Entertaining At The White House
( Originally Published 1908 )
UP TO the coming of President McKinley to the White House the entertainments at the mansion were comparatively simple and unpretentious. This simplicity was consistent with the family life and traditions of most of the Presidents. When Mr. McKinley was inaugurated for the second time, however, we had just finished a war which had made this nation a world power. The population had greatly increased, importance had suddenly come to us in international affairs, and social life in Washington had become correspondingly complex. Hence with Mr. McKinley began more elaborate entertainments at the White House.
When Mr. Roosevelt came to the White House, the necessity for entertaining on a large scale had become imperative. Yet even today the President cannot entertain on as extensive a scale as the conditions of social life in Washington demand, for the reason that even the remodeled White House is not large enough to be equal to the requirements.
Nevertheless, social life at the White House under President Roosevelt is indeed one of tremendous activity. Washington correspondents report that Mrs. Roosevelt and the wives of the members of the President's Cabinet form the nucleus around which the brilliant social life of the Capital revolves, and their presence and personality are of interest all over the land. Peculiar dignity is given to State receptions by the presence of the Cabinet women as aids to Mrs. Roosevelt in receiving the invited guests.
Even as far back as the time when Mrs.U.S.Grant, the widow of the great General, was still living in Washington, the social life in Washington made such heavy demands upon the women of official and private life that Mrs. Grant was inspired to give out the following:
"I will most cordially indorse a concerted movement on the part of the social leaders of Washington to arrange that the hours now given to evening entertainments shall be fewer, and so more in accordance with the laws of nature.
"Mothers of young girls now absolutely dread their entrance into society because of the great drain on their strength which social life means.
"I think the older members of the world of fashion can obviate all this. Have no entertainment, dance, dinner or reception which will extend later than midnight."
Music at the White House
Music in one form or another has always been a feature of the White House entertainments, especially when the ladies received. Operatic singers have appeared from time to time, as well as great pianists and violinists. By the time Mrs. McKinley came to the mansion, the musical entertainments had become more or less formal and certain evenings were set aside for musicales to which Mrs. McKinley invited a large number of guests.
The origin of these musicales was the weekly reception given by Mrs. Washington. Gradually this weekly reception was abandoned and a weekly musicale took its place. Mrs. Roosevelt, during the administration of her husband, has given a musicale nearly every Friday evening during each winter season, the occasion embracing a concert and reception preceded by a dinner.
Mrs. Roosevelt's guests at these Friday evening gatherings have numbered from two to five hundred. They have usually been received by their hostess in the Green Room, Mrs. Roosevelt being unassisted except for the services of Colonel Bromwell, the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, who introduced the guests.
Usually when the concert begins the President himself enters the room,the musicale being held in the East Room,and remains until the rendering of the last number on the program. After the program of the evening is over the President arises, shakes hands with the singers or performers, and tenders his thanks. When the music is rendered by an orchestra, the President thanks the leader.
Following the concert refreshments are served, and both the President and Mrs. Roosevelt then mingle informally with the guests.
During President Arthur's administration, Madame Patti sang in the White House on Washington's Birthday, 1883. President Arthur was extremely fond of any form of musical entertainment, and in February, 1882, he invited the Fisk Jubilee Troupe to sing for him and his guests, the singers being colored people, all celebrated for their originality of entertainment.
The White House Piano
The wife of President John Adams, Abigail Adams, brought with her to the White House, her harp, her guitar and her piano. Her's, then, was the first piano in the President's house.
Since then one or more pianos have formed a part of the equipment of the Presidential mansion under each administration.
The piano of today is a very beautiful instrument, a grand, presented to the White House, in 1903, by a famous manufacturer of New York. It is of sweetest tone, stands in the East Room where the musicales are given, and is the finest that the craft can produce. Every inch of the instrument is overlaid with gold. Shields embracing the arms of the Thirteen Original States are part of the decorations on the body of the instrument. This grand piano has, of course, three legs. These are in the form of eagles with wide spreading wings, their outspread talons forming a firm base for the support of the instrument.
Dancing and Other Amusements
Dancing at the White House has been alternately permitted and forbidden in the last sixty years, according to the wish in this respect of each President or of the members of his family. In President Tyler's time, dancing took place on various festive occasions, Letitia Taylor, the President's daughter, writing to her friends about how she enjoyed "our Virginia reels at the President's house."
It was during Mrs. Polk's occupancy that dancing was discontinued at White House functions. It was not resumed as a regular practice until Benjamin Harrison and his daughter, Mrs. McKee, came to the White House.
"During the Harrison administration," says Doorkeeper Pendel, "Mrs. McKee gave a ball in the East Room for the young ladies and gentlemen of her acquaintance. The room was decorated very nicely, and it was a fine affair. Everything passed off charmingly, and everybody, when the ball was over, seemed to be happy."
That was the second and last ball given in the White House until President Roosevelt's administration, when a formal dance was given for Miss Alice Roosevelt. The first ball is mentioned in the chapter telling of "Royal and Titled Guests," under the heading of "President Tyler's Titled. Guests."
During the Buchanan administration, dancing was forbidden at the White House. When the Prince of Wales spent a week in the mansion as President Buchanan's guest, he expressed a boyish wish to dance, but, according to press accounts, "in only this one thing was he repressed, and this he laughingly protested against, while he gracefully submitted. He loved dancing, and the presence of the Marine Band and the dimensions of the East Room combined to make it possible to enjoy this pastime in the White House. The President, while he approved of dancing as a pastime, and liked to look upon it as a spectacle, would not consent to shock his sense of propriety. The Prince good-naturedly acquiesced and the young people did their dancing at the home of the British Minister."
Billiard playing has formed the pastime of various members of Presidential families ever since the White House was occupied by John Quincy Adams. Mr. Adams' son, Charles, was the first to introduce a billiard table to the mansion. The table was bought by the young man personally and set up at his own expense.
The Question of Temperance
Whether or not wine shall be served at the Presidential table has been a much discussed question ever since President Madison was a tenant at the White House. Mr. Madison held very rigid temperance principles, and it it said of him that he was defeated in a certain political campaign "because he would not buy drink for thirsty voters."
Of all the White House tenants who have strictly forbidden the use of wine at the White House table, the most persistent in adhering to the principles of temperance was Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. To honor Mrs. Hayes for her total abstinence rules and their enforcement, a portrait of her was presented to the White House by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. This picture now adorns the walls of one of the rooms in the mansion. It was painted by Daniel Huntington, and shows Mrs. Hayes wearing a dark red velvet dress and holding a bunch of roses in her hand.
President Hayes' own views of total abstinence at the, White House, as insisted upon by Mrs. Hayes, were published upon his retirement from the Presidency, and are now extremely interesting as coming from the one who was once the head of the Nation. Says Mr. Hayes :
"When I became President I was fully convinced that whatever might be the case in other countries and with people, in our climate and with the excitable nervous temperament of our people, the habitual use of intoxicating drinks was not safe. I regarded the danger of the habit as especially great in political and official life. It seemed to me that to exclude liquors from the White House would be wise and useful as an example, and would be approved by good people generally. The suggestion was particularly agreeable to Mrs. Hayes. She had been a total abstinence woman from childhood. We had never used liquors in our own home, and it was determined to continue our home customs in our official residence in Washington."