White House china: dining with history
People have been collecting White House china pieces for nearly as long as there have been US Presidents. While it’s beyond the reach of many people to gather all the pieces for a full setting, most collectors gravitate toward dinner plates, as they’re large, display beautifully, and are surefire conversation starters. They’re also perceived as the most important, even though platters, gravy boats, teapots and other serving pieces are often rarer and can command higher prices.
“All presidential relics are keenly sought after by collectors,” said Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland, which has handled many pieces of White House china and other White House memorabilia over the years – from autographs to locks of presidential hair.
White House dinner plates are especially desirable, but not every past president ordered a new state service. However, it has become a more popular practice in the last 50 years or so, perhaps because presidents perceive it as a way to leave a legacy for the future. Also, it reflects the period in history and interests of the First Family at the time. Up until the Truman presidency, the government paid for the china. After that, private sources picked up the tab.
The first president credited with having porcelain decorated specifically for the White House was James Monroe, who ordered a dinner service of 30 place-settings and a matching dessert service from Dagoty-Honore in Paris, at a cost of $1,167.23. Monroe was criticized for buying from a foreign maker, and while Congress passed a law mandating all furniture for the White House be made in America, it excluded dinner china. When the Polks entered the White House, in 1845, a new china service was ordered and Dagoty-Honore was once again commissioned for the job.
The Lincoln china was the first service chosen entirely by a first lady. Mary Todd Lincoln selected china with a purple-red border called “Solferino” (later known as the “Royal Purple” set, in 1861. It was ordered from the E.V. Haughwout & Company in New York City and had been produced by Haviland and Company in Limoges, France. It showed the American bald eagle above a shield with the national motto displayed amidst clouds. The Coat of Arms of the United States appeared in the center. Understandably, dinner plates from the service are highly collectible.
The dinner service of the Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration was unique in that the first lady, Lucy Hayes, suggested the china include the flora and fauna of North America as its decoration. Artist Theodore R. Davis complied and produced 130 designs at a total cost of $3,120. These designs featured not just flora and fauna but also birds and animals found in the United States. The public liked what was produced, but critics weren’t so pleased. The design wasn’t officially unveiled until a dinner for the incoming president, James A. Garfield.
Benjamin Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was an artist and helped design a service that included the country’s coat of arms in the center of the plates, a goldenrod and corn motif (representing her home state of Indiana) and 44 stars (one for each state at the time). Sadly, she was never able to use the china she ordered, as she died before its delivery in December 1892. Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, ordered 1,320 pieces of Wedgwood china, white in color and featuring the Great Seal of the United States. It was a large order, which was needed because of a new, 100-guest State Dining Room.
Woodrow Wilson’s first lady Edith specifically wanted a service that would be designed by an American artist, made at an American porcelain works, and decorated by American workmen. She got her wish after viewing a Lenox sample in a Washington, DC store. The resulting design featured the Presidential Seal in raised gold and deep blue borders on all 1,700 pieces. The service was used for the next several administrations until FDR, and only then because the Wilson service had become largely depleted. In 1934, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt ordered 1,722 pieces of Lenox china through a New York store. The pattern showed the Presidential Seal and 48 gold stars, one for each state.
The Trumans ordered 1,572 pieces of Lenox china in 1951 that showed a standardized Presidential Seal, with the head of the eagle turned toward the olive branch (representing peace) and away from the arrows (representing war), per Harry Truman’s executive order issued in 1945. The seal was surrounded by 48 gold stars. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower kept the Truman service in service, although Mrs Eisenhower did order 120 service plates from Castleton China Inc., in New Castle, Pa., at a cost of $3,606.40. The plates were white with rims covered with pure-gold medallions.
In 1967, a new china order was announced, enough to serve 140 guests, at a cost of $80,028. It was the first service not purchased with government funds. An anonymous donor through the White House Historical Association funded the project, with Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, working closely with the designer, Tiffany & Company of New York. The maker was Castleton China, the same firm that manufactured the Trumans’ china. The design incorporated Mrs Johnson’s main cause as first lady – beautification – and featured the eagle designed for the Monroe china. The Ronald Reagan state china service was modeled after Woodrow Wilson’s china and was made in the United States by Lenox.
The Reagan service was ambitious: 4,370 pieces, enough place settings of 19 pieces each for 220 people – nearly twice as many place settings as other recent prior services. Many found the $209,508 price tag extravagant, but the entire amount was paid for by the JP Knapp Foundation, not American taxpayers. The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush china services were paid for by the White House Historical Association. The Clintons’ 300 12-piece Lenox gold and white place settings (honoring the White House bicentennial) cost $239,425, while the Bushes chose 320 14-piece place settings with green and white motifs from White House history. The cost: $492,798.
There was actually a price rollback under the Obama administration, with the 320 11-piece place settings made by Pickard China of Antioch, Illinois, costing $367,258. All 3,520 pieces were paid for by the White House Historical Association’s White House Endowment Trust. “Kailua Blue” appeared on a number of the pieces, inspired by the blue-green waters off Barack Obama’s home state of Hawaii. A White House curator said the overall design gave a modern aesthetic to the china “while continuing to draw on historic and traditional elements.” Pickard China had previously made custom china for Blair House, Air Force One and Camp David.
What factors go into determining the value and desirability of a White House dinner plate? “Two things,” Bill Panagopulos said. “First and foremost, the name attached to it. A Lincoln, Washington, JFK or FDR plate will fetch top dollar, whereas a plate from Hoover, Fillmore or Harding probably wouldn’t command a huge price.” Rarity is the second consideration, he said. “I’m not certain if Garfield even had a set of presidential china, but if he did, any piece from it would be especially rare – and expensive.”
Regarding the current market demand for White House dinner plates, Panagopulos observed that it’s rather soft, “in line with the decreased emphasis on the teaching of history, and therefore the [diminished] appreciation for these things.” But, he added, like any collectible, the finest pieces always retain their value, and generally increase in line with inflation. “If suddenly a president becomes the object of intense public interest, the right pieces increase in value geometrically. Look what the play ‘Hamilton’ did for Alexander Hamilton material. The important thing, though, is collect what you love.”
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