mary todd lincoln


Never know what you’ll find “Behind the Scenes” at the Dibner Library for the History of Science and Technology! Written by former slave and modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, the book’s full title is “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.” Keckley was played by actress Gloria Reuben in 2012’s Lincoln.
We haven’t digitized our copy, but UNC-Chapel Hill has, if you’d like to read it (do!)


Purple Velvet Dress with Piping Trim with Daytime and Evening Bodices. Owned by Mary Todd Lincoln and worn during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62.

Likely made by Elizabeth Keckly, an African American dressmaker who made the majority of Lincoln’s gowns.

via The Smithsonian


December 13th 1818: Mary Todd Lincoln born

On this day in 1818, the future First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln, was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Born to a prominent and wealthy family, Todd was fortunate enough to receive a good education. She moved to Springfield, Illinois, where she met the young politician and lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Her parents disapproved of Lincoln due to his poor background, but the couple married in November 1842. They went on to have four children - Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas. Mary staunchly supported her husband’s political career, even while members of her family supported the Confederacy during the Civil War that Lincoln’s election prompted. The First Lady was widely unliked in the White House and often accused of being mentally unstable, perhaps a result of the death of their son Edward in 1850 and William in 1862. She was sitting next to the President when he was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre on April 14th 1865. Mary Todd sunk even further into depression in 1871 when her youngest son Thomas died, which led her sole surviving son Robert to bring her to court on charges of insanity in 1875. The charges were successful and the former First Lady was committed to an insane asylum for a few months, and rarely spoke to her son after the incident. After living abroad for a few years, Mary Todd returned to Illinois and died of a stroke in July 1882 aged 63.

Tony Kushner on Mary Todd Lincoln’s contribution to the White House image:

She apparently sold Lincoln’s annual letter to Congress — which is what the State of the Union Address used to be — to a newspaper to raise money to buy stuff for the White House. And that of course was a huge transgression, and the House seriously thought of calling her up and investigating her. Lincoln stopped that.

The thing that I think people don’t understand about Mary, or don’t give her credit for, is that when they came to the White House, it was in an absolute shambles — as was the country. Obviously, it was falling apart in 1861. And I think because she came from a political family and had a very keen sense of political theater, she knew that the backdrop for the Lincoln administration had to be splendid and suggest power and coherence, since the U.S. at that moment was anything but coherent. It was disintegrating.

And she did it. When you look at the engravings from the time, people were clearly just blown away at how beautiful the place was. And she deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing that with almost no budget.

(Photo credit: Nicholas H. Shepherd)

“The Way To A Man’s Heart Is Through His Stomach”

Mary Todd Lincoln cake is “courtin’ cake” — the very cake that the future first lady served in the mid-1800s to win over Abe Lincoln. 

She served the cake to Lincoln as he came courting, and it was his favorite. 

The story is told that Mary Todd’s aristocratic family was introduced to the cake when a French dignitary came to visit their Lexington, Ky., home and brought his own chef. The Todd family requested the recipe, and later Mary Todd took the recipe along when she moved to Springfield in 1839.

Some say the first lady continued to bake the cake when the Lincolns lived in the White House from 1861 to 1865, but White House chefs found it too plain for important guests. They made it into a layered cake with rich vanilla frosting instead of the traditional powdered sugar topping.

Mary Todd Lincoln Cake

1 ½ cups sugar. 1 cup butter. 1 teaspoon. vanilla 2 ¼. cups cake flour. 1 tablespoon baking powder. 1 1/3 cups milk. 1 cup almonds, finely chopped. 6 egg whites, stiffly beaten. White Frosting. 1 cup sugar. 1/3 cup water. ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar. 1 dash salt. 2 egg whites. 1 teaspoon vanilla.
1 Cake:.
2 Cream sugar, butter and vanilla.
3 Sift together cake flour and baking powder three times.
4 Add to creamed mixture alternatively with milk.
5 Stir in almonds.
6 Gently fold in the egg whites.
7 Pour into two greased and floured 9 x 1 ½ inch round baking pans.
8 Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
9 Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan.
10 White Frosting:.
11 Bring to boiling, sugar, water, cream of tartar and salt. Boil until sugar dissolves.12 Put egg whites in mixing bowl. Start beater and while egg whites are beating, very slowly add hot syrup.13 Beat until stiff peaks form, about 7 minutes.14 Beat in vanilla for one more minute.

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Mary Todd Lincoln’s black velvet evening cape. Mrs. Lincoln reportedly wore this cape to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night that John Wilkes Booth shot her husband. Museum purchase from the Estate of Charles F. Gunther.

Want a copy of this photograph?
E-mail and give them this number: ICHi-75505

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“You think we choose to be born?”

“Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”


Art is different things to different people, which is one of the awesome things about it. The Museum of Bad Art, located in Somerville, MA, is home to around 500 pieces of Ill-conceived, poor executed art that’s simply “too bad to be ignored.” Museum curators strive to build a collection of art that’s bad, but not intentionally bad. These aren’t kitsch pieces. Often found put out with the garbage or in thrift stores, they’re serious attempts to create serious artwork that seriously failed and thus the Museum of Bad Art exists to “to celebrate the labor of artists whose work would be displayed and appreciated in no other forum.”

The museum was established in 1994 by antique dealer Scott Wilson, who found Lucy in the Sky with Flowers (top image) in trash. He fished the painting out of the trash, and in doing so became the MBA’s first curator. Today it remains the museum’s signature piece where it is shown alongside other terrible paintings such as ;Sunday on the Pot With George, Peter the Kitty, Mary Todd Lincoln (decorated with gold painted Christmas poinsettias) and this “perfectly fine copy” of the Mona Lisa:

Want an even better look? Here’s a video tour of the Museum of Bad Art:

But wait, there’s more. The Archie McPhee Library is home to a book entitled Museum of Bad Art: Masterworks [Buy on Amazon], featuring images of 70 pieces from the collection as well as the stories behind the art.

Visit the Museum of Bad Art website to check out more pieces from their collection.

[via Neatorama]

Random Lincoln Facts

  • Returning from New Orleans in 1828 by boat, Lincoln and a companion were attacked in their sleep by seven men, “with intent to kill and rob them.” As Lincoln emerged from a hatchway, an attacker “struck him a blow with a heavy stick … making a scar which he wore always”
  • Stephen Douglas called Lincoln “two-faced.” Lincoln responded: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”
  • Lincoln had a high-pitched voice that could be heard over great distances. When excited, the pitch went higher still, and sometimes became unpleasant. Still, his voice was an asset because it could be heard by all the crowds that gathered outdoors to hear him speak. (Microphones did not yet exist.) For example, at least 15,000 people heard him give the Gettysburg Address and “acres of people” heard his first inaugural address
  • A dentist broke off part of Lincoln’s jaw bone while pulling a tooth – without anesthesia. The extraction may have taken place in Louisville, KY in Sept. 1841
  • Lincoln was several times the victim of domestic violence at the hands of his wife, Mary. (a) About 1860: Mary struck him “on [the] head with a piece of wood while reading paper in South Parlor – cut his nose – lawyers saw his face in Court next day but asked no questions” (b) Before 1861: Angry at his choice in meat for a guest, Mary “abused L. outrageously and finally was so mad she struck him in the face. Rubbing the blood off his face Lincoln and [the guest] left” © there are also records of Mary throwing coffee at him, throwing potatoes at him, chasing him down the street with a knife (once) or a broomstick (frequently), pulling out part of his beard, and of a strike to his face in his last weeks alive.

Sotos, John G. The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook. Mt. Vernon, VA: Mt. Vernon Book Systems, 2008

Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981

Within Eighteen Months of this Photo, all Four Men in the Front Row Would Die, Posed with Mary Todd Lincoln at the White House in 1863

Photograph of the Southern Plains delegation, taken in the White House Conservatory on March 27, 1863. The interpreter William Simpson Smith and the agent Samuel G. Colley are standing at the left of the group; the white woman standing at the far right is often identified as Mary Todd Lincoln. J.G. Nicolay, secretary to President Lincoln, standing center, back row.

The Indians in the front row are, left to right: War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, and Lean Bear of the Cheyennes, and Yellow Wolf of the Kiowas. Yellow Wolf is wearing the Thomas Jefferson peace medal that aroused such interest. The identities of the Indians of the second row are unknown. Yellow Wolf died of pneumonia a few days after the picture was taken; War Bonnet and Standing in the Water died in the Sand Creek Massacre; and Lean Bear was killed by toops from Colorado Territory who mistook him for a hostile. (Source: Diplomats in Buckskin, by Herman J. Viola, p. 101)