Dining with Antiques – White House China

President Rutherford B Hayes’ Limoges china included 130 vivid scenes featuring American landscapes and wildlife. This 20-inch platter had decorative, curled-in corners.

In the United States, official state dinners are formal events hosted by the President in honor of visiting heads of foreign governments. Ceremonial in nature, they are often held to reaffirm diplomatic ties. In times past, these protocol-heavy dinners were also given for members of the cabinet, Supreme Court and Congress, as well as for other dignitaries.

The earliest presidents received government funds to purchase state china for these occasions. Later, presidential families sometimes sold the old china at auction so that they could replace it with patterns more in keeping with their own tastes. However, in the early 20th century, Congress passed a law requiring that all White House china either be kept or destroyed. And since 1917, that growing collection of dishes has been displayed in the White House’s ground floor China Room. The 27-foot by 20-foot room is decorated in red and includes a pair of Chippendale chairs used by George Washington. It has velvet-lined display cases along all the walls and features a life-size portrait of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge that was painted in 1924 by Howard Chandler Christy. Most of the presidents are represented there, with samples of either their state or family china. Mamie Eisenhower helped reorganize the displays in 1955.

Eagles and gold trim are heavily recurring themes on most of the china and some presidents have added personal touches such as monograms. George and Martha Washington received a service as a gift from the East India Trading Company in 1796. It featured Martha’s initials, a snake along the outside rim and the names of the 15 states (at the time) around the border. Mary Todd Lincoln chose china soon after her husband’s inauguration, selecting a pattern with a newly fashionable reddish-purple color called “solferino.” Ulysses S. Grant’s pattern, chosen by his wife Julia, showcased 24 different fruits and flowers and received a great deal of use because the Grants entertained often. James Madison’s china is the rarest, because much of it was destroyed in the White House fire of 1814.

But the most unusual set was acquired by Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife, Lucy, who hired artist Theodore Davis to design 130 creatively-shaped pieces with scenes depicting American landscapes and wildlife. The service aroused so much interest that it was also produced in sets available for purchase by the general public.

George Washington’s china had Martha’s initials in the middle and the 15 states in the union around the border. It was a gift from the East India Trading Company in 1796.

James Madison’s china is rare because much of it was destroyed in the White House fire of 1814. This 9-inch plate sold for $14,340 (including buyer’s premium) in 2008.

George and Martha Washington hosted ministers from Spain and France on May 29, 1789 and served a very modest meal of boiled mutton. After dinner, the guests were offered a single glass of wine and retired to the drawing room. Although other presidents had hosted heads of state, Ulysses S. Grant was probably the first president to declare an official state dinner in 1874 when he entertained Hawaiian King Kalakaua. And 172 years after the Washingtons’ austere affair, the Kennedys welcomed the Tunisian president for their first state dinner, with 500 entertainers on the south lawn, elaborate wine tastings and a menu of cold salmon, salad with brie cheese, roast lamb, petit fours and molded strawberry ice cream.

Menus for White House dinners from the past can be found online, and it is fun to pair them with reproductions of the official china for each president. Woodmere is one company that has been producing reproductions of state china since the 1970s. A search of the Worthopedia showed that their dinner plates can be found on the secondary market ranging in prices from $15 to $45. Cups and saucers and other serving pieces are also available. A duplication of the Rutherford B. Hayes china (that was actually produced in 1880, while he was in office) can also be found at various auctions, but they naturally bring much higher prices, many reaching into the thousands.

Mary Todd Lincoln chose this pattern, with the new color “solferino,” soon after her husband’s inauguration.

Ulysses S. Grant’s Limoges china included 24 different fruits and flowers. This worn and chipped 8-inch dessert plate sold for $2,196 (including buyer’s premium) in 2006.

This 9-inch 1880 oyster plate was identical to the ones used in the Rutherford B. Hayes White House but was a version that was issued to the public during his administration. It sold for $1,195 (including buyer’s premium) in 2009.

Dwight Eisenhower’s Castleton Studios 11 ½-inch plate sold for $6,738 in 2006 (including buyer’s premium).

In addition to modern reproductions, actual White House china pieces also appear at auction. Most services for official dinners numbered in the hundreds of settings, so first families sometimes took a portion of the china with them when they left office. Those pieces do occasionally show on the market, usually sold by various heirs. Understandably, they can bring very high prices as well. A recent search of sales revealed a Lincoln “solferino” covered sugar bowl that sold for $27,613 in 2010 and a James Madison dessert plate that sold for $14,340 in 2008. An Eisenhower dinner plate sold for $6,738 in 2006 and nine Ulysses S. Grant dessert plates – worn, chipped and cracked – sold for $2,000 to $4,000 each in 2006. (All prices include buyer’s premiums).

White House dinners hosted by Thomas Jefferson were coveted not just for social and political reasons, but because the food was delicious. After serving as minister to France, Jefferson returned home craving French food and even employed a French cook. Massachusetts Rep. Manasseh Cutler wrote this about a Jefferson White House dinner he attended in 1802:

“Dined at the President’s – Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with scallion onions or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong and not very agreeable. Mr. Lewis [Meriwether Lewis] told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions were made of flour and butter, with particularly strong liquor mixed with them. Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes; a dish somewhat like a pudding – inside white as milk or curd, very porous and light covered with cream sauce – very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wine and good.”

Jefferson was a passionate gourmet and many of his hand-written recipes still exist, including early versions of ice cream and pasta. His vast collection of recipes have been compiled into several cookbooks. What better way to end an article on White House china then to include a simple recipe loved and collected by our 3rd President.

Thomas Jefferson’s state china featured his own monogram.

Thomas Jefferson’s Bread Pudding

1 1/2 pounds cubed stale bread
4 cups scalded milk
1/2 pound butter
1/2 pint brandy
8 eggs
3 cups sugar
3/4 tablespoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cut up bread while milk and butter are heating in a pot. Combine liquids, eggs, sugar and spice. Add bread last by submerging it using your hands so that it gets thoroughly soaked. Transfer into a buttered 9-x-13-inch pan, pouring gently so that bread doesn’t break up too much. Bake until an inserted skewer or knife comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books. “Dining with Antiques” is an ongoing feature in which she highlights collectible dinnerware and food-related antiques, along with vintage recipes..

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