Did you know that up until 1937, the presidential inauguration was held on March 4th instead of January 20th? Or that many presidents have held inaugural balls at various Smithsonian museums? In fact, 140 years ago today, the inaugural ball of President James Garfield was the first to be held at the Smithsonian, taking place in the unfinished Arts and Industries Building. Additionally, after the collection of first ladies’ gowns was started in 1912, Helen Taft established the tradition of first ladies donating their inaugural ball dresses to the Smithsonian. It’s only fitting, then, that we delve into The World Is Yours episode titled “Fashion Parade of Presidents’ Wives” which aired on July 5, 1936.
Only the second episode to be broadcast in the series, the program starts out with a brief history of how the collection of first ladies dresses at the Smithsonian came to be. Then, the episode takes listeners into the exhibit itself where a guide is walking guests through the exhibit, and telling stories about the different dresses on display. First up is the gown of Martha Washington. What follows is one dramatization of her visit to Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War and another that explores what she must have said to guests as she greeted them during the last ball she hosted as first lady.
The guide then discusses a gown worn by Abigail Adams. A description of her dress is followed by a reenactment of a conversation that might have ensued upon her arrival at the partially finished White House for the first time.
[Abigail Adams] Oh, I have it!
[John Adams] Have what my dear? Mr. Jefferson?
[Abigail Adams] (laughs) No, no. Something I’ve been worrying over ever since I went through this house.
[John Adams] Yes, it is a fret to think of being hostess to this great white house, but you will equip yourself perfectly my dear Abby.
[Abigail Adams] Nonsense, John Adams. Now when did having company to dinner ever bother a woman? No, no what worried me was this: without any yard or garden of any sort outside where could we hang the wash? Ah, but I just thought of it. We’ll dry it in that big, east room.
[John Adams] That’s the State Audience Chamber!
[Abigail Adams] Yes, I think it’ll hold four long lines. I’ll go now and make sure.
From there, the guide moves to Dolly Madison’s dress and remarks how she is considered a heroine for how she saved the treasures of the White House during the British invasion in the War of 1812. A reenactment of her doing just that follows, along with one where she is greeted unkindly by elite women of Washington, D.C. at a nearby inn because of President Madison’s part in the war. The tour continues with a stop at the dresses of Angelica Van Buren, Jane Pierce, and Harriet Lane.
[Guide] This way please.
[Woman] This royal blue velvet hoop skirt of Mrs. Van Buren’s must measure ten yards round.
[Guide] Many people consider this the handsomest dress in the Smithsonian collection. The daughter-in-law of Martin Van Buren set the style of three plumes in the hair.
[Woman] Mrs. Franklin Pierce’s black tulle dress is rather, uh, somber for an inaugural gown, wasn’t it?
[Guide] It was worn by a woman with a broken heart. You see, Mrs. Pierce had had three children. Three months before her husband assumed the presidency, they’d seen their only remaining child killed before their eyes in a railroad wreck.
[Woman] Oh the poor thing. How could she attend an inaugural ball?
[Guide] She resolved heroically that her sorrow should not cast its shadow on the Nation.
[Woman] This next dress looks like a wedding gown.
[Guide] It was. When Miss Harriet Lane, the niece of our only bachelor president, James Buchanan, finally married, she chose this white moire silk with a circular decolletage.
The guide continues to go into detail about Harriet Lane’s time in London, followed by a dramatization of a conversation she might have had with with the Prince of Wales upon his visit to the United States in 1860. According to the reenactment, he was quite smitten with her and they might have married under different circumstances. The visitors then view Abigail Filmore’s dress before gazing upon one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns. The guide tells everyone that Mary Todd Lincoln was considered one of the most fashionable first ladies, but that her marriage to President Lincoln is sadly misunderstood, presumably because of her documented history of public outbursts during Lincoln’s presidency. The episode closes with a dramatization of a conversation the Lincolns might have had prior to leaving for the theater on the night Lincoln was shot.
Since this was only the second episode to air, it is certainly interesting to see how the series evolved later on. Check back next month for a look at another episode of The World Is Yours!
- "The Oval Office meets the Castle: Presidents at the Smithsonian," by Hillary Brady, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The First Ladies at the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History
- Smithsonian Institution Sound Recordings, circa 1915-1941, Accession 05-142, Smithsonian Institution Archives