Presidential Service

First Lady Dolley Madison searches for the perfect china set 

HUMANITIES, January/February 2009, Volume 30, Number 1

Benjamin Latrobe and his wife, Mary, helped newly inaugurated President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison furnish the White House. Here, Mary provides an update on the Madisons’ carriage and her attempts to find suitable china.

. . . Respecting the Colour of your Carriage Mr Latrobe and myself approve your choice of the Red Brown. There were several shades of it among the patterns, but he says the glass has a little decieved you. It is very fashionable and will suit well with a fawn Colourd Lining and the lace you chose. The Carriages will now go on rapidly. Mr. Rae has been fortunate in procuring a Sufficient Quantity of Velvet for the drawing room Curtains sopha’s, chairs & all and they will certainly be very elegant.

The dinner sett of China we have decided upon this Morning I was out in pursuit of it at eight Oclock—But there is a Miserable choice here at present. The dinner sett is “India Stone china,” blue & white, the dessert sett is the same colour but Nankin china gilt handsomely. We must have taken this, or none, and I am sure you are in immediate want of it. The two setts will cost about 400$ or perhaps rather less We have at once orderd them packd and wait now the arrival of Capt Hand.

I wrote to you the impossibility of procuring french China, but in setts. There is no such thing as Cups & saucers alone. And you know the setts are very small, what will you do? I can send you some very handsome Nankin china cups & saucers (blue & white) by the dozen—the Coffee Cups of the shape of the Séver china and also the saucers. The tea Cups of the old shape—The Coffee Cup & Saucers 15$ pr doz. The tea cups 10$ there is one sett of beautiful french china in town Containing one doz. of Coffee & one doz. tea cups and saucers to each, tea pot, bowl sugar dish and (I believe) a plate. The Colour is a pea green richly gilt at the edge—price 70$—This is realy the only thing worth looking at in the way of a tea sett. The late situation of the Country I imagine is the cause of great deficiency in the stores throughout the City, for many articles are not to be had for Love or Money—I enclose you a list of the China we send, and beg you to believe we have used every exertion to get the best we could. . . .

-- Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst Latrobe to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 12 April 1809, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004. Reprinted with permission of University of Virginia Press.