Wednesday, March 16, 2016

For the Love of Home and Country: Caroline Harrison

I couldn't help thinking while reading Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison by  Anne Chieko Moore that Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper would have just loved her. I can picture them hanging out together busily motioning to this wall and that wall while their remodeling ideas tumbled out of their mouths quicker than they could scratch it onto the parchment plans.

Caroline Harrison, First Lady

 By the time Caroline reached the White House in 1889 she had already run a successful home with servants in the center of Indianapolis social life. She also had spent 1881-1887 as a Senator’s wife hosting others in Washington D.C.

The White House was badly in need of expansion. The Harrisons’ brought her father, their two grown children and their spouses, their grandkids, Caroline’s sister and niece with them to the White House. This large family shared five bedrooms and one bathroom which was part of a hallway containing offices! Caroline worked on an expansion plan to present to the Congress. The plans passed the Senate, but not the House since the speaker was not a big fan of Harrison. Instead they gave an appropriation of $52,000 to remodel and redecorate. So Caroline remodeled Chip and Joanna Gaines style!

She arranged for contractors to come and fix up the rotting wooden floors and put in a new kitchen. She also had a master bath put in. The rat population was so bad that she had to call in a man with ferrets to get rid of them all. In addition, Ben and Caroline Harrison were the ones who put the first electricity in the White House which cost $13,450 and was installed by the Edison Company.

Caroline also was the first First Lady to take charge of decluttering and inventory. Before it was the steward’s role to decide what stayed or went. She started with the eight room attic and found some amazing treasures like a thirteen and a half foot mirror-lake which was a gift from Paris to James Monroe. She also found a desk that was given to President Hayes which she had restored for Ben Harrison to use. Later, JFK used the desk.  She also began an inventory of what was actually in the White House so the house was kept in proper order.

When she reached the basement she found lots of presidential china from years past. She began to take inventory and came up with the idea to display the china.  This china collection remains on display today.

In the midst of all this cleaning out and remodeling, Caroline also kept up with the day to day household chores of the White House. Her daily schedule:

6:00 AM Marketing with Baby McKee, her grandson, in tow

8:00 AM Breakfast with the family followed by Bible Reading and prayer lead by Ben Harrison

10:00-2:00 Caroline and the other ladies of the house would give tours to visitors and also entertain those who called

1:30 PM Lunch

6:30 PM Dinner which often included unexpected guests

A reporter commented on the fact that Caroline did her own marketing. Her reply: “Why certainly; always. How else could I expect to have things done to please me?”

She also applied her love of home to her home nation beginning several patriotic traditions such as The Pledge of Alliance, flying the flag on all government and public buildings, and standing during the National Anthem. In addition, Caroline was the first President General of the Daughters of American Revolution and presided over meetings held in the White House.

She was criticized in the press for being too domestic and having nothing better to do. But in reality she thrived and excelled domestically at the same time as paving the way for other women to succeed in other roles. For example, she was part of a group of women asked to fund raise for John Hopkins University’s new medical school. But the women said they would not fund-raise unless the school promised to admit women on equal footing as men to the new medical school.

She also read the newspapers and talked with Ben on political matters. She was well informed and involved.

Caroline’s confidence and competency in her homemaking role from her home in Indianapolis to the White House is inspiring to women today who desire to be available to those around her and make her home and country her first love.

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