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November 2015

November 2015: Witness the History of the White House

WHHADid you know that before former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy lived in the White House, the first families took their furnishings with them after their terms were over?

Mrs. Kennedy thought better of that practice, and believed it was important for the “People’s House” to preserve American history and showcase the best of American culture. In 1961, she was instrumental in the founding of The White House Historical Association — a private, nonprofit organization with a big mission — to enhance the public's understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the White House.

Working with the National Park Service, the curator of the White House, the White House chief usher, and the "first family" — the WHHA is responsible for the care, conservation, and interpretation of the historic staterooms of the White House Executive Residence and larger White House Complex.

We are thrilled to interview historian William Bushong, the chief White House historian and VP of the WHHA since 1997. Scroll down for our Q&A. — David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer 

What made Jackie Kennedy see the need for the White House Historical Association?

William Bushong explains: “First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's belief that the White House should represent the best of American history and culture was the catalyst for the founding of the Association. Her plans for a "restoration" of the executive mansion were underway — it was not a redecoration in her view — and this inspired Nash Castro of the National Park Service, the White House liaison in those days, to suggest forming an association to assist the first lady with her restoration initiative. Most people don't realize that the White House is a unit of the National Park Service within President's Park, as directed by FDR's executive order in 1935.”

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What are some of the objects that have been preserved in the last six decades thanks to Jackie Kennedy’s vision?

BillBushongWe know Jackie Kennedy embraced the idea of the White House Historical Association, at least in part because she had ambitions to publish an authoritative guidebook on the White House. She also saw the importance of a nonprofit historical organization that could raise funds for acquiring fine art and furnishings.

In our interview with William Bushong, we learn that the correspondence and minutes of the founding of the association reveal the remarkable breadth of Mrs. Kennedy's vision and the depth of her research. She was even considering proposals for establishing a White House research library. Today the Association is working on developing a digital library of White House history, with the hope of fulfilling Mrs. Kennedy's dream.

Scroll down to learn more from our interview.

David Bruce Smith: What are some of the objects that have been preserved in the last six decades?

William Bushong: Mrs. Kennedy's call for donations led to a great influx of authentic furnishings to the White House. Most important were three original Bellangé chairs from President James Monroe's Oval Room and a chair made for the East Room in 1818. Five armchairs, two side chairs, and one sofa from the Monroe era have been returned to the White House since 1961. The two side chairs are the only pieces at the White House to bear traces of the maker's stamp. A group of reproductions (seven armchairs and four side chairs) was made in 1962 to supplement the three original chairs acquired in 1961-62. An Act of Congress in 1961 extended legal protection to these and all White House objects.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Which first ladies have been the most active in preservation efforts?

William Bushong: Pioneers such as Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley, Grace Coolidge, and Lou Hoover revered the history of the White House and began the preservation and display of china services. This really was the beginning of the recognition of the White House as a museum. In fact, Lou Hoover might be called the first curator; she directed a project to catalog all of the historic objects, furnishings, and art in the White House. Still, Mrs. Kennedy's effort to establish the White House as a cultural icon and to obtain public recognition of its special historic character was a watershed moment. Since the 1960s, all of our first ladies have been stewards of the preservation and interpretation of the White House.

David Bruce Smith: Tell us more about the collection. What does it include?

William Bushong: The White House collection of fine and decorative arts encompasses historic objects associated with the White House and the presidency, and significant representative works by a variety of American and European artists and craftsmen, generally consistent with the historic character of the house.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How much of the collection is available for public viewing?

William Bushong: Although the White House is an accredited historic house museum, it obviously is not a traditional exhibition setting. As the official residence of the U.S. president, objects from its collection are used to furnish the public and private rooms.

Still, the public is able to see a multitude of historical works of art, furnishings, and light fixtures, as well as silver, china, and glassware on the ground level and the State Floor public rooms. Another 100 historic objects are on display in the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, in Washington, DC.

David Bruce Smith: The presidential china collection is extremely noteworthy. Tell us about that.

William Bushong: There are 18 full, state services prior to the 2015 Obama china. A few selected services illustrate the collection's rich history:

  • 1817: James Monroe ordered the first dinner service created specifically for official use by an American president. Dagoty and Honor of Paris manufactured the 30 specially decorated place settings and matching dessert service, which cost $1,167.23. A handsome eagle with wings spread, designated in the shipping list as the arms of the United States, is at the center of each plate.
  • 1879: First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes wanted to commemorate North American flora and fauna in her new White House china and commissioned artist Theodore R. Davis to create 130 designs for the set. The cost of the order came to $3,120. Davis' designs were so lifelike that Washington socialite Clover Adams observed that when she dined at the White House, she could hardly eat soup peacefully if she had to watch a coyote leap at her from behind a pine tree.
  • 1918: In March, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned Lenox of Trenton, NJ, to produce the first American-made state service. All services in the past had been manufactured in England or France. Wilson's 1,326-piece china set had a dark cobalt border framed by a heavy gilt line of stars and stripes at the shoulder and featured the presidential arms in raised 24-carat gold in the center.
  • 1968: When Lady Bird Johnson requested the first new china set since 1952, for use at ever-increasing state visits, an anonymous donor funded its purchase through the White House Historical Association, setting a new precedent for the private funding of state services. The 2,208-piece Johnson china was decorated with American wildflowers. Tiffany and Co. of New York City executed the design, and the set was manufactured by Castleton China of New Castle, PA. The cost was $80,028.
  • 2015: There are 320 place settings and 11 pieces in the Obama service, including seven plates, a tureen with saucer, and a cup with saucer. First Lady Michelle Obama designed the service with inspiration from the china of Presidents Madison and McKinley. The White House Historical Association purchased it for $367,258.

That’s not all! To read the rest of our Q&A, click here!

And click here for more information about the White House Historical Association. 

Here's to restoring enthusiasm for American history!

This month in history

What was Evacuation Day?

November 25, 1783 — Today marks the day when British troops departed from New York Town on Manhattan Island, after the end of the American Revolutionary War. General George Washington triumphantly led the Continental Army from his former headquarters, north of the city, across the Harlem River, down Manhattan through the town to the Battery, at the foot of Broadway.

The last shot of the war was reportedly fired on this day — a British gunner shot a cannon at jeering crowds gathered on the shore of Staten Island as his ship passed through the Narrows at the mouth of New York Harbor, but it fell well short of the shore.

Read more…

Words of Wisdom

“Are you still living? Or has the mob of Paris mistaken the head of a monopolizer of knowledge for a monopolizer of corn, and paraded it about the streets upon a pole. Great part of the news we have had from Paris, for near a year past, has been very afflicting.

“I sincerely wish and pray it may all end well and happy, both for the King and the nation. The voice of Philosophy I apprehend can hardly be heard among those tumults. If any thing material in that way had occurred, I am persuaded you would have acquainted me with it. However, pray let me hear from you … a year's silence between friends must needs give uneasiness.

“Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

— A letter from Ben Franklin to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, November 13, 1789

Read more…

Book Club

“The White House in Gingerbread,” by Roland Mesnier

In this cookbook/memoir, Roland Mesnier, executive pastry chef to five presidents, tells the story behind each of the holiday gingerbread houses he created for display in the White House’s State Dining Room.

With co-author Mark Ramsdell, Chef Mesnier provides step-by-step instructions and templates for constructing and decorating a gingerbread house at home. During the holidays, thousands of White House guests are served freshly made cookies and desserts at buffet events and private receptions.

Read more…

In The News

Grateful American™ Book Prize names new panel of judges for 2016

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 3 — The co-founders of the Grateful American Book Prize — Dr. Bruce Cole, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and author/publisher David Bruce Smith — today announced the appointment of three new judges for the 2016 Prize.

The panel will begin accepting author/publisher submissions on January 1, 2016. The forms can be downloaded from the Grateful American Book Prize website The deadline for submissions is July 31, 2016.

Read more…

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