Americans have always been intrigued by the White House and the presidential family. We all know what it looks like from the outside, but what happens within? What are the family dynamics that occur behind closed doors? One legendary aspect of White House life is the extravagant White House china collection, which gives us an inside perspective into the lives and preferences of each first family.
The White House collection of china is kept in the White House China Room, on the ground floor. With each new presidency, the first family orders their own individualized china service, its design and china pattern depending on the president's taste and motivations.
The History of The White House China
Even looking all the way back to George Washington's presidency, quality china was a popular extravagance among the upper class. Dinner parties were a popular social event, and using Chinese porcelain to serve food and drink signified class and affluence. Presidents could hold these festivities in the state dining room, showing off their beautiful china. When George Washington ordered his own porcelain pieces, he declared "pray let them be neat and fashionable or send none."
However, although the White House has always had china sets, it truly became a tradition in 1797, with the act that granted John Adams funds to furnish the White House. This also allowed him to sell things, which he did in auctions, allowing the public to buy the highly sought-after White House furnishings and dishware. By the mid-19th century, these auctions were renowned for having presidential dinnerware sets, which were cherished by all who were lucky (or wealthy) enough to obtain them.
The money gained from these events allowed the president and his family to then order a new china service that was individualized to their particular preferences. Into the 20th century, White House china was often sold or given away if it was broken or chipped. However, Congress eventually ruled that all presidential china be either kept in the White House or destroyed. During the Johnson administration, the dessert plates that were ordered were not to their liking, so the White House staff shattered them against a wall in the basement adorned with caricatures of the Johnson's assistants.
Presidential China Sets
After the time of auctioning off presidential furnishings, there was a fund set aside for the White House china collection. Because of its long history, most past presidents are represented in the official white house china. In fact, there are still full services for the Harrison, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton Sets. Here are some of the most notable presidential china sets to date!
Monroe's China Collection
Monroe's china set was manufactured by Dagoty-Honoré in Paris. This was the first White House China created solely for presidential use and designed for an American president. This set consisted of a dinner service of thirty place settings and a matching dessert service, $1,167.23 overall. The plates were decorated with an eagle in the center, which carried a banner in the American colors reading "E Pluribus Unum," the national motto.
There are vignettes within the plate's border, signifying science, arts, commerce, strength and agriculture. At the time, the press disapproved of the Parisian set, calling it foreign goods. Soon afterward, Congress ruled that all white House furniture had to be made in America.
Lincoln's China Collection
As for Lincoln, he had the first china set to be completely chosen by the First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln firmly believed that the White House needed to promote the appearance of strength and control to foreigners. To accomplish this, she chose china bordered in a red-purple from E. V. Haughwout and Company in New York City, which became known as the Royal Purple set. The Lincoln china collection also featured an eagle, though theirs was a bald eagle in the clouds, above a shield that displayed the national motto. The U.S. Coat of Arms is also in the center.
Eisenhower's China Collection
Eisenhower continued to use the Truman china, which remained in quality condition. However, first lady Mamie Eisenhower selected 120 service plates from Pennsylvania to complement the set and add a personal touch. The plates she selected were simple and elegant- white with pure gold rims.
Johnson's China Collection
The Johnson's state china service was the first set that wasn't purchased with the designated government funds. Instead, their White House china collection was bought by an anonymous donor of the White House Historical Association. Lady Bird Johnson worked with Tiffany and Company to design a beautiful set.
They settled on the traditional eagle, along with a border of over forty different wildflowers native to the United States. As for the dessert plates, they featured the state flower of each state, which were hand painted onto each plate. Although this was a lovely detail, the hand painting delayed the china's completion until four years into the Nixon administration.
Reagan's China Collection
By the Reagan administration, state dinners had reached such a size that the guests outnumbered the china. To remedy this, First lady Nancy Reagan ordered over 4,000 pieces of Lenox china, with place settings of 19 pieces for 220 guests. The Reagans aimed for a striking design to stand out against the subtly designed State Dining Room, so they chose scarlet bands with etched gold, boldly contrasting against the ivory. The presidential seal was in the center in gold. This cost over $200,000, an extravagance criticized by the press and the public.
Bush's China Collection
George W. Bush also chose china manufactured by Lenox, but he and first lady Laura Bush went for softer colors. Their state china has a green basket-weave pattern with a gold rim, along with the traditional gold eagle. Laura Bush chose the soft green for its ability to match many other shades and complement flowers. They also had a smaller service set made by Pickard China in Illinois with 75 place settings, designated for the private quarters of the White House.
Obama's China Collection
The Obama administration also added their own touch to their personalized china collection. Their 3,520-piece set was completed the day before its first time use with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The dinner plate rim is textured gold, with an inner band in "Kailua Blue," which is a shade of bright blue honoring the color of the ocean in President Barack Obama's home state, Hawaii. There is also a presidential coat of arms in gold in the center of the service plate, dessert plate and teacup.
Another distinguishing factor of the Obama administration's state service china set is that each setting includes an individual tureen. This detail had never been included previously, and it can be used for soups, entrees or desserts. The Obama's china set cost about $367,258, and it was funded by The White House Historical Association.
Current White House China
As for Trump, Melania Trump worked toward designing a china set, but unfortunately was unable to complete the project because of cost and time difficulties. We have yet to see whether Biden will order a personalized china set, but I would hazard a guess that he has more on his mind at the moment than designing his china!