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October 2020

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

U.S. Census Bureau History: First Ladies

James and Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk and her husband, the 11th President of the United States James K. Polk, were the first
first family to be photographed while living at the White House. The daguerreotype image of the
first couple shown above was taken less than a decade after French artist and photographer Louis
Daguerre introduced the imaging process in 1839.

Sarah Polk was one of the most well-educated first ladies of her time, which allowed her to serve as
her husband's personal secretary while in office. James Polk died from cholera in 1849, just 3 months
after leaving the White House. Sarah mourned her husband for the remaining 42 years of her life,
dying in Nashville, TN, on August 14, 1891.

Original image owned by the President James K. Polk Home & Museum.

Every 4 years since 1788, millions of Americans have cast ballots to choose the next president of the United States. By casting their vote, they are also deciding who will accompany the president to the White House as the presidential spouse or "first lady" of the United States. Since our nation's birth, few people have had the unfettered access or influence over the president like America's first ladies. From advisors to fashion icons, activists to dinner hosts, the First Ladies leave a lasting mark on the history of our nation's policymaking, legislation, and the executive mansion they call home.

Since the inauguration of George Washington as the United States' first president, the role of our nation's first ladies has evolved to fit the needs of the president, his family, and the personalities of the women holding the title. As our nation's first first lady, from 1789 to 1797, Martha Washington accompanied her husband as he traveled and hosted state events in New York City, NY, and later Philadelphia, PA—the nation's capitals at the time.

Many first ladies who followed Martha Washington did not confine themselves to simply participating in state social functions. In fact, the contrast between the first and second first ladies of the United States could not have been greater. When John Adams served as the second president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, his wife Abigail actively participated in her husband's politics and policymaking, acted as his press secretary, and frequently served as the White House "gatekeeper," deciding if and when visiting officials could speak to the president.

Over the next 220 years, the first ladies adopted roles for themselves that best suited their personalities. For example, President James Madison's wife Dolley famously hosted social events that encouraged bipartisan cooperation, while Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, begrudgingly moved from her Concord, NH home to the White House, where she secluded herself in one of the executive mansion's bedrooms for much of her husband's presidency. Edith Wilson, second wife of President Woodrow Wilson, managed the president's affairs and correspondence and served as intermediary between Wilson and his Cabinet following his October 1919 stroke. Forty years later, President John F. Kennedy's wife Jacqueline (who gave birth to a son weeks after the 1960 Presidential Election), chose to focus much of her energy on her family and the promotion of the arts.

More recently, the First Ladies have frequently been asked to accompany their husbands or stand in their place during official visits, ceremonies, and speaking engagements. Current First Lady of the United States Melania Trump exemplifies the importance of the role of presidential spouse and executive mansion hostess. With assistance of the Office of the First Lady staff—which includes the White House Chief of Staff and Press Secretary as well as the executive mansion's executive chef and floral designer—Melania Trump planned the Trump Administration's first state dinner in April 2018. Later that year, she led an American delegation on a tour of African nations, while back in the United States, she advocated against cyberbullying and drug use. Like Melania Trump and the women who called the White House home before her, America's first ladies—and perhaps someday "first gentleman"— will continue to find roles that suit their interests and personalities while supporting the administration of the President of the United States.

You can learn more about the first ladies of the United States using census data and records. For example:

  • Following a stroke, Letitia Christian Tyler, wife of President John Tyler, was the first wife of a sitting U.S. president to die at the White House on September 10, 1842, at age 51. Since her death, two other first ladies have died while living at the White House—Caroline Harrison (wife of Benjamin Harrison) on October 25, 1892, and Ellen Wilson (wife of Woodrow Wilson) on August 6, 1914.
  • Anna Tuthill Harrison was both wife of 9th President William Henry Harrison and grandmother to 23rd President Benjamin Harrison. Except for Martha Washington, Anna Harrison is also the only first lady not to reside at the White House. Illness prevented Anna from accompanying her husband to his March 4, 1841, inauguration where he delivered a 2-hour speech in the rain. Harrison became ill 3 weeks later and died—possibly from pneumonia or typhoid fever—on April 4, 1841. As a result of her husband's death in office, Anna Harrison remains the shortest-reigning first lady in American history. After Harrison's state funeral (which Anna was still unable to attend), Congress provided Anna a widow's pension and the right to mail letters free-of-charge.
  • Frances Folsom Cleveland was the first first lady to be married in the White House. A Buffalo, NY, native, Frances Folsom was the daughter of Grover Cleveland's law firm partner Oscar Folsom. Despite the 27-year difference in age, the two fell in love and married in the White House's "Blue Room" before 28 guests on June 2, 1886. The couple vacationed in Garrett County, MD, following the ceremony.
  • First ladies are often eager to adopt new technologies to make life at the White House more comfortable or enjoyable. For example:
  • President James Buchanan was the only life-long bachelor to serve as U.S. president. During his 1857–1861 presidency, Buchanan's niece Harriet Lane assumed many of the public roles of a first lady, including hosting dinners and parties as well as entertaining artists, politicians, and international dignitaries visiting the White House. She married Baltimore banker Henry E. Johnston in 1866 and the couple amassed a sizable art collection which Lane-Johnston bequeathed to the Smithsonian Museum's National Gallery of Art upon her 1903 death in Narragansett, RI.
  • Following passage of the 19th Amendment granting American women the right to vote, Florence Harding became the first wife of a sitting U.S. president to vote. The women's vote helped Republican candidate Warren Harding win the 1920 Presidential Election against Democratic candidate James M. Cox. Compared to the 1916 Presidential Election (between Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles W. Hughes), more than 7.6 million more votes were cast for the major party candidates in 1920 versus 1916—a nearly 43 percent increase.
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of President William J. Clinton, is the only first lady to be elected to the U.S. Senate (D-NY, 2001–2009), serve as the U.S. Secretary of State (2009–2013), and run for president. Had she won the 2016 presidential election, William J. Clinton would have become the first person to be president and "first gentleman" in U.S. history!
  • Chicago, IL, native Michelle Robinson Obama was the first first lady to graduate from two "Ivy League" universities—Princeton University in Princeton, NJ, and Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. The first lady's great-great grandfather Jim Robinson was born into slavery in Georgetown, SC in 1850, and decades later his grandson Fraser Robinson, Jr., moved to Chicago, IL, as part of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to urban centers in other parts of the United States. Fraser Robinson's grand-daughter Michelle met and married the future president of the United States —Barack Obama while both were practicing law at a Chicago law firm.
  • Although Louisa Adams—wife of President John Q. Adams—was born outside the United States, she derived her citizenship from her American-born father. As a result, Melania Trump is the first first lady who was not born a U.S. citizen. Born in Slovenia, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2006. She is one of 22.3 million naturalized citizens living in the United States, according to Current Population Survey data released in 2019.

Smithsoniam Museum of American History First Ladies Exhibit

First adies can play such a prominent role during their time at the White House that the Smithsonian Museum of American History's First Ladies Collection is one of the
museum's most popular exhibits. Featuring artifacts and gowns worn by first ladies, including Julia Grant, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Michelle Obama,
the exhibit highlights their contributions to the life and operation of the White House.

Learn more about the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection and the contributions these women made to American History at the museum's virtual First Ladies Exhibition.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

College Graduates

Rutherford B. Hayes's wife Lucy Webb Hayes was the first presidential spouse to earn a college degree, having graduating from Cincinnati, OH's Wesleyan Female College in 1850.

Thelma Catherine "Pat" Nixon was the first first lady to receive a graduate degree, earning her teaching certification from the University of Southern California. She met future husband and president Richard Nixon while teaching high school business classes in Whittier, CA.

In 2018, the American Community Survey reported that more than 12.1 million women were enrolled in American public or private colleges and graduate schools.

Abigail Adams
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First Lady's Census

Because Martha Washington's census records were destroyed during the War of 1812, Abigail Adams is the first first lady for whom a record exists.

After his inauguration, John and Abigail Adams resided in Philadelphia, PA, which served as the nation's capital while government buildings were constructed in Washington, DC. Unlike the quiet, demur Martha Washington, Abigail Adams was a vocal advisor to her husband, earning the nickname "Mrs. President" for her free expression and support of women's rights, opposition to slavery, and candid writing on the political issues of her day.

In addition to being the first first lady to reside at the White House following the couple's move to Washington in late 1800, Abigail Adams was also the only first lady to be the mother of a future president (John Quincy Adams) until sharing the honor with Barbara Bush following George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001.

Abigail Adams died of Typhoid Fever at her Quincy, MA, home with her family by her side on October 28, 1818.

Herbert and Lou Hoover, 1928
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Did you know?

President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry spoke Mandarin Chinese to each other when they wanted to keep White House conversations secret. They learned Mandarin while Herbert worked as a mining engineer in China from 1899 to 1900.

During Hoover's presidency, the 1930 Census reported that 74,954 Chinese lived in the United States. More recently, the 2010 Census found that 4,010,114 people identified as Chinese alone or in combination with another race. IN 2018, data from the American Community Survey estimated that 3.47 million people spoke a Chinese language at home.

Many first ladies were multilingual. Presidents James Monroe's wife Elizabeth and John F. Kennedy's wife Jacqueline spoke French; John Q. Adams' wife Louisa spoke Dutch; and as a teacher of deaf students, Calvin Coolidge's wife Grace spoke American Sign Language.

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021