Calling All First Ladies

Dress of Dolly Madison, Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, neg. no. 72-2404. Imagine: It's 1809 and you are tasked with traveling by carriage across unpaved city streets to deliver correspondence to society’s elites. Are you a courier? Or a page? Perhaps, but you might also be the First Lady! Social historian Barbara Carson explains the varied social duties that 19th - century First Ladies were expected to fulfill in an interview conducted by Smithsonian Productions and now found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives' Accession 03-059 - Smithsonian Productions, Productions, 1987-2001.

In the era before telephones, people delivered calling cards to initiate contact with new acquaintances or to express an intention to meet with someone in the future. Calling cards were especially prevalent at the United States Capitol, where the turnover of congressmen, foreign ministers, and other government officials required a constant stream of new introductions. As the official hostess of the White House, the First Lady had a social obligation to pay calls to new wives, resulting in long and tiresome carriage rides around Washington to deliver calling cards fifteen to thirty times a day.

Dolley Madison, known as one of the White House’s most charming official hostesses, dutifully met this obligation. Her successor, however, broke with calling card tradition by refusing to deliver calling cards. At the time of Elizabeth Monroe’s entry to the White House in 1817, Washington society was rapidly expanding and the ritual of making first calls had become unreasonably demanding. President James Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, addressed the necessary change in social protocol by issuing a statement to explain that the First Lady would no longer make first calls. Though Elizabeth Monroe was relieved of this one social burden, she continued to work diligently as a hostess and is credited with bringing European influence to White House state dinners.

Listen to the clip below to hear Barbara Carson’s discussion of calling cards.


The social obligations of the First Lady have continued to evolve throughout each presidency. Modern First Ladies are expected to wear many hats during their residence in the White House: official hostess, fashion icon, policy advocate, and campaigner are just a few. As a figurehead of the president’s administration, the First Lady is an ongoing object of public fascination.Dress of Elizabeth Monroe, Courtesy of National Museum of American History, neg. no. 72-2405.

To learn more see the National Museum of American History's First Ladies exhibition.

As an intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have contributed to the preservation of this collection by converting the Barbara Carson interview and other audio files from digital audio tapes (DATs) to Broadcast WAV files. DATs resemble the once-popular analog cassette tapes except that they are smaller, measuring roughly 2x3 inches, and are able to record digital audio. Since the advent of compact discs (CDs) and other newer audio formats, DATs have become obsolete.

In the DAT transfer process, short periods of missing audio, known as "drop-outs," are a common problem. A drop-out, like the one that occurs in the above clip at 1:57, is generally caused when existing damage on a DAT prevents the proper transfer of audio. Without the current interventions being taken by the Archives, these tapes would linger in archival boxes and, eventually, the recordings would become inaccessible due to either the deterioration of their magnetic tape or the disappearance of DAT reading equipment.

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