The office of First Lady
First Lady: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, vol. 1 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
The office of President was new in 1789 and the nation was unsure what to call him. Of course, this also meant that no one knew what to call the President’s wife either. The new Americans came from Great Britain where everyone important had a title, so they felt that their officials should as well. While the mode of address for the President was soon fixed, the one for his wife took much longer.
At first, the President’s wife was called “Lady,” in the British tradition. Lady Washington was followed by Lady Adams. Dolley Madison brought into use a new term – she was called the Lady Presidentress (which would later be used derogatively for Edith Wilson, but for now it was a compliment). Elizabeth Monroe got her own nickname – Queen Elizabeth. With Louisa Adams, the mode of address reverted to simply Mrs. Adams and this was used for the next few women. Julia Tyler’s youthful appearance and sudden marriage earned her the nickname the Lovely Lady Presidentress.
Dolley Madison’s funeral brought into use a new term. President Taylor called her the “first lady of our land” in his address and this became the unofficial address for the President’s wife. In 1860 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper used this in print for the first time in reference to Harriet Lane. While many of the ladies avoided this term at first, it has stuck and is what we still call the President’s wife today.