Mary Todd Lincoln grew up in a wealthy, socially prominent Lexington family. That’s where she acquired her skills as a hostess: watching her father and stepmother entertain in lavish style that was in vogue at the time.
When she and President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C., “The president was expected to entertain, even after the Civil War starts,” said Vicky Middleswarth, educational coordinator at the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the childhood home of Mary Todd.
Mary Todd jumped right in with large formal dinners for the diplomatic corps, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries, including Prince Napoleon of France; intimate dinner parties for supporters; and public receptions that attracted thousands of people from all walks of life. Lincoln would be there shaking hands, and Mary Todd was with him, greeting guests. She was poised, gracious, hospitable.
One thing that distinguished Mary Todd as a first lady was that she was comfortable being in public, which many women at that time were not, Middleswarth said. “She could talk to anybody.”
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A famous party the Lincolns held was a ball for 700 guests in February 1862. Partygoers arrived at 9 p.m., danced until midnight and enjoyed a buffet with turkey, ham, venison, pheasant, partridge and duck, followed by elaborate desserts, including spun-sugar beehives filled with Charlotte Russe and a cake designed to look like Fort Pickens.
Entertaining 19th-century style will be the focus of an event Dec. 13 at the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
“One of our missions here is to make history accessible to people in all kinds of ways. I think people will find it interesting to compare the aspects of entertaining in the mid-19th century with entertaining today,” Middleswarth said.
The program is an educational event geared to adults. The date is significant as it will be on Mary Todd Lincoln’s 199th birthday. “We always have a special program to honor her birthday,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the house.
Six activities will be set up in different rooms relating to ways the Lincolns entertained during the White House years. These include clothes that would have been worn for a fancy White House ball, food, and table etiquette; entertainment with an opera singer and a magician; and French language, because Mary Todd was fluent in French.
The Lincolns enjoyed music and introduced the practice of bringing famous performers to the White House for social occasions.
These included Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, who brought Mary Todd to tears with her rendition of “The Last Rose of Summer.” Magician Compars “Carl” Herrmann impressed guests with card tricks and other sleight-of-hand feats.
For the Lexington event, local opera singer Megan McCormack will perform, and John Shore, a classical conjurer from Versailles, will entertain.
Mary Todd attended the Mentelle Boarding School in Lexington, where she learned French, Middleswarth said. “She used French terms in talking about fashion, cuisine and culture. One of our staff members, Leslie Wallenius, will talk about popular French words and phrases, what they mean and how to pronounce them.”
The Mary Todd Lincoln House, at 578 West Main Street, was built in 1806 as a tavern and inn. The Todd family bought it in 1832 and moved in.
The house was restored in the 1970s and was opened to the public in 1977. It is maintained by the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, founded by former Kentucky first lady Beulah Nunn.
If you go
Socials and State Dinners: Entertaining with Mrs. Lincoln.
Where: Mary Todd Lincoln House, 578 West Main Street.
When: Dec. 13. Guests should plan to arrive between 5:30 and 6 p.m. No one will be admitted after 6 p.m. Allow one hour for your visit.
Admission: $10 for members of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, $15 non-members, $13 a person in a group of four or more. Discount $2 a ticket for advance online purchase at MLThouse.org. Reservations aren’t required.