Rare Item of the Month: Mary’s Treasures

(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.)

Mary Todd Lincoln's seed-pearl necklace and matching bracelets. Rare Book And Special Collections Division.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s seed-pearl necklace and matching bracelets. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

This month, in honor of Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthday on December 13, we will depart from our literary theme and look at some of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s “special collections.” While these items are not rare books, they are every bit as valuable.

Abraham Lincoln gifted his wife Mary Todd Lincoln nothing less than Tiffany to wear for the first inaugural ball of his presidency. This exquisite necklace and two bracelets came to the Library in 1937 as part of the gift from Lincoln’s granddaughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, and have been incorporated into the Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

President Lincoln purchased the items at Tiffany’s in Manhattan. The Prints and Photographs Division has this Matthew Brady photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln wearing the jewelry gifted to her by Lincoln, as well as the ball gown that she wore to Lincoln’s first inaugural ball. She must have felt every bit the part of first lady wearing such finery.

The product of a wealthy Kentucky family, Mary attended Madame Mantelle’s Finishing School, which concentrated on French, literature, dance, drama, music and social graces. With this background of refinement, she must have cherished the beauty of the jewelry and appreciated the quality of the maker. The use of seed pearls in fine jewelry throughout the latter part of the 19th century was a popular practice. They often adorned brooches, tiaras, pins and earrings and were a staple of Victorian fashion. Many prestigious jewelers made prolific use of seed pearls as they were a sign of taste and status.

Mary Todd Lincoln. Photo by Matthew Brady, 1861. Prints and Photographs Division.

Mary Todd Lincoln. Photo by Matthew Brady, 1861. Prints and Photographs Division.

The online Stern Collection of Lincolniana provides a fascinating glimpse into Lincoln’s life and presidency and contains more than 4,000 items. One of the great advantages of digitized collections is that it has made it nearly effortless to search a large volume of items quickly to draw together like items on any topic or date. Searching on the term “inaugural ball” draws up the result of this dance card for the 1861 ball. Viewing this dance card, the photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln in her inaugural ball finery and the Tiffany jewelry allows one to go back in time that March evening nearly 156 years ago. One is offered a slice in time and can imagine the excitement and sense of promise that the evening must have held for Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.

Further, searches on “Mary Todd Lincoln” bring up some fascinating results from the online collection. One can get a glimpse into Mary’s personality and character by reading the letters she wrote and received, as well as studying the various portraits rendered in her likeness.

Dance card for Lincoln's inaugural ball, 1861. Rare Book a.nd Special Collections Division

Dance card for Lincoln’s inaugural ball, 1861. Rare Book and Special Collections Division

For example, this letter to Brig. General Sickles, dated Sept. 31, 1862, finds Mary Todd Lincoln attempting to schedule a meeting with Sickles while commenting on continuing cannon fire heard at the White House. She expresses concern about the war and not wanting to upset President Lincoln with her thoughts on the topic.

In this letter from Queen Victoria, dated April 1865, the queen expresses condolences about President Lincoln’s death.

“[I] must personally express my deep and heartfelt sympathy with you under shocking circumstances of your present – dreadful misfortune. No one can better appreciate, than I can, who am myself utterly broken hearted by the loss of my own beloved husband, who was the light of my life, my stay, my all, – what your own sufferings must be, and I earnestly pray that you may be supported by Him, to whom alone the sorely stricken can look for comfort in their hour of heavy affliction.”

This letter to Leads and Miner from Nov. 11, 1865, expressed consternation that her children’s tutor sold items for profit that were given to him by Mary Todd Lincoln.

“As to Mr. Williamson – for the last four years, he was tutor to my little boys; my husband & myself always regarded him as an upright, intelligent man – when leaving Washington, last May I directed, the servant woman, to present him in my name (and in consideration, for the high reverence, he Mr. W. always entertained for the President) a shawl & dressing gown. In doing so, I felt he would cherish & always retain, these relics of so great & good a man – My astonishment, was very great I assure you, when you mentioned that these articles were for sale. Mr. W. certainly did not reflect, when he proposed such a thing. I wish you would write to him & remonstrate – upon so strange a proceeding.”

Bringing these assorted items together help us form a better understanding of the multi-dimensional person that the first lady was and honor her on her December birthday. She was a woman who may have endured heavy burdens throughout her adult life, yet she strove to find the lighter side through the delight and refinement afforded to her position as first lady.

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