Monday, May 12, 2014

Etiquette and Dishing on White House China for State Dinners

December 12, 1874: The first visiting head of state to attend a State Dinner at the White House was King David Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawaii, hosted by Ulysses S. Grant. 
Early 19th century dinners honoring the President's Cabinet, Congress, or other dignitaries were called 'State Dinners' even though they lacked official foreign representation. Under such conditions, large receptions and dinners were a rare occurrence. Washington D.C. society was a collection of widely separated, isolated villages, and at times almost inaccessible.

 June 8, 1939: Seating arrangements for the State Dinner for George VI of the United Kingdom, hosted by President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt...  Months of meticulous planning go into a State Dinner. The guest of honor’s country, culture, and favored preferences are thoroughly researched. The First Lady often chooses the décor and entertainment to highlight a certain aspect of American culture. Together, these considerations are translated into invitations, menus, guest lists, and entertainment. The results can be a form of diplomatic dialogue between the host and guest cultures.
As the times changed, so did the nation’s capital. A series of State Dinners were soon held every winter social season to honor Congress, the Supreme Court, and members of the Diplomatic Corps.
Extravagant floral arrangements and lights decorate the East Room of the White House for the state dinner given by President Theodore Roosevelt in honor of Prince Henry of Prussia in 1902.

In the late 19th century, the term 'State Dinner' had become synonymous with a dinner hosted by the President honoring a foreign head of state. The first visiting head of state to attend a State Dinner at the White House was King David Kalakaua of theKingdom of Hawaii, hosted by Ulysses S. Grant on December 12, 1874. According to Barry H. Landau’s book “The President’s Table,” there were just 36 guests but “as many as 29 courses,” all of them French, which was de rigueur at the time.

The Dish on White House China

Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, an accomplished china painter, designed her own official White House china in 1889 and, what's more, initiated the first continuous White House collection -- by now, what with breakage and pilferage, a fascinating assemblage of remnants.

In 1840, gold table settings became Presidential campaign issue. Helping William Henry Harrison, a simple frontiersman, grab the Presidency from Martin Van Buren. When Benjamin Harrison, his grandson, won the Presidency later, his wife, Caroline Harrison, wanted new White House china that would be "symbolic and meaningful to Americans."   The first lady, an artist herself, placed the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center of the plates, and designed a goldenrod and corn motif etched in gold around a wide band of blue. The corn represents Mrs. Harrison's home state of Indiana. Forty-four stars, one for each state at the time, make up the inner border. Mrs. Harrison directed a large-scale remodeling effort of the White House, adding a china closet to display all past presidential china services. Caroline Harrison was not able to use the china she had ordered, as she died before it was delivered. The china arrived in December 1892.
Over the last 40 or so years, of the First Ladies who tried to supply full services for the usual 120 guest state dinners, very few have succeeded (Betty Ford doesn't count; she was in residence to briefly). Lady Bird Johnson contributed a 220 place wildflower service designed by Tiffany and company, produced by the American from Castleton, and paid for by Jane and Engelhard, the Far Hills, New Jersey, philanthropist.

Lady Bird Johnson is also known as "the first lady of wildflowers" in Texas. Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson held over State Dinners along with weddings for both their daughters while in the White House
Pat Nixon was ready to give Lenox the go ahead for a service Clement Conger helped design but suddenly cancelled; a few days later Nixon resigned.  Rosalynn Carter made do with pieces from this service and that, intending to produce a set of Carter china later. There was no later; she overestimated Jimmy's reelectability. 

Turning the tables for a moment, this photo captures Richard Nixon at a State Dinner in China:  Mr. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon gave more State Dinners than any other first couple. “I believe I produced 76,” social secretary Lucy Winchester Breathitt, told Vanity Fair. Nixon was particular about where people sat at his State Dinners. Concerning Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he noted in a memo: “Henry should not always be put next to the most glamorous woman present.  It’s starting to cause unfavorable talk that serves no useful purpose.”
By the time Nancy Reagan became First Lady, the most complete service, Lady Bird's, was down to 90 settings.  The handsome red and 24 karat gold-rimmed Lenox china -- designed by Nancy Reagan and Ted Graber with the Presidential seal should be around for awhile, even with occasional breakage; the 4,391 pieces include 220 place settings, 19 pieces per place.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan hosted 59 State Dinners in the two Presidential terms they spent in the White House.  Reagan loved to entertain, and preferred to serve California wines.
During the George W. Bush administration, 320 more formals sets sets of china were added for White House State Dinners (and 75 informal sets of china for the private quarters of the White House) though George and Laura Bush held very few State Dinners during their two terms-- only eleven in total.
George W. Bush White House state china in gold rim with a green basket-weave pattern and a historically-inspired gold eagle, manufactured by Lenox.

Dinner for 140
The White House "China Room" in 1918

The ground floor China Room is where the White House collection of china is kept. Even the earliest presidents received government funds to purchase state china. However, by a special clause in the appropriation bills, "decayed furnishings" could be sold and the proceeds used to buy replacements. Such "furnishings" included state china, and during the 19th century the cupboards were frequently swept clean and the contents carted off to auction. The money could then be used to order a new china service that better suited the president and his family.

Even into the 20th century, White House china was often given away if it was chipped or broken. Later, Congress passed a law that required that all presidential china be kept or destroyed. When new dessert plates for the Johnson administration turned out badly, the White House staff smashed it against a basement wall painted with caricatures of the president's assistants.

Today, nearly all presidents are represented in the china collection one way or another. And full services suitable for state dinners exist for the B Harrison, Wilson, FD Roosevelt, Truman, L Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton sets, although the older sets are much smaller than the newer ones and cannot be used for the largest events. Replacement pieces are occasionally ordered for these, as pieces become chipped or broken.

Wilson — 120 settings
FD Roosevelt — 120 settings
Truman — 120 settings
L Johnson — 216 settings
Reagan — 220 settings
Clinton — 300 settings
Bush — 320 setting formal set, 75 setting informal set

Above from the White House Museum.Org

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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