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Monochrome image of men and women in hats and coats waiting in line outside snowy White House
Crowd waiting in line outside the White House, Washington, D.C., on New Year’s Day, circa 1920s. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Of Note: New Year’s Receptions and White Feathers at the White House in 1818

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Of Note is an occasional series in which we share items that have caught our eye.

From 1801, when John Adams was president, until 1932, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House, presidents and first ladies welcomed visitors on New Year’s Day. Anyone could attend these New Year’s receptions, as long as they didn’t mind standing in a long receiving line in whatever weather early January had to offer. On New Year’s Day, 1818, more than a century before the scene pictured above, Mary Cushing Ashmun visited the White House and then recorded her experience in a detailed four-page letter recently acquired by the Manuscript Division.

Mary Cushing Ashmun (later Codman) (1774-1846) was the second wife of U.S. Senator Eli Ashmun (1770-1819) of Massachusetts, and a fashionable woman from a notable New England family. In her letter she addresses “Harriet,” who may have been her niece, in Boston, and communicates the details of events in “Washington City.” Referring to the White House as “the American Palace,” she describes the decor and furnishings of the building in detail:

“It is indeed my dear a Palace after the true London style, we were in only 5 rooms, the first is a large Hall, perhaps between 30 & 35 feet in size two fire places with greates to burn coal – from this hall opens 3 doors into 3 superb rooms, & from the 4th which I was told was the dinning room – the oval room in which we were received by the President & Lady, has a plain crimson paper with a gold figured border half a yd in width, the centre chandelier appeared to be all cut dimonds with gold sockets to contain more than fifty lights I should guess….The palace is not much more than half finished when it is compleated I doubt if its superior can be seen in any country.” 

Handwritten letter on yellowing paper
First page of letter from Mary Cushing Ashmun to “Harriet,” January 8, 1818. Mary Cushing Ashmun correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The White House had been destroyed just four years earlier during the War of 1812, and it had taken several years to rebuild. Consequently, construction was only “half finished” when President James Monroe and First Lady Elizabeth Kortright Monroe arrived in October 1817. In her letter, Ashmun describes Elizabeth Monroe (1768-1830), focusing mainly on what she was wearing:

“Mrs. Monroe looked most beautifully on new years morn; her dress was white figured silk trimmed with a wide thread lace, a delightful little white hat turned up in front with three white feathers; & a little lace peeping from the edge of the crown of the hat round the face like a cap – She is one of my beauties – Her first drawing room is on the next week on wednesday eve, I suppose we shall all be there.”

This reference to Monroe’s “drawing room” is important because the incoming first lady had eschewed her predecessor Dolley Madison’s practice of paying social visits to wives of politicians and cabinet members, and other social customs of the previous administration. One White House observer, Margaret Bayard Smith, noted in November 1817 that “People seem to think we shall have great changes in social intercourse and customs. [Mr. and] Mrs. Monroe’s manners will give a tone to all the rest. Few persons are admitted to the great house and not a single lady has as yet seen Mrs. Monroe . . .” Dolley Madison (1768-1849) had set a welcoming tone by hosting well-attended “levees,” or parties, at the White House. Some of these gatherings were also referred to as “drawing rooms,” regularly scheduled receptions often hosted by the first lady. Smith explains the importance of the drawing room to Washington society noting, “And the drawing-room, — that centre of attraction, — affords opportunity of seeing all these whom fashion, fame, beauty, wealth or talents, have render’d celebrated. It has this winter been generally very much crowded, seldom has the company been less than 2 or 300, and generally more.”  

Monochrome portrait of woman with scarf covering hair
Portrait of First Lady Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, circa 1810s. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In late 1817 Monroe ran afoul of the foreign diplomatic corps when rumors surfaced that she would not be holding drawing rooms. Her decision to break with the previous custom was partially due to her failing health, but also due to her more reserved manner. Of course, every presidential administration had its own way of hosting parties and public events. Smith observed of an earlier era: “Mr. Jefferson had no levees, but received visitors every morning at certain hours, excepting on New Year’s-day and the Fourth of July. On these grand occasions not only the President’s House, but the city was thronged with visitors from George Town, Alexandria and the surrounding country. They were national festivals, on which the doors of the Presidential mansion were thrown open for persons of all classes, where abundance of refreshments were provided for their entertainment.”

With rumors swirling, it’s unclear if Monroe decided to bow to social pressures or if she had intended to hold a drawing room all along. In any case, as Ashmun’s letter demonstrates, she did host the weekly “drawing-room” during the congressional season of 1818. However, her take on social events and parties remained reserved; her daughter Maria’s White House wedding in 1820 was private.

Handwritten letter on yellowing paper
Last page of letter from Mary Cushing Ashmun to “Harriet,” January 8, 1818. Mary Cushing Ashmun correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Mary Cushing Ashmun’s letter ends with a reference to Washington women’s interest in political affairs, and her own desire to emulate Monroe’s hat with the “white feathers.” Ashmun writes, “Tell your mother that every lady seems to be centred here of the consequencial characters, and the city reminds one of the style of the nobility – I am much in want of 2 handsome white feather[s], their is none in this city.” Ashmun’s letter, along with other supporting documentation, gives us a glimpse not only into customs surrounding New Year’s receptions at the White House, but also shows how women in the era of the Monroe administration influenced Washington society.

Explore additional Manuscript Division collections that provide descriptions of Washington society and White House events during the early national period, including the papers of Margaret Bayard Smith  and of the Samuel Shaw family; the correspondence of Joshua Coit and Ebenezer Sage; and the presidential papers collections.

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“It is indeed my dear…” The name of the building varied over time and included the “President’s House,” “Executive Mansion,” and “White House.” President Theodore Roosevelt officially designated the building as the “White House” in 1901.

“And the drawing room…” Margaret Bayard Smith to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, March 13, 1814, in Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society, ed. by Gaillard Hunt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 95.

“Her decision…” “From the National Register: The Drawing-Room,” City of Washington Gazette, December 17, 1817. See also: Merry Ellen Scofield, “Assumptions Of Authority: Social Washington’s Evolution From Republican Court To Self-Rule, 1801-1831” (PhD diss., Wayne State University, 2014), 122-125.

“Mr. Jefferson had no levees…” Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years, 397-398.

“However, her take on social events…” Alida Black, “Elizabeth Kortright Monroe,” in The First Ladies of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2019), 15; also available online.

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