On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory near the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. sits a grand old Victorian mansion built in 1893. Originally the home of the Chief of Naval Operations, it was requisitioned as the first official home for the vice president of the United States in 1974. One Observatory Circle, as it was officially renamed, would be the home of the new vice president, but it would be left to President Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, to be the very first vice president to move into the residence full time in 1977.
It is in fact a rather small home. Painted in white, with three floors, the total useable floor space is only 9,150 square. On the first floor, or official rooms, there is a reception hall, living room, sitting room, sun porch, dining room and small pantry. Having attended an official function at One Observatory Circle in the 1980s, I can attest that the dining room would handle only a rather small official dinner.
I bring all this up because lately, official vice presidential china has been appearing on auction sites such as Ebay with the connotation that the pieces are ‘official.’ There doesn’t seem to be enough room at One Observatory Circle to hold a very large official dinner there, so there can’t have been a lot of official china produced for official events. And if there is official china, what does it look like, when was it used, and where was it purchased and in what quantities?
To answer those supposedly easy questions, I started by asking the White House Curator’s office whether they had any records of official vice presidential china being ordered through the executive branch. The office immediately responded that their official records do not indicate any official vice presidential chinaware or glassware being ordered or received at the White House or any executive office.
Later, I was delighted to find out that the former vice president under George H W Bush, Dan Quayle, opened a Vice President’s Museum in his home town of Indianapolis, Indiana as part of his official library. Unfortunately, his curator had no official records as far as he knew about vice presidential china, but promised to find out for sure. None of my emails or phone calls to follow up were ever returned.
But this is an important question. Collectors are being asked to spend large sums to purchase what is billed as ‘official’ vice presidential chinaware without any official records of type, design, cost, manufacturer, style, inventory, or usage available to determine whether these pieces are, or were, official at all.
It is possible that some vice presidents, like Nelson Rockefeller, may have routinely provided their own dinnerware at their own expense. However, that doesn’t seem likely to be a routine expense for all the vice presidents since at least 1977.
I have found an ivory porcelain design with a gold rim edging featuring the post-1975 seal of the vice president in gold along the rim. There is enough provenance to associate this design with the office of the vice president, but where did it come from and from whom? No one quite knows.
There are other versions of plates individually featuring the pre- and post- 1975 seal of the vice president in blue, white and gold being routinely auctioned on Ebay. But without enough provenance how do we directly link these pieces to the office of vice president? So, where did these additional designs come from? No one knows the answer to these questions either.
We can only conclude that pieces being offered as official vice presidential china can’t as yet be verified as authentic until there is additional study. Much more information is required through official sources to definitively determine whether official vice presidential china and glassware exists, what is its design, which company manufactured it, in what quantities, and when was it used. Perhaps members of the WorthPoint community can help.