Today is Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthday, and while you may not know anything about her, trust me when I tell you she LOVED jewelry! Mary was a woman of means before she married Abe Lincoln. And she liked all the fine jewelry that was available at the time. If you’re like me, you probably learned all about Abe in history class, his assassination, the Civil War, etc. But not anything about his wife, the lovely first lady.
It’s too bad, because Mary was an interesting person in her own right. But since this is a jewelry blog, I thought I’d start there!
Jewelry for the Inauguration
Because the inauguration is a big deal, Abe gave Mary a beautiful seed pearl set from Tiffany, with a necklace and two matching bracelets. Since Abe wasn’t nearly as wealthy as his wife’s family, he got the relatively cheaper version for $530. The full seed pearl set included earrings and brooches. But that set was $1000, which was out of his price range.
Mary wore the set to the Inaugural Ball. She went all out for the affair. Her hair was done up with elaborate flowers, her ball gown had lace and embellishments, and she wore white gloves. Abe described her dress as “charming.”
I know you’re probably thinking that seed pearls are not very glamorous, but let me assure you they were all the rage back then! They were seen as tasteful and elegant, and all the high class ladies had them. In fact, they were so popular that it’s an easy way to identify the time period for a piece of jewelry. If you see seed pearls, it’s quite likely a Victorian piece.
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Unfortunately, the black and white photos of Mary don’t really do the piece justice. But ff you want to see it in person, head to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They have it on display!
Mary was a Southern belle, born into a large, wealthy slave-owning family from Lexington, KY. She and her many sisters and brothers grew up in a beautiful, elegant home, used to lots of parties and able to wear the latest fashions!
Mary was very educated for a woman of her time. She went to finishing school (I’ve never really figured out what that is, but it sounds like something only rich people do). While she was there, she learned about literature, dance, drama, music and of course, social graces. She moved to Springfield, IL, to live with her sister, and that’s where she met Abe. He came from a very different social class, but they agreed on lots of topics, and she was supportive of his career in politics. When they married, he was 33 and she was 23. They had four children together while they lived in Springfield.
Mary as First Lady
It was 20 years into their marriage when Abe was elected President. Mary was thrilled. At 43, she’d been giving giving him advice on his political career all along. She and Abe shared many of the same viewpoints, including their belief that slavery must be abolished. This caused major disagreements with Mary’s family, since they were slave owners. Still, Mary looked forward to being First Lady, and thought her upbringing would help her create a proper White House. She knew the country was on the brink of war, and thought England and France would help the United States more if they saw a respectable, stable nation, and not some small backwater country.
To help her efforts, Mary did an expensive renovation of the White House and got all new china. She also felt it was important to be dressed well, that she was a reflection of the United States. Unfortunately, her fashionable wardrobe and jewelry caught the attention of Abe’s enemies. Her White House renovation backfired. The press painted her as a selfish, extravagant woman unconcerned with a coming war.
Embarrassingly for Abe, Congress had to pass special appropriations to pay for Mary’s overspending.
Mary, despite her upbringing and her love for her husband and family, suffered a lot of tragedy in her lifetime. She never really recovered from the loss of poor Abe, assassinated at Ford’s Theatre while he was sitting next to her. Horrible! And if that wasn’t enough heartache for a lifetime, Mary lost three of her four children.
Their son Eddie was first. He was an adorable three-year-old who died of cancer, although back then they called it “wasting disease.” Twelve years later, 11-year-old Willie died of typhoid fever, which completely devastated both Abe and Mary.
Just six years later, Mary lost the third of her four children, 18-year-old Tad. He had caught a cold. But it got worse, and he died of pleurisy. This left her completely broken. Unfortunately, Mary lived in a time when grieving was not really allowed, and certainly not public grieving. The poor woman never really recovered.
The country, at the time, did not have the time or patience for Mary’s grief. Everyone had lost someone in the Civil War. Everyone was grieving in their own way.
Pensions for first ladies
I bet you’ve never really thought a lot about pensions, especially pensions for first ladies. Well, Mary has the distinction of being the very first First Lady to ever be granted a pension. Back in that time period (the Civil War era), the wives of soldiers received pensions when their husbands were killed. And Mary viewed Abe like a fallen commander. Plus, she was having severe financial difficulties after he died. She essentially had no income, and Abe’s estate had debt.
Mary had hoped to sell off some of her clothing and jewelry. After all, she wouldn’t be wearing them. She had a completely different wardrobe as a grief-stricken widow . Although she had hoped to do it anonymously, the public ended up finding out. The press viewed the whole debacle as completely improper, since the items had historical value and should be preserved. Mary ended up humiliated and actually lost money.
Congress was embarrassed by Mary’s behavior. They thought it was unseemly, having her hawk her jewelry and dresses all over town. Although they didn’t want to, they eventually gave Mary a pension for life of $3,000 a year (just less than $60,000 in today’s money). It came five years after Abe’s death, and it wasn’t enough for her to pay all her debts and be able to live in her own home. Congress eventually raised the pension $5,000 a year, but it was never enough for Mary.
Her last days
I have a lot of sympathy for Mary. She was dealt a difficult hand, and was misunderstood at every turn. There’s lot of speculation about whether Mary suffered from mental illness, and if so, what kind. Sadly, we will never know for sure. But I do know that mental illness was treated very differently back then. And not in a good way.
Her only surviving son, Robert, believed his mother insane after she took an interest in spiritualism, and tried to communicate with her dead husband and children. He was able to have her committed. This infuriated her, and she fought desperately to be released. After four months, she was released into the custody of her sister, but she never forgave her son for his betrayal.
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Mary felt completely under attack in the United States. She lived out the rest of her days in Europe, and died seven years later at the age of 63.