The Long-Standing Tradition of U.S. Presidential Porcelain

A dinner plate from the Obama White House china service, plated for use during the state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2015. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

With candidates campaigning at full tilt and United States voters headed to the polls this month, it is clear that midterm election season has arrived. Here, we explore one of the less hotly debated political issues: the art of presidential porcelain.

In addition to key policy decisions and major legislation, presidential administrations have been tasked with hosting a variety of visiting figures at the White House over the years, from heads of state and global leaders to influential figures and celebrities. Accordingly, such occasions require a substantial and sophisticated porcelain dinner service. In this article, we explore the history of some of the most sought-after presidential porcelain designs by highlighting the origins of different styles and examining why these pieces continue to excite collectors today.

The Origin of the Tradition

The tradition of selecting a set of porcelain dinnerware to accompany a presidential term began during the tenure of the fifth U.S. President James Monroe (1817-1825). His selection of a service was more a practicality than a preference: he took office only a few years after the British had attempted to destroy the White House by fire, so Monroe was tasked with restocking the executive home.

Following his term in office, though, the selection of these services became a tradition. Many followed Monroe’s lead and selected the finest porcelain from French companies and worked closely with designers to conjure the most captivating designs; by the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s term, though, the task of decorating these porcelain suites mostly fell upon the First Lady.

Paris porcelain plate from the James Monroe Presidential dinner service, France, circa 1815. Sold for $3,750 via Freeman’s (April 2016).

Over the years, the tradition of presidential porcelain continued, with compelling designs created by both recent Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively. It is the antique examples, however, that are both the most elusive and the most exceptional, as they preserve a marvelous aspect of presidential history in stunning porcelain form. Let’s look more closely at some of these most iconic patterns and the prices they achieve at auction today.

The Mystery of Thomas Jefferson’s “J” Service

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is known by all as the third President of the United States, but only the connoisseurs of presidential porcelain will know that Jefferson’s tenure is also associated with one of the more storied patterns in presidential history. It is known as the Chinese Export “J” Dinner Service. It is so named in part for its letter “J” rendered in an artful script that spreads across a shield motif upon which an armored profile and decorated arabesques rest. The pattern is complete with a delicate and deep blue rim that is trimmed with a gilt fleur-de-lis border.

Detail of a Thomas Jefferson White House China Soup Bowl, sold for $16,000 via RR Auction (September 2014).

This “J” Dinner Service dates to the later years of the 18th century and has long been associated with Jefferson’s time as president, however mystery surrounds the pattern because scholars and historians have yet to find clear documentation to link Jefferson to the porcelain pattern design. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s descendants firmly believe this was the service of their presidential forbearer, and the pattern has been a featured part of Margaret Brown Klapthor’s Official White House China (1984), a definitive guide to china patterns of past U.S. presidents. The “J” service’s connections with Jefferson seem all but confirmed.

Rare Canton Footed Open Salt from the Thomas Jefferson “J” Dinner Service, sold for $2,962 via James D. Julia (February 2015).

Abraham Lincoln’s Two Services

When the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), arrived at the White House with his wife Mary Todd in March of 1861, they discovered that much of the dwelling needed updating, including the dwindling and damaged dinner service that had been used for the previous two presidencies. Later that same year, Mary Todd headed to New York to outfit and update her new abode. It was on that trip that she visited E. V. Haughwout & Co., one of New York’s leading purveyors of elegant homegoods. There she was introduced to the “specimen,” or sample, pattern plate that would become part of Lincoln’s first state service.

abraham lincoln presidential porcelain

Abraham Lincoln Presidential dinner plate from the White House State Dinner Service ordered by Mary Lincoln in May 1861, Limoges, France: Haviland & Co., 1861. Sold for $28,680 via Christie’s (December 2003).

This service, which included more than 650 pieces, featured the confident profile of an eagle with arms outstretched and perched atop a small shield echoing the flag of the United States. A golden aura encircles this ensemble and slowly fades to blend into the creamy white porcelain ground of each piece. As a final touch to the design, Mary Todd requested that the band encircling each piece was rendered in a deep burgundy or purple known as “solferino,” which was very popular at the time.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected to a second term, Mary Todd decided that a new state service was needed, so she ordered a more modest, buff design from the French Haviland company. Unfortunately, the tragic end to Lincoln’s career in 1865 meant that the president enjoyed this new service for only a few months; its legacy continued, however, as it was assumed by President Andrew Johnson as his official service.

abraham lincoln presidential porcelain

Abraham Lincoln Presidential custard cup and cover from the White House State Dinner Service ordered by Mary Lincoln in early 1865. Sold for $3,500 via Christie’s (December 2010).  

Patterns of Presidents Polk and Harrison

A look to later presidents from the 19th century reveals that they too had an eye for design and also used their state dinner services as a means to pay homage to the legacy of their office. 11th President James K. Polk (1795-1849), for example, relied upon the brilliance of leading Parisian porcelain designer Edouard D. Honoré, to conjure a marvelous dinner service that exuded the elegance of French porcelain design for the presidential table. Its pieces featured an array of motifs that balanced the sophistication of gilt decorations with the celebration of nature conveyed through the use of enamel and transfer-printed patterns. At the same time, it also adhered to its American symbolism: a shield featuring elements of the American flag appeared on many of the pieces in the suite. The result was a museum-quality service that still compels collectors today.

james k polk presidential porcelain

A James K. Polk Presidential Pattern Dinner Plate. Sold for $22,800 via Christie’s (January 2006).

The same can be said of the pattern pursued by 23rd President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901). Designed in collaboration between Harrison’s wife, Caroline, and the Limoges company Tressemannes & Vogt, the state service showcased a similar central motif of an eagle as had been seen in Lincoln’s iconic service. At this point such imagery was cemented as the symbol of the country, and Harrison’s service reinforced this patriotic theme with the circle of 48 small stars that reflected the states within the union at that point in history.

The Rutherford B. Hayes Service

One of the most dynamic services to grace the tables of White House state dinners was acquired during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). This service was designed by Theodore Russell Davis in collaboration with First Lady Lucy Hayes, who originally sought botanical motifs to feature in the service. Davis, who had spent ample time exploring and studying the American landscape, embraced Hayes’ vision and translated the direction into a series of watercolors of scenes of flora and fauna that then were sent to the Haviland workshop in Limoges, France.

What emerged was an eclectic yet artistically exceptional dinner service that referenced a myriad of themes from nature. From oyster plates that capture the rich palette of the sea to platters featuring various fauna and fowl ensconced in foliage, Hayes’ spectacular nine-course service celebrated the beauty of the American landscape through the luxury of Limoges styling.

Shortly after Hayes’ service was complete, the sheer expense of its creation encouraged Theodore Russell Davis to develop replicas of the service for sale to the public at the more elite East Coast stores. These reproductions can be distinguished in the marks of the piece: the original presidential set includes a monogram of Davis’ initials and the date 1879; later reproductions are noted with patent numbers.

A Hybrid of History and Design

A look at the heritage of the United States presidency through the lens of the remarkable porcelain services reveals a unique facet of design associated with the country’s most decorated position. Today, the China Room of the White House features a cabinet that displays samples from presidential porcelain patterns dating all the way back to George Washington’s term – which history buffs and design enthusiasts alike can enjoy.