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Presidential China

THE sets of china used by other Presidents than Washington, while their various owners were living in the Executive Mansion, deserve to be mentioned. and described on account of historic interest, though not always for their value as ceramics, and because specimens of them are within the possibility of possession by a china collector. I think the true china lover will, however, care little to own any piece of porcelain simply because it is said to have belonged to or was eaten from by some great man—if that be its only virtue ; and I am sure will care little for much of the china that has graced the table at the White House.

Jefferson was, without doubt, as profusely hospitable a President as ever dwelt in the Executive Mansion of the United States. For this lavish hospitality he may have had a double reason—not only to gratify his well-known liberal disposition and his love of good company as well, but to prove his shrewd suspicion, or rather his firm conviction, that a well-cooked dinner was often a potent factor in accomplishing his desired end when his smooth and persuasive argument or his apparent candor would have failed. A good illustration of his crafty, worldly wisdom is shown in the result of the historically renowned dinner given by him, when Secretary of State, in 1789, at Philadelphia, to President Washington and the prominent leaders of both parties of the House and Senate. A fierce dispute between the Northern and Southern members of Congress had risen over the location of the national capital. The Southerners insisted that the banks of either the Delaware or Potomac should be chosen as a site; the Northerners were equally determined upon the borders of the Susquehanna. An amicable and peaceful settlement followed this famous dinner, and shrewd Jefferson had his own way—the seat of government was placed at Washington, on the Potomac. This lavish hospitality, both in the Executive Mansion and in private life, doubtless had much to do with Jefferson's subsequent financial embarrassments. Very few of the pieces of table-ware used and owned by Jefferson, either in public or private life, are now to be found. His married life was short, and his housekeeping, both when Secretary of State and President, was entirely in the hands of servants, a condition never favorable to the preservation of china. The dispersion of his. household effects caused the disappearance from sight and knowledge of what few pieces remained. Though his silver is carefully preserved by his descendants, they own no china.

An octagonal plate of Rockingham ware, used by Jefferson when President, is now in Washington. It bears the stamp "BRAMELD." It is of the dark blue shade frequently used in the Chinese designs on that ware, a blue so rich and deep that it gives a character and tone rarely found on pottery, and makes the plate as glorious in tint as a block of choicest lapis lazuli. The glaze is "crazed " on the entire surface of this particular plate, both glaze and color being splintered in places from the brownish pottery body. The plate has evidently been frequently and severely heated in an oven. I have seen other pieces of the same shape, bearing the same design, which had not, however, the honorable distinction of having been owned by Jefferson.

An exceedingly beautiful plate was sold at auction in New York, about fifteen years ago, that was catalogued as having been the property of Jefferson and used on his dinner-table. It was apparently of Chinese-manufacture of the type known as Lowestoft. The rim and inner border were diapered in dark blue, relieved by dainty lines of gold. In the centre was the letter " J," in gold, enclosed in a shield outlined in blue enamel adorned with thirteen stars.. Above the shield was a blue and gold helmet with closed visor. This plate brought $40, being of ceramic value as well as of historic interest. There was sold at the same time, for $2.50, a custard-cup of French porcelain painted with detached bachelor's-buttons, which was also said to have been Jefferson's.

Of the china used by either President Adams I have no definite knowledge, though I have seen several pieces of Oriental china that bore the reputation of having been used by these Presidents during their terms of office.

The china used by Madison was a set of finely painted Lowestoft. Portions of it are owned by descendants in Virginia. He also owned a set of fine French china with his initials.

The next White House china-service of which I have seen authentic pieces is the one known as the Monroe set—Madison's official china having been destroyed at the burning of the Executive Mansion by the British in 1814. This Monroe set is of French china of good quality. It has around the edge a half-inch band of pale coffee color or brownish buff, edged with a burnished gilt line on either side. It has a small and pretty coffee-cup with extraordinarily flat saucer.

The Andrew Jackson set was of heavy and rather coarse bluish porcelain, apparently of Chinese manufacture, with bands of ugly dull blue and coarsely applied gold, and a conventional and clumsy shield in the centre. It was not very tasteful nor beautiful, any more than was its Presidential owner, and very fitly furnished forth his dining-table.

In Franklin Pierce's time what is now known as "the red-edged set " was bought, the border being of dark red and gilt, with an inner circle of gilt. It was of French china of fair quality. The cups of this set were very large, while the saucers were exceedingly diminutive; though people of fashion, even at that date, had not wholly given up drinking tea from their saucers. A lady at whose home Judge Story and Daniel Webster were frequent visitors, tells me that those two representative men of their day always drank their cooled tea from their saucers.

The Buchanan set was of very commonplace ware, with a stiff, meagre, and ill-painted spray of flowers in the centre of each plate and on the side of each dish. Ugly as they are, the plates are now valued at forty dollars each. The saucers of this set were disproportionately large, holding much more than the cups. A few pieces of this Buchanan set still remain in Washington, though none are preserved at the White House.

A very full set of Presidential china was bought in Abraham Lincoln's time. It is of finest French porcelain, with a border of crimson purple or plum color, with delicate lines and dots of gold, and the plates, platters, and saucers have slightly scalloped edges. In the centre of the plates and on the sides of the dishes and small pieces is a very spirited version of the coat-of-arms of the United States, with the motto E Pluribus Unum " upon a clouded background of gold. A plate and cup of this set, now in the possession of Miss Henrietta D. Lyon, of Staten Island, is here shown. This design is very dignified and appropriate, and, with the substitution of a blue border with gilt ears of Indian corn, has been re-produced for the present mistress of the White House. Plates of this Abraham Lincoln set sold at the Governor Lyon sale for $4.25 each, and little covered custard- or egg -cups for $1.50 each. I have recently had some of these plates offered to me for $25 a-piece. Portions of this set still remain and are used at the White House.

The General Grant set is well known, and is very handsome. The border is of buff and gold, broken once by a small United States shield in high colors. In the centre is a well-painted spray or bunch of flowers, many being the wild flowers of the United States. The coffee-cups of this set were ordered to use at the wedding of the President's daughter, and were known as the " Nellie Grant cups." A plate said to have been ordered for the White House in General Grant's time is here shown.

Of the beautiful and costly set ordered by Mrs. Hayes too much is known, and too many cheaper copies have been sold, and may be seen in any large china-shop, to make it worth while to give any detailed description here. It was made at Limoges by the Havilands, as was also the " Grant set." It makes a fine room decoration when the various pieces are arranged in the beautiful buffet that President Arthur had made for it, and is more satisfactory in that position than when in use on the table.

It may be asked how all these pieces of Presidential china come to be found in private collections, and offered for sale, and so generally distributed over the country. A very reprehensible custom existed until re-cent years (and indeed may still be possible) of selling at auction at the end of each Presidential term, or in the middle if thought necessary, whatever household effects the house steward and house occupants chose to consider of no further use. These Presidential sales were, of course, eagerly attended by relic-hunters. At such a sale in President Grant's day a lot of " old truck," as it was irreverently called, valued at $500, brought $2,760. As there must be, of course, much breakage 0f china in the pantry and dining-room of the White House, and as it was considered for many years necessary to have full "sets " of china table-ware, enough to serve an entire dinner, the odd plates, cups and saucers, and dishes were ruthlessly " cleared out " whenever an appropriation was made by the Government, or the President desired to buy a new set.. It seems a pity that a few pieces of each of these " ° state sets" should not have been preserved in a cabinet at the White House to show us the kind of china from which our early rulers ate their daily meals and served their state dinners, as well as to show our varying and halting progress in luxury, refinement, and taste.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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