First Ladies have always played important roles during their husband’s presidency from hostess at the White House to diplomat. At this time Ohio’s First Ladies are the featured presentation at the National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center in downtown Canton, Ohio. The title, From Frontierswoman to Flapper, describes the transition during their life times from colonial living to the beginning of the Jazz Age. The present day home of the library, an 1895 City National Bank Building, has beautiful original marble floors and walls , thus giving an elegant feeling to the library.
The visit began with a video introducing the First Ladies of Ohio. While Ohio lays claim to eight presidents, only seven first ladies called the state home. That still puts Ohio at the top of the list for First Ladies from any one state. Following the video, an excellent tour guide explained the numerous items on display, which led to many interesting stories about the First Ladies and their husbands. Each first lady had her own special interests and talents, making her a unique individual. These are a few interesting stories about the Ohio First Ladies that caught my attention during a recent visit.
Anna Harrison (1775-1864) first enjoyed being hostess at the Governor’s Mansion where she entertained prominent figures such as Vice President Aaron Burr and Tecumseh. Anna was too ill to travel when her husband went for his presidential inauguration. However, one month later, William Henry Harrison died at the White House so Anna never made the journey to Washington D.C.
Lucy Hayes (1831-1889) enjoyed entertaining as she liked being surrounded by people. Her receptions and dinners were always admired, and her china dinner plates each contained a different scene. Lucy was actually the first First Lady with a college diploma. After she spent time with her husband when he was wounded in the Civil War, she traveled to various camps where she visited, and attended to, wounded soldiers.
Lucretia Garfield (1832-1918) stayed by her husband after he was shot by an assassin through the eighty days that he wasted away. Perhaps she was one of those early promoters of women’s rights as Garfield needed constant attention from his doctors during this time. The male doctors were paid $10,000 while the female doctor was only paid $5,000. Lucretia was adamant about having that changed so the female doctor also received $10,000.
Caroline Harrison (1832-1892) was a star pupil of the German artist, Paul Putzki, and her designs painted on china were on display at the library. Although she was not very well, she enjoyed growing exotic plants and flowers. Her husband never left her side during her bout with tuberculosis and she died in the White House.
Ida McKinley (1847-1907) suffered from blinding headaches and epileptic seizures after the death of her daughter. Therefore, the only way she could fulfill her role as First Lady was often seated in a chair holding a bouquet of flowers to hide her trembling hands. One of her beautiful garnet gowns with black lace and beading on the collar was featured at the library. When she was able, crocheting was one of her forms of relaxation and many crocheted slippers were given as gifts.
Helen Taft (1861-1943) was the first First Lady to donate her gown to the Smithsonian Institute. One of the most beautiful gowns at the library was Helen’s soft pink dress trimmed with lace and a velvet bow. A beautiful embroidered fan featuring a cherry blossom tree was only one of her collection of fans, but a definite favorite. Because of Helen’s admiration for the Japanese cherry trees, three thousand trees were donated to the United States by the mayor of Tokyo.
Florence Harding (1861-1924) did not have many positive experiences in her life and had a very unhappy marriage suffering the many affairs of a wayward husband – some even claim she poisoned him. The piano was her source of comfort as she had studied piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She wrote many notes about her unhappy life and this one had a definite piece of advice to married women:
The Happy Wife is not the woman who marries the best man on earth, But one who is philosophical enough to make the best of what she has got.
National First Ladies’ Library has many events for the community and the surrounding area all year long. During the summer they sponsored a Summer Reading Program for K-5 discussing these books this year: First Garden, Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, and Through Georgia’s Eyes. Their Victorian theater shows documentaries on the First Ladies, presents author talks and shares many interesting movies and performances.
The First Lady in her Hostess role helps determine how successful her husband’s presidency is going to be. If you would like to learn more about the First Ladies, visit them downtown Canton Ohio. These beautiful doors will open to welcome you!
National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center is located in downtown Canton, Ohio just off I-77 at 205 Market Street South. All tours of the facility are guided, and price is reasonable at $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $5 for children under 18. This admission price also includes entrance into the Ida Saxton McKinley House next door, which we will visit at another time.