Saturday, July 5, 2014

Lincoln White House service set 1861 - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-15I finished one big heavy-lift article. I have one to go.

For two years, I've been trying to write an article about the porcelain china set purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. I became interested in this stunning china in 2012, when I photographed a few pieces on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. It was just so beautiful. While there were other china sets on display, they all seemed dull and boring compared to the Lincoln set. I learned a bit about the Lincoln china (nicknamed "Solferino" after the purple color used in the border), and was even more amazed at how it was purchased, how the design came about, and what a scandal it caused.

Other concerns, and time, took its toll on my project.

I finally got some source materials and research done, and began writing that article on the Lincoln china. But it's not enough to say, "By 1861, the White House had run out of china." That seems ludicrous. How could that happen? Who would let such a thing happen? Context is key, and providing context means telling a story about how we got to this place, in this time. And that meant more research.

And then I hit a snag: Something in my research referred to the East Room of the White House. When I went to Wikipedia to learn about this, I discovered that the East Room article was a piece of worthless shit. No citations. Claims which seemed astonishing to me (and which, naturally, lacked citations). It also seemed to suffer, I thought, from a "what have you done for me lately" problem. There was an extreme emphasis on the "restoration" of the room by Jacqueline Kennedy. But I knew from other reading that the White House had been gutted and redone in 1952 under Harry S. Truman. And there was nothing about that in the article. Just how much "restoration" did Kennedy do? And why was it needed? (Fact: Kennedy did almost nothing to the East Room except update the drapes.)

But if I knew next to nothing about the Lincoln "Solferino" china, I knew even less about the White House, its history, its decorations, and so on.

So I decided to learn. Frankly, it's not easy. The few books written about the White House and its furnishings are expensive, intended (or so it seems) just for the wealthy interior decorator and collector. Information about a given room of the White House is scattered throughout a book, rather than located in a single chapter. Furthermore, some of these books are rather poorly written. You'd think that the index of a book would be good, but in fact few indexes are worth their salt. You really have to read the entire book in order to find all the references to the East Room (or some other room).

I know I'm not done. A wide number of funerals have been held in the East Room, and weddings, too. None of those are included in the article yet. Some major events have been held in the East Room as well, and I'm not talking about Medal of Honor ceremonies or Supreme Court justice announcements. I'm talking treaty signings and Nixon's resignation and things like that.

But, for my purposes, I'm done with the article. I might go back some day and do the rest, but for now... no.

It took 10 days to finish that East Room piece. Now, back to the Lincoln "Solferino" article, which I'm almost done with. That will be a new one.

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