Even if you've never dined at the White House, an enjoyable exhibit at the Concord Museum provides revealing glimpses of presidential taste and some bad taste from the days of the founding fathers to JFK's Camelot and beyond.
George Washington might have eaten breakfast right off that octagonal porcelain plate.
Even if you've never dined at the White House, an enjoyable exhibit at the Concord Museum provides revealing glimpses of presidential taste from the days of the founding fathers to JFK's Camelot and beyond.
Showcasing more than 100 pieces of rare porcelain from 22 administrations, "Setting the President's Table" lets visitors imagine what it must have been like to break bread in the State Dining Room.
"Those state dinner parties would have been the center of the center," observed Curator David F. Wood.
"The White House marches to its own drummer. Once a tradition is introduced, it never goes away."
On loan from the McNeil Americana Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, these lovely and varied sets of fine chinaware provide intriguing insights into evolving dining styles, the influence of different first ladies and political gossip as old as Old Glory.
Subtitled "American Presidential China," it will be on view through Oct. 12. The exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with George Washington's Mount Vernon.
Just looking at these fragile objects conveys a sense of immediacy hard to find elsewhere. What's more personal than eating?
Andrew Jackson might have gabbed bonbons off those ornate dessert stands.
There's no question what Ulysses Grant took from a pickle dish decorated with a "rose band."
And let's not wonder, too, about what uses Abraham Lincoln might've found for that purple-bordered "slop jar."
The varied table settings put recognizable human faces on first ladies from Martha Washington to Jacqueline Kennedy, fussing over patterns, overspending their budgets and complaining when noisy crowds woke up their children.
If we really are what we eat, presidential and cultural historians have a lot to learn from the tureens, platters, butter dishes and highly distinctive ice cream plates designed to look like snowshoes.
The exhibit includes a short video that provides a behind-the-scenes look of preparing for a 134-seat banquet hosted by George and Laura Bush.
Wood said each administration did not order new services on entering the White House but instead often limited expenses by using a predecessor's china if enough complete sets remained.
Presidents and their partners often left their personal stamps on an administration's dining style, sometimes to the consternation of their guests or Congress, which set the budget. Wood said Thomas Jefferson offended British guests by refusing to assign seats they felt reflected their status. Despite his homespun image, Jackson was blasted for banquets that were "too fancy."
Grant, a soldier and statesman utterly without pretension, was criticized for the "plain cuisine" at his administration's banquets.
And Mary Todd Lincoln, a frequent target of gossip, went $7,000 over the $20,000 allotted for White House renovations by purchasing a 658-piece set.
Wood said several 19th-century sets reflected the emergence of the Temperance Movement. While President James Monroe banished whiskey from major functions, not everyone wanted a dry White House.
Serving before the Civil War, James Polk kept his guests lubricated by avoiding strong alcohol while serving six kinds of wine during a four-hour banquet.
And when Grant's daughter Nellie married a dashing Englishman, guests were served for breakfast Roman punch, which consisted of rum and champagne served over sherbet.
The exhibit's singular surprise is the unprecedented style of the dinner service ordered by 19th president Rutherford Hayes, who journalist Henry Adams described as "a third-rate nonentity."
Regardless of his legacy, Hayes, who won the presidency by a single electoral vote, chose a service with colorful outdoor scenes of rams in the mountains, crabs on the beach and dignified American Indians atop their horses.
Ice cream plates were designed to look like snowshoes. The after-dinner plates for cheese and cigars resembled fishing nets, and the fantastic oyster plates featured hollows scooped out to fit six shells.
Wood said Hayes' set, the first to be designed by an American, bore natural scenes meant to "illustrate America's great bounty" after the Civil War.
"They were not well-received," he said.
That's too bad, because they are the stars of this exhibit, easily upstaging the undistinguished simplicity of early presidents like James Madison and, later, Woodrow Wilson, whose plain dinner service might have been borrowed from a high school cafeteria.
Revered for his common touch, Harry Truman served his banquets on a surprisingly grandiose service by Lenox of Trenton, N.J., with the gold presidential seal stamped on all its plates. "You can practically hear 'Hail to the Chief' coming off these plates," said Wood.
Adding an especially poignant remembrance, the exhibit includes the official guest lists and several replies to a banquet hosted by President John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, for 1962 Nobel Prize winners.
Photos show JFK seated next to his wife and author Pearl Buck in animated conversation with poet Robert Frost.
Relating an amusing tale, Wood said Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling participated in a noisy anti-nuclear rally outside the White Office before the banquet. "When he came inside, Jackie Kennedy chided him for keeping Caroline awake," he said.
After the White House was officially designated as a museum in 1961, worn out china couldn't be sold or auctioned as before.
Earlier presidents, said Wood, didn't face such restrictions.
Preparing for a major redecoration in 1881, Chester Arthur dispatched "30 barrels" of presidential china to be auctioned off, he said, and Calvin Coolidge donated some to the Girl Scouts to sell.
The Concord Museum is at the intersection of Lexington Road and Cambridge Turnpike.
Admission: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 62 and over and students with ID; and $5 for youth 6 to 18.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Sunday From June through August, the museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
On Sunday, May 17, at 2 p.m., Katha Seidman will use video clips in her presentation "Behind the Scenes of 'American Experience." Tickets are $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers. Reservations required.
A 91-page catalog "American Presidential China: The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art," by Susan G. Detweiler is on sale in the Concord Museum Shop.
For more information, contact the museum at 978-369-9609 for taped information, 978-369-9763 for reservations or visit www.concordmuseum.org.