44 Facts You Never Knew About America’s First Ladies
Which first lady flew a plane with Amelia Earhart, or was reported dead by a Beijing newspaper? Keep reading to find out.
Martha Washington’s faced graced our currency
Mrs. Washington may have been the first First Lady, but she was also the last woman to appear on paper currency in the United States—that is, at least until Harriet Tubman shows up on the $20 bill in 2020. Her face can be found on the $1 banknote in 1886 and 1891, and alongside her husband’s in 1896. Here are some mind-blowing facts about George Washington.
Abigail Adams was a trusted adviser to her husband
Turns out, President John Adams may have had some competition for his job. His wife, Abigail Adams, rarely went by the traditional “Lady Adams;” instead, due to her sharp tongue and vast political knowledge, many referred to her as “Mrs. President.” For more presidential trivia, don’t miss these delightful little-known talents of U.S. Presidents.
Martha Jefferson could play it by ear
Upon their marriage, President Thomas Jefferson bought his new bride a piano for their home, Monticello. One of the couple’s favorite pastimes included playing duets in their parlor, with President Jefferson accompanying his wife on the violin.
Dolley Madison rescued one of our nation’s cultural icons
An adored socialite, Dolley was the first to make ice cream a regular feature at the end of White House dinners. But Mrs. James Madison proved to be as noble as she was nice. Many remember this first lady for saving a rare painting of George Washington before British troops torched the White House in 1814. Find out more incredible facts about the White House.
Elizabeth Monroe was a francophile
Mrs. James Monroe’s beauty and fashionable appearance earned her the quaint nickname “La Belle Americaine” in France. She later used her prestige to save the life of Adrienne de Lafayette, wife of French revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette, during the French Revolution.
Louisa Adams was a Renaissance woman
As if being the one of the only first ladies born in a foreign country wasn’t interesting enough (she grew up in London!), John Quincy Adams’ wife practiced a plethora of quirky hobbies: she played the harp, wrote satirical plays, and raised silkworms, to boot.
Rachel Jackson was a peace keeper
Mrs. Jackson held an unusual power over her mischievous husband, Andrew Jackson. It is often said that with a small gesture or word, she was able to shut down his impulsive responses, thus saving many awkward encounters for the brash politician.
Anna Harrison made history
Mrs. Harrison arguably had the shortest career as a first lady ever. In fact, Anna never even saw the inside of the White House; William Henry Harrison passed away just one month after taking office, and Mrs. Harrison was too ill to join him at the residence before his death.
Letitia Tyler died in office
The wife of President John Tyler died of a paralytic stroke having only attended one White House function: the wedding of their daughter, Elizabeth. Sadly, she was the first first lady to die in the White House.
Sarah Polk took her job seriously
A far cry from her cheery predecessor Julia Tyler, Mrs. James Polk was known among D.C. socialites as “Sahara Sarah” for her ban on hard liquor in the White House.
Margaret “Peggy” Taylor was an army wife
Being a First Lady isn’t always about hosting fancy soirees and wearing expensive dresses. Peggy earned her chops when she learned to shoot a gun while living with her husband, Zachary Taylor, on the Western frontier, one of the many places across America where Taylor was stationed.
Jane Pierce was a hesitant host
Mrs. Pierce was reluctant to become a first lady, to say the least. Before husband Franklin Pierce became president, his wife prayed every night that he would lose the presidential election.
Mary Todd Lincoln was Abe’s opposite
The famous (and oft overused) saying “opposites attract” may well have started with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. While Abraham was 6’4″, Mary was only 5’2”. Learn the timeless Abraham Lincoln quotes everyone should know.
Eliza Johnson cherished her cows
Born in Tennessee, Mrs. Andrew Johnson was determined not to trade her southern roots for east coast pomp when the couple moved to Washington. Instead, the first lady brought cows to the White House; on any given day, they could be found grazing on the front lawn.
Julia Grant saved her husband’s life
The Grants were invited to join the Lincolns at Ford Theater on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. However, Mrs. Grant was suspicious of the man who delivered their invitation, so she convinced her husband to to visit their children in New York instead.
Lucy Hayes started the Easter Egg roll
When children living in D.C. were forbidden to roll Easter eggs on the Capitol grounds, Lucy Hayes permitted them to use the White House lawn instead, and the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll was born. However, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes was not all fun and games; this first lady also forbade any alcoholic beverages to be served at the White House during her husband’s administration, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.”
Lucretia Garfield was an active feminist
Famous for er independent streak, Mrs. Garfield once wrote an essay for her college’s magazine in favor of equal pay for women. Decades later, the first lady reignited her activism, demanding that the female physician who attended to the dying President James Garfield be paid an amount equal to that of male physicians. (These quotes from women’s suffrage crusaders are incredibly inspiring.
Ellen “Nell” Arthur was an accomplished songbird
Although she never technically became First Lady (she passed away before her husband took office), the late Mrs. Chester A. Arthur was once a well-known soprano singer and even performed with an all-male glee club.
Frances Cleveland had a baby in the White House
At the tender age of 21, Grover Cleveland’s wife holds the record for being the youngest First Lady and the only bride of an incumbent president to marry—and give birth!—in the White House. Another record she holds? She is the only First Lady whose husband served as president for two non-consecutive terms. Grover Cleveland was both our 22nd and 24th president!
Caroline Harrison started a tradition
Mrs. Benjamin Harrison is celebrated for winning female students’ admission to John Hopkins University in 1892. However, many have forgotten that she also established the tradition of choosing special White House dinnerware. A different pattern has been selected by each First Lady ever since.
Ida McKinley crocheted for charities
While Mrs. William McKinley was ill and bed-ridden during her husband’s presidency, she crocheted over 3,500 slippers for various charities. The slippers came in two colors: confederate gray and union blue.
Edith Roosevelt was good-natured
Despite not being a booze enthusiast herself, Mrs. Roosevelt was against Prohibition and always requested that cocktails be served at her parties in the White House.
Helen “Nellie” Taft is responsible for the capital’s cherry blossoms
Meet the mother of the Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. After the first lady visited Japan in 1912 with her husband, William Howard Taft, the mayor of Tokyo sent her 3,000 cherry tree saplings, which are the ancestors of the beauties that bloom across the nation’s capital each spring to this day.
Edith Wilson was an avid motorist
A direct descendant of Pocahontas, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson inherited her ancestor’s adventurous flair. Before marrying Woodrow, the independent First Lady bought her own car and was often seen driving around Washington, D.C.
Florence Harding mixed a mean cocktail
When she wasn’t selecting dainty silverware or arranging prestigious dinners, Mrs. Warren G. Harding served as White House bartender for her husband’s poker parties. Despite Prohibition laws, the Hardings always had a well-stocked bar, which a member of the Attorney General’s circle later claimed was supplied with confiscated alcohol.
Grace Coolidge was a Red Sox fan
While both President Calvin and First Lady Grace Coolidge were well-known baseball fanatics, not everyone realized that Mrs. Coolidge was a far more knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan than her husband. In fact, she was so devoted to the Boston Red Sox that as First Lady, she was invited to sit in the dugout with the team.
Louise “Lou” Hoover got involved in the China Boxer Rebellion
The Hoovers were once ardent world travelers, but their adventures were cut short when they found themselves in the thick of China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1899. Never one to miss the action, Herbert Hoover’s wife built protective barricades and transported supplies to the front line via bicycle. Funnily enough, Mrs. Hoover was once mistakenly reported dead and read her own obituary in a Beijing newspaper.
Eleanor Roosevelt flew with Amelia Earhart
In April of 1933, Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made history by becoming the first first lady to fly in an airplane. She snuck out of a White House dinner with famed aviator Amelia Earhart and other guests, and together they commandeered an airplane near Hoover Field (where the Pentagon stands today) and spent hours flying around Baltimore. Earhart even promised to give Mrs. Roosevelt flying lessons!
Bess Truman was a proud Missourian through and through
Although her husband traveled far and wide, Mrs. Harry S. Truman was often homesick for her native state of Missouri. In fact, she claimed to hate even the dry cleaning in Washington, D.C. and sent her laundry all the way to Kansas City to be washed instead.
Mamie Eisenhower was the Pantone of her day
Forget fifty shades of gray—try fifty shades of pink! Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower loved the color so much that a shade of pink was designed specifically for her. Officially named “First Lady Pink” or “Mamie Pink,” it soon became the most iconic color of the 50s, covering everything from bathroom wallpaper to hairdryers to tea sets.
Jacqueline Kennedy won an Emmy
Before she became a pop culture and fashion icon, John F. Kennedy’s wife won an Emmy award in 1962 for her televised tour of the White House, on which she spent over $50,000 in renovations (the equivalent of nearly $400,000 today).
Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson made America’s highways more beautiful
We can thank this First Lady, nicknamed “Lady Bird” as a child, for the wildflowers that grow on U.S. highway medians in the spring. While her husband was in office, she supported a highway beautification project that resulted in the miles of beautiful colors we enjoy today.
Pat Nixon was a fashion renegade
Mrs. Nixon liked to rebel against convention: she was the first First Lady to wear pants in public.
Betty Ford was a reluctant First Lady
On her husband’s last day in office, Mrs. Gerald Ford was so overjoyed that she gleefully tap danced on the Cabinet room’s conference table.
Rosalynn Carter advised the president
Mrs. Jimmy Carter took a page out of Abigail Adams’s “Mrs. President” playbook. Because of her tendency to break protocol by sitting in on Cabinet meetings, TIME magazine once billed Rosalynn “the second most powerful person in the United States.”
Nancy Reagan was a well-known actress
It’s easy to recognize Mrs. Reagan’s pretty face in a number of Hollywood films back in the day. Before becoming a First Lady, she starred in 11 feature films, including The Next Voice You Hear, Donovan’s Brain, and the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Dark Wave. However, her name may not be so easily found in the credits; as an actress, she went by the stage name “Nancy Davis.”
Barbara Bush supports literacy
President George H.W. Bush’s wife wrote a memoir from her dog’s perspective entitled Millie’s Book, which describes a day in the life of the Bush family, from deliberations in the Oval Office to breaks for squirrel hunting. The proceeds of the book sales are donated to her literacy foundation, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
Hillary Clinton won a Grammy
Bill Clinton’s wife is the only First Lady to hold an elected position in public office, having served as Senator for New York, and she is the only First Lady to ever actively run for the Presidency herself. What is not so commonly known is she is also the only first lady to win a Grammy Award for the recording of her 1996 best-selling book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.
Laura Bush was slow to warm to the public stage
Laura promised to marry young George W. Bush under one condition: she would never have to make a campaign speech. She soon relented, however, and became an avid campaigner during her husband’s run for office, even addressing the Republican National Convention in June 2000.
Michelle Obama is as tall as she is graceful
At 5’11”, President Obama’s wife is tied with Eleanor Roosevelt for the tallest of the First Ladies. But in case her bodyguards lose sight of her in a crowd, her Secret Service code name is “Renaissance.”