Friday, August 21, 2015

Caroline Harrison's White House china

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about watching an episode of the C-SPAN series on the First Ladies in which I learned about the controversial china selected by Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes. My friend Joanie commented that she happened to catch the episode about Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison. Mrs. Harrison was herself an accomplished china painter and is credited with making sure the existing china at the White House was cataloged. I looked up a video clip from the show on the C-SPAN website and learned even more about Mrs. Harrison and her china.

According to the program, when Mrs. Harrison arrived at the White House, she was interested in "how the place worked," and on a visit to the ground floor, then considered the basement, she found the conditions dirty and dilapidated and aimed to spruce things up. She found some old pieces of china, asked servants how old those pieces were, and started trying to catalog the china. As a result, she is considered the First Lady whose idea it was to create a permanent china collection at the White House.

Mrs. Harrison was interested in designing some china for the White House herself, and though she wanted it to be American, she discovered the country did not have a strong porcelain manufacturer at that time. Instead, she opted to have a French company provide the "blanks," and she provided the design. The shape of her plates is said to be Lincoln-era, and the eagle design on the plates was similar to what was on the Lincoln china. Mrs. Harrison designed a border of goldenrod and ears of corn for these wares, as her husband thought those two plants most representative of America. Mrs. Harrison painted the design and did samples so the china could be manufactured. Dinner plates, soup plates, and breakfast plates were made with a blue border, and breakfast plates and tea plates were made with a white border. Demitasse cups and saucers were part of the service as well.

And here are a few more fun things I learned about Mrs. Harrison from C-SPAN:

• She was the first First Lady to have a Christmas tree in the White House.

• She helped raise funds for Johns Hopkins University medical school with the understanding it would admit women.

• She was the first President General of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (I thought my DAR friend Linda would love that they included that).

If you would like to see a brief video about the Harrison china for yourself, click here and you'll see the videos listed in a column on the right.


  1. She sounds like a great First Lady! How interesting that she painted the design for that China herself!

  2. Very informative. I never thought too much about White House china until you mentioned it before. You always give me something new to think about. Thank you.

  3. What fascinating information. I love that she took on the challenge of the White House china and also designed her own set.

  4. Love your post today, Angela - White House history has always interested me.

    C-SPAN has some informative programs, I just wish I knew about them ahead of time, instead of just "hit and miss."

    Mrs. Harrison sure was impressive, as so many First Ladies were. The hosts were saying how nice the Governor's Mansion is in Indianápolis and how much information their staff shared with them. Also, there's a current "china painting" group there that is dedicated to keeping Mrs. Harrison's contributions "alive."

    Years ago when I toured The White House it was at Christmastime and "all decked out.". My favorite part of the tour was the "China Room.". They had the room decorated with a Victorian theme and it was so beautiful.

    Thanks for spotlighting an interesting part of history, Angela - I always learn something new on your blog. Have a great weekend! Joanie


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