The Sale of Mrs Lincoln’s Wardrobe: 1867

Mrs Lincoln's wardrobe for sale

Mrs Lincoln’s wardrobe for sale in the New York showroom.

A SINGULAR SPECTACLE

Which has already too large a share of public attention and notoriety, is the exhibition which has been going on for weeks in a small room, upstairs, corner of Houston street and Broadway, of Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. It is a disagreeable subject, and would not be adhered to, only to correct some misstatements and misapprehensions.

No one can look at the collection and imagine that the object in exposing them was to sell them, or make a large amount of money by their sale. With the exception of the lace and camel’s hair shawls, and a few odd pieces of jewelry, there is nothing which any lady could wear, or which in its present condition, would not be a disgrace to a second hand cloth shop. The dresses, those that have been made up and worn are crushed, dirty, old fashioned, and most of them made and trimmed in the worst way. The skirts are too short for any but a very short person, and the commonest muslins, barreges and grenadines are made extremely low in the neck and would not be available for any purpose. There are some brocaded silk skirts in large heavy patterns which have been made but not worn, but these are unaccompanied by any waist, while the price upon them, and all the other articles, is exorbitant. Had the purpose been merely one of sale it would have been better effected through any large dry goods or jewelry house, who would have taken, as they frequently do, the India shawls and diamond rings at a fair valuation, but the display evidently had another object, and for the sake of Mr. Lincoln and his family, the Union League Club, or some other organization, ought to buy up the goods and transfer them to Chatham street as soon as possible.

Daily Eastern Argus [Portland, ME] 1 November 1867: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Although in receipt of a pension granted by Congress, Mrs Lincoln had a terrible fear of poverty and conceived the idea of selling off some of her clothes anonymously. When this was discovered, the President’s widow was savaged by both the Northern and Southern press for selling her “cast-off” clothes. Here is another piece, quoted by Mrs Lincoln’s former dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, in her 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes.

“The attraction for ladies, and the curious and speculative of the other sex in this city, just now, is the grand exposition of Lincoln dresses at the office of Mr. [W.H.] Brady, on Broadway, a few doors south of Houston street. The publicity given to the articles on exhibition and for sale has excited the public curiosity, and hundreds of people, principally women with considerable leisure moments at disposal, daily throng the rooms of Mr. Brady, and give himself and his shopwoman more to do than either bargained for, when a lady, with face concealed with a veil, called and arranged for the sale of the superabundant clothing of a distinguished and titled, but nameless lady. Twenty-five dresses, folded or tossed about by frequent examinations, lie exposed upon a closed piano, and upon a lounge; shawls rich and rare are displayed upon the backs of chairs, but the more exacting obtain a better view and closer inspection by the lady attendant throwing them occasionally upon her shoulders, just to oblige, so that their appearance on promenade might be seen and admired. Furs, laces, and jewelry are in a glass case, but the ‘four thousand dollars in gold’ point outfit is kept in a paste-board box, and only shown on special request.

“The feeling of the majority of visitors is adverse to the course Mrs. Lincoln has thought proper to pursue, and the criticisms are as severe as the cavillings are persistent at the quality of some of the dresses. These latter are labelled at Mrs. Lincoln’s own estimate, and prices range from $25 to $75—about 50 per cent less than cost. Some of them, if not worn long, have been worn much; they are jagged under the arms and at the bottom of the skirt, stains are on the lining, and other objections present themselves to those who oscillate between the dresses and dollars, ‘notwithstanding they have been worn by Madam Lincoln,’ as a lady who looked from behind a pair of gold spectacles remarked. Other dresses, however, have scarcely been worn —one, perhaps, while Mrs. Lincoln sat for her picture, and from one the basting threads had not yet been removed. The general testimony is that the wearing apparel is high-priced, and some of the examiners say that the cost-figures must have been put on by the dress-makers; or, if such was not the case, that gold was $250 when they were purchased, and is now but $140—so that a dress for which $150 was paid at the rate of high figures cannot be called cheap at half that sum, after it has been worn considerable, and perhaps passed out of fashion. The peculiarity of the dresses is that the most of them are cut low-necked—a taste which some ladies attribute to Mrs. Lincoln’s appreciation of her own bust.

“On Saturday last an offer was made for all the dresses. The figure named was less than the aggregate estimate placed on them. Mr. Brady, however, having no discretionary power, he declined to close the bargain, but notified Mrs. Lincoln by mail. Of course, as yet, no reply has been received. Mrs L. desires that the auction should be deferred till the 31st of the present month, and efforts made to dispose of the articles at private sale up to that time.

“A Mrs. C__. called on Mr. Brady this morning, and examined minutely each shawl. Before leaving the lady said that, at the time when there was a hesitancy about the President issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, she sent to Mrs. Lincoln an ashes-of-rose shawl, which was manufactured in China, forwarded to France, and thence to Mrs. C __., in New York. The shawl, the lady remarked, was a very handsome one, and should it come into the hands of Mr. Brady to be sold, would like to be made aware of the fact, so as to obtain possession again. Mr. Brady promised to acquaint the ashes-of-rose donor, if the prized article should be among the two trunks of goods now on the way from Chicago.”

A detailed description of the New York visit and clothing fiasco by Elizabeth Keckley may be found here.

While Mrs Lincoln was known to be eccentric and erratic, (it has been suggested that her lavish spending was a symptom of a mental illness), few there were  who sympathised with the lady in her grief for her three dead sons and her murdered husband. Even her surviving son, Robert, felt compelled to lock her away as insane.

Mrs Lincoln had been very close to Elizabeth Keckley, her dressmaker and confidante, but when Mrs Keckley published her book about life in the White House, to, as she stated, “attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world” and to “explain the motives” that guided Mrs. Lincoln’s decisions regarding what became known as the “old clothes scandal,” she was excoriated for violating the former First Lady’s privacy.  This led to a break in their friendship, although it is possible that they reconciled before Mrs Lincoln died. Mrs Lincoln spent her last years depressed and in ill-health, dying at her sister’s home in Springfield, Illinois in 1882.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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