"First Ladies Fact Book" is a thick, 745-page book that screams "reference book." But when I started reading the first article about Martha Washington I was hooked. Each chapter is a mini-biography of the Presidents' wives. The ladies' childhoods, personalities and accomplishments are highlighted. Interesting bits of trivia and photos make the book easily scanned. Portraits of the women are included with some interesting exceptions. There are no known portraits of Martha Jefferson or Margaret Taylor.
It was fascinating to learn what the wives endured while their husbands governed. Many of them were left to care for children and farms or plantations with minimal help. Long separations and financial hardship was often the rule. Often husbands found it difficult to earn a living while they were in government service. Early government wages were nonexistent or minimal, but expectations were that the Presidential families would host lavish entertainments at their own expense. Sometimes the families were expected to pay to furnish the White House.
Here are a few facts about the earliest first ladies I found interesting. Martha Washington was a young widow of 27 with two children when she married George Washington. Her experience managing the plantation that she inherited from her first husband enabled her to manage and assist George when he resupplied troops from his own resources. Martha had spent time at many military camps by the time she went to Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1778. Her presence and interest in the soldiers boosted camp morale. Martha's severe case of measles early in the marriage is one explanation why she and George never had children of their own.
The term "First Lady" first appeared in print in 1860 and was used to refer to President James Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane. Buchanan was not married, and Harriet was his official White House hostess. She was actually trained for her White House position by Buchanan. He had his eye on the presidency and provided the best schools for his young ward. After she finished her schooling she was given responsibility to take charge of his estate, Wheatland. When he became minister to Great Britain, Harriet accompanied him to Queen Victoria's court. Although her name is often missing from the list since she wasn't a President's wife, she became one of the most popular of America's First Ladies.
Julia Tyler campaigned tirelessly for the annexation of Texas. The public and President Tyler agreed that it wouldn't have happened without Julia's influence. This story is only one example of the lasting influences and legacies of the First Ladies.