Abraham Lincoln Dining Chair
American ca. 1840s
In the decade before Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inauguration, the United States Capitol underwent a major transformation. By 1857, the design overhaul displaced numerous Legislative furnishings, and it is believed that in late 1860/early 1861, one-time Congressman and then-President Lincoln salvaged his former armchair from the discarded pieces. Lincoln subsequently gifted the seat to his friend and famed political photographer, Mathew Brady, whose photographs Lincoln credited for his presidential win. From 1861 to 1864, the chair appeared in several of Brady’s images of Lincoln and other politicians, all of whom served in Congress during the 1840s — In Brady’s photos, chairs seemed to be a deliberate mark of political identity (most later Legislators were photographed in a post- renovation “Walter” chair). The “Lincoln Chair”, as it has come to be known, is a near match to the present examples: a dining chair, originally part of a 14-piece seating suite owned by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.
The similarities between the Lincoln Chair and this dining chair are unlikely coincidental. They were undoubtedly designed by the same hand and were possibly part of the same, c. 1840s Congressional commission. The seating suite may have been originally located within the Capitol’s refectory, an improvised dining area that served Legislators and visitors from c. 1834 -1858; the chairs were presumably removed when the official dining room opened in the late 1850s. As he did with the armchair, President Lincoln may have recovered the displaced dining suite – including this chair – in 1861 for use in the Executive Mansion’s private family dining room over the next four years.
A month after her husband’s assassination in April 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln left the Executive Mansion for Illinois. Though rumored that she stole furnishings from the White House in her move, Mrs. Lincoln dismissed such accusations, claiming to be “conscientiously indisposed to purloin what did not belong to [her].” A post-move, federal inventory corroborates her statement, which suggests that the dining suite was, in fact, the Lincolns’ personal property.
Few White House furnishings associated with the Lincolns actually belonged to the former First Family or served as a reflection of President Lincoln’s taste. When Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln moved to the White House in early 1861, they brought very little from their Springfield, Illinois residence and relied mostly upon a $20,000 renovation allotment from Congress to furnish their new-but-poorly-kept quarters. The First Lady almost singlehandedly orchestrated the Executive Mansion’s State-funded redecoration, while her husband focused on the looming war. Historical accounts assert that Lincoln felt so uncomfortable with his wife’s lavish redesign during the nation’s economic collapse that he couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the elaborate bed that she purchased. Instead, President Lincoln – who was, among many other things, an avid cook – may have taken solace in the family’s private dining quarters, for which he chose the furniture. The understated, repurposed chair is not only an artifact from the beginning of the Lincoln’s political career in Washington, but also may be among the few – if not only – White House furnishings Lincoln himself selected, and are now a rare and personal vestige of Lincoln’s presidency.