Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Orchids and Art

I actually saw a copy of this article while I was at the National First Ladies Library and thought I'd share as I found the information on Caroline Harrison's painting and orchids to be fun. I actually talk about some of this in my tours! We have a copy of the painting this talks about: While managing the domestic affairs of the four generation home, Carrie continued to pursue one of her favorite hobbies, needlework. She donated most of her handiwork to church bazaars and charities. Carrie was well thought of for working for local charities, such as the Aid Society of Garfield Hospital which she headed and the Washington City Orphan Asylum. She even agreed to help raise funds for the Johns Hopkins University medical school on the condition that it admit women.

While managing the domestic affairs of the White House, Carrie’s brush painted hundreds of porcelain dishes for Washington ladies desiring souvenirs. Vases, platters, and an assortment of other pieces were sent to her with requests. Reporter Frank G. Carpenter wrote that, "Many a baby whose parents have named him for the President has received a milk set painted by Mrs. Harrison." She even decorated White House candlesticks, cheese covers, crackerboxes, flowerpot saucers, milk pitchers, chocolate jugs, tiles, and the grandbabies’ bathtub with her paintings. Carrie brought in an expert china painting teacher from Richmond, Indiana, German-born Paul Putzki, and organized classes. A professor of French was then hired. Both taught the wives and daughters of government officials, along with other society people. There were almost twenty-five students in all, most attending both classes. The chine was baked in Carrie’s own kiln. Her favorite flower, the orchid, was the subject of many of Carrie’s paintings, in watercolors, as well as on porcelain. In 1890, she painted a white "White House Orchid" with her water colors and dedicated it to "mothers, wives, and daughters of America." This painting was lithographed and distributed.

Mrs. Harrison also tried to get the White House enlarged, which didn't happen, but she did get greenhouses added:

While managing the domestic affairs of the White House, Carrie requested that the orchid be grown in the greenhouses of the executive mansion for the first time, and she is said to have been the first First Lady to use orchids for floral decorations at official receptions. Carrie filled the White House with an assortment of live flowers and plants. She broke with tradition by holding bouquets in receiving lines to save her hands from vigorous handshaking.

Because of her excellent domestic management, Carrie was reportedly "the best housekeeper that the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion has yet known." When the Harrison moved in, Carrie was very displeased with her new home, however. "We are here for four years," she told a reporter, "...I am very anxious to see the family of the President provided for properly, and while I am here I hope to be able to get the present building into good condition. Very few people understand to what straits the President’s family has been put to at times for lack of accommodations. Really there are only five sleeping apartments and there is no feeling of privacy."

Architect Fred Owen drew up three new plans for the house under Carrie’s supervision. The last plan included a long row of greenhouses. Congress did not approve any of the plans to have the overcrowded mansion enlarged, but did okay an extensive renovation with up-to-date improvements. Overseeing each project carefully and budgeting well, Carrie achieved remarkable results with the allotted $35,000.

Carrie saw to it that layers of moldy flooring, old paint, and basement dirt were removed. A new method of pest control was used and old floors were replaced with new ones. The faulty plumbing was repaired. The kitchen was modernized. A new heating system was installed. Painting and wallpapering the bedrooms, cleaning the chandeliers, and purchasing new curtains, upholstery, and furniture were all undertaken. Private bathrooms were put into each of the bedrooms. In May of 1891, the first electric lights and doorbells were installed by the Edison Company and a new central switchboard was put in, allowing for multiple telephones instead of only one for the entire mansion. Carrie managed to modernize without destroying the look of the aging White House.

Mrs. Harrison also worked to collect and display White House china:

While carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, and electricians were busily working about the place, Carrie carefully went through closets and cabinets, sorting out broken dishes and worn-out items. From the broken and incomplete sets, she assembled and identified the first collection of White House China, locating dishes used by all the former presidential families, except the Jacksons.

With some of the appropriation for furnishings, Carrie arranged for the purchase of the state china of the Benjamin Harrison administration, which she had designed herself. She had tried to make the design symbolic and meaningful to Americans in her own dignified style. Margaret Brown Klapthor, an expert on White House china, states that Carrie "contributed to the White House what many think is the most handsome of all the formal dinner services designed specifically for the house."

Additional pieces of the Harrison China were ordered during the William McKinley administration. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt apparently admired the Harrison china, as she placed a rather large order for more of the plates in 1908. Never having ordered any china for the White House herself, Jacqueline Kennedy used the china of the Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison administrations to represent the traditions of the past. According to Mrs. Klapthor, Mrs. Kennedy’s "preference for the Harrison china was shown in her selection of pieces from that service to decorate the breakfront which she had placed in the family dining room" during the time her family occupied the mansion.

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