One would not suspect the White House kitchen as being the residence of cockroaches and other creepy crawlers that like to set up shop wherever there’s food.
Mrs. Nesbitt (L) and Eleanor Roosvelt in 1941. Library of Congress
But that’s exactly what Henrietta Nesbitt discovered in 1933 when she took a tour of the White House kitchen. Mrs. Nesbitt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s housekeeper, wrote about her first inspection of the kitchen in her book, White House Diary.
“I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean,” she wrote. “This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was the sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worm wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.”
2. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), wife of John Adams
Abigail Adams is one of the most popular First Ladies. She is often referred to as John Adams’ intellectual equal, confidant, closest advisor, and soul mate. Many people are aware of her “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, which she wrote while he was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the planning and writing of the Declaration of Independence. In the letter she famously states, “in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” For urging her husband to consider giving women the vote and other rights when setting the new laws of the land, Abigail is lauded as an early suffragist and feminist.
Unlike the lack of remaining correspondence between Martha and George Washington, Abigail and John wrote over 1,100 letters to each other that continue to provide us with a great deal of information. Being such close partners (John thanked her in one letter for being his partner), the two missed each other greatly when John was away on political business and kept in regular touch. According to some, the couple was acutely aware of the importance of their personal letters and wanted them to be saved for historical purposes. John even bought a leather-bound book to keep his letters from Abigail in and suggested Abigail get one to do the same with his letters to her. The Adams’ letters shed a great deal of light onto the kind of woman Abigail was as well as her relationship with John. Also unlike Martha and George, there is no debating that Abigail and John’s marriage was one full of love, romance, admiration, and respect. Read the rest of this entry »
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a roller skater. I got my first pair of skates when I was seven years old and took off rolling. Many a birthday growing up was spent at a roller rink with friends, cruising down the wood-paneled floors with bright purple shoestrings zigzagging their way up my crisp white skates. What I didn’t know while I was boogieing on down at the rink was that American women have a unique and fascinating history with roller skates.
The roller skating craze hit America pretty hard in the late 19th century. James Leonard Plimpton had invented the quad skate in 1863, just two years before the civil war ended and by 1884, roller derby’s started gaining popularity. In April 1905, roller rinks opened in cities in New England and New Jersey, and women were among the enthusiastic skaters. The skating rink offered young women a space where they could experience a sense of freedom from the constant supervision of a parent.
Check out this cool footage of women and men roller skating in 1907, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Mary Todd Lincoln, America’s 17th First Lady and wife of President Abraham Lincoln, has made some headlines in the arts & entertainment world in the last year. She was portrayed by Sally Field in the critically acclaimed 2012 film, Lincoln and was the focus of a play at Arena Stage theater in Washington, DC called Mary T. and Lizzie K, earlier this year. The play explored the real life friendship between Mary and her seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who lived in the White House.
One very interesting detail about Mary’s life that went unexplored in these two dramatizations was her penchant for confection and baked treats. Mary was a great baker and while she and Abraham were courting, she famously baked her white almond cake, the “courting cake” for him. He loved it so much so that he declared it one of his favorite desserts. Read the rest of this entry »
We posted on Facebook last week about Rachel Jackson on the anniversary of her birthday. Some of you commented that the First Lady’s story was interesting and Facebook user, Susan, said she wished history like Jackson’s was more well-known. Inspired in part by Susan and other Facebookers, here is the first of a four part Throwback Thursday miniseries all about our first First Ladies. We all know about their Founding Father husbands from school, but not nearly as much information about the women themselves is common knowledge.
1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), wife of George Washington
Before George Washington, Martha Dandridge was married to her wealthy godfather, Daniel Custis. Daniel’s father was a volatile man who did not approve of his son’s love for the lower-status Martha. He had to be heavily persuaded before finally giving his permission for Martha and Daniel to wed. Though she and George never lived in the White House when he was president, Martha did move to Daniel’s large estate, “White House,” upon their marriage. Martha’s first father-in-law regularly made life difficult for the couple and Martha blamed Daniel’s untimely death in 1757 on the stress put onto him by his father. Daniel died without having made a will, which meant Martha became the executor of his estate and also meant she had more legal rights than women were normally permitted in the eighteenth century. Though she owned 300 slaves and over 17,000 acres of land, and was worth over 40,000 pounds, she lived in a time when women did not manage property or financial matters. Martha began looking for a new man to take over for her and the new widow was an attractive catch. Read the rest of this entry »
During the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 1969 New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn. Looking to temporarily shut down the known gay bar and make some arrests, police were surprised when instead of quietly waiting for the police wagon, the bar’s lesbian, gay, and drag queen patrons, as well as the crowd that had gathered outside, fought back. The resulting riot and the protests that followed is largely credited as being the event that led to the modern Gay Rights movement.
One year later on June 28, 1970, members of the LGBT community in New York City walked 51 blocks from Christopher Street to Central Park to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots and bring attention to gay rights. That weekend Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also held their first Gay Liberation Marches. Read the rest of this entry »
With a current population of approximately 10 million, hailing from 30 territories including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Caribbean-Americans have played a role in shaping America since before its founding. From fighting slavery and segregation to serving in the highest levels of government to sports and entertainment, Caribbean-Americans have been active participants in the shaping of this country since the first Caribbean immigrants arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619.
To help bring attention to this long and diverse history Dr. Claire Nelson founded The Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS) in 1993 to bring attention to and advocate for the concerns of the Caribbean-American community in both the private and public sector. This effort included national recognition of the Caribbean-American Heritage and in 1999 ICS sent a letter to President Clinton requesting a month dedicated as Caribbean-American History Month. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: The Dining Room of a Gilded Age Mansion (Marble House). Library of Congress
The “Gilded Age,” a term coined by American author and satirist Mark Twain, was in many ways an era of stark extremes in our nation’s history. Ninety percent of the nation’s families earned less than $1,200 per year by the height of the period in 1890, while an elite 10% earned above it . The most affluent of American society enjoyed the luxury of newly invented conveniences like electric lights, sewing machines and phonographs, while most Americans lived in abject poverty–crowded into squalid and crime-ridden tenements or living in rural areas. Read the rest of this entry »
Barbara Billingsley’s June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) has long been remembered as the quintessential housewife who kept an immaculate home while managing to look immaculate herself in her trademark pearls and high heels. With reruns still playing in the United States and other countries around the world and with a remake of the series, The New Leave It to Beaver, in the 1980s, the perfect image of June has been seared into the minds of millions of people. While some like June Cleaver, others loathe her and give her a lot of flak for being the archetypal 1950s woman the second wave of the Women’s Movement was trying to liberate. If you search the internet, you can find all kinds of things from t-shirts to memes proclaiming people’s disdain for the June Cleaver lifestyle. Perhaps a closer reading of Leave It to Beaver, however, shows a side of June lost in people’s memories and amongst the criticism. Consider the four points below. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week’s #Throwback Thursday explored how circuses and carnivals, like P.T. Barnum’s circus, have long been traditions of American and European entertainment as well as a way for women to launch their own careers. Coney Island in New York was the launching place for many a female performer and was the birthplace of the dazzling Princess Rajah’s career as a show-stopping belly dancer and entertainer.
Princess Rajah, or Rose Ferran as she was born, was a headliner on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit in the early 1900s. She made an impressive $1000 per-week as a “cooch dancer” in Coney Island in the 1890s. One of her most popular dances, “The Arabian Chair Dance” (shown below), was recorded in a 1904 film and received rave reviews from the public. Awing audiences with her seductive undulations and her incredible feats of strength, Princess Rajah gracefully balanced a sturdy-looking chair between her teeth while dancing. Read the rest of this entry »