by Carmen Doyle
Mary Todd Lincoln is one of the most well-known First Ladies and almost always criticized. Her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, was born into slavery but worked her way out of it to become one of the most sought dressmakers in D.C.
Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress is Keckley’s autobiography, from her birth as a slave to working as a successful dressmaker and becoming a confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Elizabeth is very eloquent, explaining how she was born into slavery “therefore I came upon the earth free in God-like thought, but fettered in action.” Her early years are heartbreaking, as she tells how her father was the slave of another man and only allowed to visit at Christmas and Easter. At one point, her father was going to be allowed to live with her mother full-time, but instead his master went further south, and she never saw him again. Elizabeth has some excerpts of his letters to her mother. He writes he hopes to see her again and hopes that someone headed north will take him along so he can visit. Elizabeth tells how her mother had a lot to do; making clothes for the owner and family, as well as all the slaves, so Elizabeth determined to learn to sew in order to help her mother. There are other incidents that clearly tell of the cruelty of slavery, such as that she was persecuted for four years by a white man with “base designs”, which led to Elizabeth becoming a mother.
Elizabeth tells how she gained her freedom through her sewing, managing to raise $1200 from clients in order to buy the freedom of her and her son. All the money she received was paid back. The book includes the receipts from clients contributing to her freedom, and the receipt for the freedom of Elizabeth and her son.
The story gets very interesting when Elizabeth goes to D.C. She acquires some prominent clients, including the wife of Senator Jefferson Davis. One interesting anecdote that Elizabeth recounts is how years later, she was at a fair and there was a wax figure of Jefferson Davis in a dress (it was reported untruthfully that was how he was captured) Upon close inspection, Elizabeth discovered that the dress he was in was actually one of the “chintz wrappers” that she had made Mrs. Davis.
One of Elizabeth’s goals was to work in the White House and she is recommended to Mary Todd Lincoln, becoming her dressmaker and confidante. Most of the book takes place in the White House, working for Mrs. Lincoln. Elizabeth tells of how she met the President and how Mrs. Lincoln seemed to accidentally hurt him often. Although it is easy to see how Mrs. Lincoln often came across as vain, Elizabeth portrays her in a sympathetic light. Mrs. Lincoln did run up more expenses than the President’s salary could afford, and she didn’t tell him about it. Since Mrs. Lincoln was aware that her every move was scrutinized, she wanted to appear at her best at all times.
As Mrs. Lincoln’s friend, Elizabeth observes many events. One of the saddest things she witnesses is the death of Willie Lincoln. A doctor had been called and said Willie gave every indication of an early recovery, and that the reception which the Lincolns had planned should go on. Willie grew worse and during the reception Mrs. Lincoln often went up to check on him. But he still grew worse and soon died.
President Lincoln is not always portrayed in a positive light. When Mrs. Lincoln was in “one of her paroxysms of grief” the President tells her that if she doesn’t control herself, she will be driven mad, and have to be put in the lunatic asylum. One person who never comes off in a positive light is Robert Lincoln, not just in refusing to go to a reception for Tom Thumb, but later after the President’s death in complaining about the smallness of the apartments that they were in and refusing to let Tad go to town with him. Unfortunately, the book ends in 1867, after the death of Lincoln, but before the death of Tad and before Robert’s marriage and Mary being declared insane.
As might be expected in a book written by a dressmaker, there are descriptions of clothes, but there are no pictures of these clothes. Mrs. Lincoln later tried to sell some of her expensive clothes in order to raise money for her living expenses, so there are lists of what she was trying to sell, but again, no pictures, so it is difficult to try and figure out what Mrs. Lincoln was wearing. (The Lincoln Financial Collection has photos of Mary Todd, but it’s difficult to tell if any of the dresses she is photographed in were ones that Elizabeth made or if they were ones she later tried to sell)
Elizabeth tells of her accomplishments too, such as starting a relief fund for colored soldiers, but it’s really the First Family that is the most interesting facet of the book.
Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress is a great read, particularly because it is a contemporary account of Mary Todd Lincoln, one of the most maligned First Ladies.The book is available for sale at the History Center.