As the new year begins, the big question is: Can a man do the first lady’s job? It is, after all, the most important unpaid position in the country. The requirements include being an excellent public speaker without contradicting the president, hosting parties that include a sea of unfamiliar faces with unpronounceable names, standing for hours in heels without shrieking in agony and shaking hands until your own is numb. It’s also helpful to have a cause that the entire country supports and a wardrobe that won’t make any worst-dressed lists.
Oh yes, there’s also the gigantic task of insuring domestic harmony with a type A politician and never, ever doing anything that provides fodder for the tabloids. Any man seeking the position might do well to take a good look at England’s Prince Phillip. He’s walked three steps behind his wife for over half a century, and no one has ever accused him of being good-natured, sweet-tempered or pleasant. Whether our next first spouse is male or female, he or she will join an exclusive club of those who also served, sometimes with great distinction.
A friend in Texas recently sent me a postcard showing the rather shabby building that held the business of T.J. Taylor, a “dealer in everything” in Piney Woods. He was the father of Lady Bird Johnson, and my friend also sent an article from the Longview News-Journal about the first lady’s early life. Her mother died when she was only 5, and her father wasn’t up to the responsibility of raising a young child. She was sent to live with an unmarried aunt. It was a lonely life, but she did learn to love nature and books.
The big appeal of collecting first-lady postcards is the fascination of their life stories. Some were powerful, dynamic women; others came to the White House unprepared for the a public role, but almost all of them rose to the occasion. Their individual backgrounds are as different as the men who served as national leaders. In the 20th and 21st centuries, they’ve all been wives, but six earlier presidents had to call upon a friend or relative to serve as official hostess.
Linen-finish postcards with deckle edges were sold at the Smithsonian. They’re the best source for adding the lesser-known first ladies to a collection. This gown was worn by Sarah Childress Polk, who was in the White House from 1845 to 1849.
Some first ladies are unforgettable. Martha Washington is remembered as the first, and Dolly Madison’s heroism is legendary for saving precious paintings before the White House was burned by the British. Eleanor Roosevelt has been honored internationally as a great humanitarian, and Betty Ford changed the way addictions are seen and treated. Jacqueline Kennedy made a huge splash as a trend-setter, and poor Mary Lincoln was probably driven insane by the deaths of her sons.
Postcards relating to these ladies are plentiful, but others are nearly impossible to find. Only the most avid historian knows much about Elizabeth Monroe, Jane Pierce or Helen Taft.
Fortunately, the Smithsonian has aggressively preserved the history and artifacts of all the first ladies, displaying them in Washington, D.C., and more recently in a traveling exhibition. For many years the inaugural gowns were on display in a single room, and Smithsonian postcards are the best source for a complete collection of first lady cards.
Early first ladies are known mostly by their portraits, many painted by leading artists. More recently, first ladies often took an active part in their husbands’ campaigns and appear on postcards with them.
The serious collector will want to trace their lives through their birthplaces. A good example is the little house in Boone, Iowa, where Mamie Doud Eisenhower was born in 1896. It’s now a small museum and a great source of town pride. Presidential libraries are also a source of first-lady postcards.
There are many collectors of presidential postcards, and it’s possible to assemble a huge collection. First-lady cards are much less plentiful, making the topic more challenging for those who enjoy researching and hunting for related cards. Generally speaking, it’s not an expensive topic, but it is an open-ended one. There’s always the promise of a new spouse in the White House.