Lincoln china is distinctive and easy to pick out because of the purple border. That purple (officially called “Solferino”) got Mary Lincoln a lot of criticism as too “royal.” Added to this the US was at war and many citizens felt the US should not be spending money on things like china (as a note, this is the picture I could find - definitely a bad background color choice! The depth of color in china is very difficult to photograph - Truman green is a prime example).
To Mary Lincoln’s credit, though, china was a necessity in 1861 – there was not a complete set of any pattern when the Lincolns moved. So by September of 1861, a full set of china was made and delivered to the White House that had been personally selected by Mrs. Lincoln (a first):
2 bowls for salad
4 shells for pickles4 meat platters in each of 6 sizes (9", 10", 13", 15", 18", and 20")
4 fish platters in various sizes and forms
2 butter dishes with drainers and covers
6 uncovered vegetable dishes or "bakers"
96 nine-inch dinner plates
48 soup plates
4 large water pitchers
2 bowls for ice
The brochure on the china exhibit currently at the National First Ladies Library gives us more insight to Mary Lincoln’s china purchase:
Mary Lincoln understood the importance of maintaining the proper appearance so that visitors from other nations would perceive the United States as strong and her husband’s administration as in control. In an effort to reinforce this perception, the Lincoln administration was incredibly active socially in the midst of the Civil War.
So while White House china often seems like a trivial purchase, it actually is fairly important to the administration for necessary social functions.