Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Frances Cleveland

Twenty-one year old Frances Cleveland's marriage to the President made her an instant celebrity. She is, in many regards, Jackie Kennedy of the prior century - the media loved her and her and her young children were constant news sources:
After the wedding, the press turned Frances into a national celebrity. Journalists were not the only ones interested in the new First Lady. Thousands of Americans deluged Frances with fan letters, so much so that she had to hire a social secretary to deal with the onslaught. Thousands more risked injury as they fought to catch a glimpse of her in public. The fuss bewildered the President, who was intent on making "Frank" a "sensible, domestic wife." Indeed, he asserted that he "should be pleased not to hear her spoken of as 'the First Lady of the Land' or 'mistress of the White House.' I want her to be happy . . . but I should feel very much affected if she lets many notions into her head."

Frances was a college graduate who played the piano, spoke French and German, read Latin -- she was a voracious reader -- and enjoyed photography. Although she did not adopt any special project as First Lady, she focused attention on the Washington Home for Friendless Colored Girls by encouraging other white women to support the institution. She also promoted the Colored Christmas Club, a charity providing food, gifts, and entertainment to poor children in Washington. Although she supported the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and refrained from drinking, Frances did not ban spirits from the White House. In addition, while avoiding the issue of women's suffrage, she promoted women's education as a means of achieving equality.

In the White House, Frances was an attentive wife and a gracious hostess. She negotiated a careful balance between the privacy her husband desired and the publicity Americans craved. She greeted and shook hands with ten thousand people at official presentations to the diplomatic corps and to the public. She instituted noon receptions, so she could accommodate as many guests as possible, and received visitors on Saturday so that working women could meet her. She impressed diplomats with her fluent French, thrilled Washington society with her lively social calendar, and patronized the arts. Yet she and her husband often left the White House after the social season because of the relentless interest the press showed in the new First Lady. In fact, they took up residence two miles away from the White House at an estate that was off limits to reporters.

Although the Clevelands tried to minimize press coverage, they could do little about the rampant use of the First Lady's name and likeness in advertisements. "Frankie ads" abounded and advertisers rarely asked permission from the First Lady before they affixed her image to their products. The exploitation was so egregious that Congress considered a bill to curtail such practices, but it never came to fruition; manufacturers continued to use the First Lady to sell their goods. It seemed a shrewd business decision as thousands copied Frances's fashions. When she chose to forego the bustle, its demise was only a matter of time.

You can also check out her wedding dress here:
As the next day's Washington Post reported, "The bride wore an enchanting white dress of ivory satin, simply garnished on the high corsage with India muslin crossed in Grecian folds and carried in exquisite falls of simplicity over the petticoat. The orange blossom garniture, commencing upon the veil in a superb coronet, is continued throughout the costume with artistic skill. She carried no flowers and wore no jewelry except an engagement ring, containing a sapphire and two diamonds."

Frances had continued popularity througout her husband's terms, even when he did not:
Despite the public's growing aversion to the Cleveland administration, it retained a love and admiration for Frances. Although she did not endear herself to the nation through any special project, many Americans, especially women, could identify with her. Youthful and college-educated, Frances was a role model for young women; a devoted wife and mother, she appealed to older ladies as well. In addition, many saw her as a balm for a nation still licking wounds suffered during the Civil War. Born in 1864, Frances had no memory of the conflict and seemed to represent a fresh start, a perception duly noted in the South when the couple undertook the first presidential tour of the region since the Confederacy's defeat.

When Frances became First Lady, her husband warned her, "You will find that you get along better in this job if you don't try anything new." Although she seemed to follow her husband's advice, Frances set an important precedent by focusing attention on the role of First Lady. Although she did not seek publicity, Frances Folsom Cleveland enjoyed a personal popularity that brought greater attention to and appreciation of the role. From now on, whether she liked it or not, the First Lady was news, not because of what she had or had not done, but simply because of who she was.

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