- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

George Washington ate here.The first president’s Chinese blue-and-white plates, decorated with eagles and angels, were followed by a simpler white service for official entertaining to “fix the taste of the nation.”

In 1960, one of Washington’s plates was purchased by Robert L. McNeil Jr., who spent the next four decades amassing the most comprehensive collection of American presidential porcelain outside the White House. Now, visitors to Mount Vernon have the opportunity to view about 100 pieces from Mr. McNeil’s hoard, which he gave to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006. The chronological display of tableware from 21 administrations, including Andrew Jackson’s bon-bon stands and Abe Lincoln’s slop jar for wastes, is tucked into the Donald W. Reynolds Museum within the visitors center next to Washington’s home.

An exhibit of china sounds pretty dull, but “Setting the President’s Table” turns out to present presidential dish of the gossipy kind in addition to some captivating designs. These seemingly benign domestic objects were capable of brewing a tempest in a teacup: Mary Todd Lincoln came under fire for purchasing lavish purple-and-gold china during the Civil War; Nancy Reagan similarly was attacked for ordering a presidential service on a day when federal subsidies were cut for public school lunches.

Far from following Washington’s example of “neat and plain” creations, most of the plates and dishes on display reflect the aesthetic and dining styles of their times. They include James and Dolley Madison’s neoclassical china, patterned in orange and black to recall ancient motifs; Ulysses S. Grant’s botanical plates; and a tea service, boldly ornamented in red, gold and blue, presented by Russian students to first lady Frances Cleveland in thanks for her efforts to alleviate the 1891-92 famine in their country.

The knockout of the show turns out to be the scenic china commissioned by Rutherford B. and Lucy Hayes in 1879. These unusual designs came about as the result of a chance meeting in the White House conservatory between Mrs. Hayes and artist Theodore Davis, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Following the first lady’s interest in naturalistic imagery, Davis decorated the service to symbolize the meal’s individual courses: a turkey on a platter, a crab on a soup dish, a snowshoe on an ice cream plate. Each of the painted porcelains is a work of art; the idea of heaping food onto their detailed pictures of flora and fauna seems almost criminal.

Like other pieces in the show, these plates and platters were as much political expressions as household objects. By dining off tableware that represented the nation’s bounty, Hayes and his guests literally demonstrated the country’s dominion over the land. Other presidents and first ladies sent similar messages of strength and pride by choosing china with native flowers and plants, stars representing the states, and gold relief symbolizing America as a superpower.

This nationalism didn’t always extend to the manufacturing of the pieces, however. During the 1800s, all nine presidential services were made by leading French factories. Their porcelain was preferred for its thin but strong ceramic body, which set off rich colors and gilding.

William McKinley was the first president to have his plates produced in the United States, but the East Liverpool, Ohio, ceramics were criticized for their inferior quality. It was not until Woodrow Wilson’s administration that a full American-made state service was created for the White House. The 1918 design by Lenox China of Trenton, N.J., was the first to feature a raised gold presidential seal (an emblem created by Hayes in 1877).

First ladies played an active role in selecting the china patterns, and some, including Lady Bird Johnson, helped design them. Her borders of American wildflowers, set within dots evoking rainfall, aptly reflect her interest in conservation. Caroline Scott Harrison, a china painter, similarly decorated her 1891 plates in delicate borders of goldenrod and corn.

Mrs. Harrison was the first to attempt to create a display of presidential china in the White House, but she died in 1892, and it took until 1904 for an official collection to be established inside the mansion. The practice of selling reproduction presidential services to the public was common in the 1800s, and changing taste led some administrations to dispose of those sets deemed unfashionable. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt donated pieces of the Hayes china to local Girl Scout troops, which sold them to raise funds.

Most late-20th-century White House porcelain returned to the streamlined look of Washington’s pristine white china with only banding and presidential emblems to decorate the plates. The formal designs, at odds with the country’s casual dining style, were ordered in huge sets to fulfill a variety of social occasions; the 4,370-piece service made for the Reagans, represented at the exhibit’s conclusion, was enough for 220 place settings and larger than all the 19th-century state services combined. Today, it is common for a president to host a state dinner set with china from previous administrations, a rare sign of bipartisanship during these politically contentious times.

WHAT: “Setting the President’s Table: American Presidential China From the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Collection”

WHERE: Donald W. Reynolds Museum, Mount Vernon, south of Alexandria

WHEN: Daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in February; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in March. Through Jan. 21, 2009.

ADMISSION: $13 for adults; $12 for seniors; $6 for children ages 6 to 11; free for children younger than five.

PHONE: 703/780-2000

WEB SITE: www.mountvernon.org

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