproduced many times and is widely available, but I could not resist including it as it is such a striking image:  the iconic figure of Lincoln with other people.  He is so often alone.

My collection of images is organized chronologically, beginning with the first photograph of Lincoln as a newly elected congressman in 1846-47, through his presidency.  The two crowd photographs are from his first and second inaugurals in 1861 and 1865, and the last two images (oddly clothing-related) are from the later nineteenth century.

Photography credits:  all images but the last two from the Library of Congress Digital Collections; the remainder from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


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