America’s First Ladies

April 12, 2014
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April 2014 - October 2014


Through over two hundred years of social upheaval, First Ladies have responded to the evolving burdens and challenges of this unofficial “office.” Some of these women became famous, but most have been forgotten. Yet we should not overlook the importance of these extraordinary women. Taken together, the lives of our First Ladies mirror our past. When we “remember the ladies,” as Abigail Adams advised, we begin to understand and appreciate the contours of the American experience. Indeed, we begin to appreciate the contributions of all women to our American heritage. This virtual exhibition includes select Shapell Manuscript Collection pieces currently on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

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Jane Pierce

Jane and Bennie Pierce
Jane Pierce, First Lady of the United States from 1853 to 1857, with her son, Benjamin. This daguerreotype was taken several years before her husband Franklin Pierce's inauguration and Benjamin's death in 1853. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Pierce

Jane Pierce was melancholy by nature, and the outside world did nothing to relieve her often persuasive spirit of despair. Just seven months before this letter was penned, her beloved son and only surviving child, Bennie, was struck down before her eyes in a train wreck, in which he was the only fatality – a sign of God’s vengeance, she felt, for her husband’s excessive, and by her despised, political ambition. She so hated Franklin’s becoming president that she refused to attend his inauguration and spent the first two years of her White House sojourn locked away in her suite on the second floor.

Here she writes to her sister about family matters, but her tragic loss is never far from her thoughts. Hearing that a “Professor Nyman” and his wife have lost their child, she writes of her own anguish:

“Ah! I well know how agonized they are – their only son and child!  Dear Mary if you come across any old letters of mine who speak of dear Ben will you just save them for me…”

Jane Pierce lived for ten more years, never growing any happier, nor more reconciled to her fate.



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Frances Folsom Cleveland

To the not-quite 22 year-old Frances “Frank” Folsom, came this distinction: she had her entire wedding planned, down to the smallest detail, by the President of the United States. But far from being a grievous example of governmental over-reach, this surprising solicitude was the offering of a man in love – for President Grover Cleveland, as he writes here to his “Darling Frank”, could barely wait to take her in his arms, and for “us two to go away immediately after the ceremony and be together for a week.”




Frances Folsom Cleveland
Frances "Frank" Folsom. Library of Congress.

Young “Frank” had been, for the last nine months, traveling abroad – secretly engaged, all the while, to Cleveland, whom she had literally known (as her father’s best friend and her own legal guardian) for her entire life. Thus this most remarkable love letter details his plans for their marriage ceremony – and begs, at every juncture, her approbation, that all must be, he insisted, as she desired.

On June 2, 1886, Grover Cleveland became the first and only president to be married at the White House. His marriage to “Frank” Folsom was exceptionally happy, and lasted twenty-two years, until his death in 1908.

Cleveland had wanted to keep his marriage plans a secret, and did not in fact make them known until five days before the wedding; this letter, then, contains the startling information. At 49, the President was marrying his 21 year-old ward, the beautiful and charming Frances Folsom.

“On Wednesday next at seven o’clock in the evening,” he announces,  “I shall be married to Miss Folsom at the White House”, and earnestly desires that Postmaster and Mrs. Vilas attend the “very quiet wedding.” 

Despite the disparity in age, however, and  seemingly peculiar relation – he had to wait, he said, for his wife to grow up – theirs was an exceptionally happy marriage. The Clevelands had five children, the second of which,  arriving during Cleveland’s second term, also made history, becoming the first baby born in the White House.

The “P.F.” – Pater Familias – “is getting on”, wife Frances Folsom Cleveland writes to Dr. Bryant, the physician who secretly diagnosed and treated President Cleveland’s oral cancer:

“He… thinks it very strange he does not get strong. He confided to me this morning that he guessed it was a general breaking up!”

The gouty Former President, it would appear, had a duodenal ulcer – among other things. He died in 1908, from heart failure.

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Edith Kermit Roosevelt

Less than two weeks after the death of President McKinley, the new First Lady writes in response to a letter of support from her close friend:

“Life does not seem very simple just now, but kind thoughts like yours help to make it so in time.”

Manuscripts Related To This Article