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Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State. She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of
Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care. She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials. Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
First Ladies: Fun Activity
by Marge Knoth
As activity professionals our ears are always open to new activity ideas. But planning
fun activities takes time, and if there is one thing activity directors are short of, it is time.
Since you are so busy, you deserve a break–a break you can take one day this month, if
you wish, because I have planned your activity for you. All you need to do is gather your
residents together and begin sharing. No doubt residents will remember incidents
about Presidents and their wives whose administrations they have lived through. In no
time, you will have a lively reminiscent/trivia activity going.
History loves to tell us about the great men who led our nation, but we often forget that
behind each one of them, there was most likely an outstanding woman–sometimes
two or three of them. Not only did these women make the President shine in the public
eye, they were active in personal causes as well. And all of them were unique
somehow in their own right. There is so much history and so many interesting little
stories about them out there, so let’s get started.
Many residents, having been homemakers themselves, will appreciate Abigail Adams
who hung out her laundry in the East Room of the White House. She was the first
presidential wife to live there and had the distinct privilege of being both the wife of a
president (John Adams) and the mother of one (John Quincy Adams). Even after she
and John were out of office, she still referred to her husband as “The President.”
Paul Boller Jr. in Presidential Wives relays this story:
When Abigail Adams was past fifty, she wrote a letter to her husband, John, who was
away. In it she expressed her disapproval of the marriage of a particular young woman
to an older man. She described it as a marriage of “the torrid and the frigid zones”.
John, who was about 60, quickly responded, “But how dare you hint or lisp a word about
60 years of age? If I were near, I would soon convince you that I am not above 40.”
Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison, took a look around and realized the
White House was in desperate need of repair and updating. Many First Ladies had
redecorated, but Caroline went a little farther. She had the old-time open fireplaces and
spits, once used for cooking, removed. In 1891, she had electricity brought into the
White House. Unfortunately, she and the president were so afraid of it they continued to
use gas lights. And if someone happened to turn on the electric lights, they would be
left on all night because Carolyn and Ben feared they might get shocked if they touched
Caroline also saw to the installation of a central switchboard which permitted several
phones to operate in the White House instead of just one. When she began pitching
old broken china pieces, she hit upon the idea of starting a collection of china patterns
from former Presidents which is still in effect today (1,2).
Lucy Hayes, when Congress would not allot funds for refurbishing, headed to the White
House attic and the cellar to find some decent old furnishings to use for redecorating.
She got rid of the billiard table, and in its place, set up a greenhouse to grow fresh
flowers for those who needed their lives brightened up a bit.
Lucy, known as “Lemonade Lucy” since she refused to serve alcohol in the White
House, was loved for her kindness. When her husband, Rutherford, was a Colonel in
the Civil War, Lucy would visit him in the camp. The soldiers loved her. Betty Caroli, in
her book First Ladies, tells this story about Lucy.
Some soldiers desiring to embarrass a new recruit who needed his shirt mended told
him to take it to the “sewing lady” and sent him to the Colonel’s cabin. Naively he
knocked on Lucy’s door and explained his need. Lucy grabbed her needle and
mended his shirt. His fellow soldiers waited eagerly for his return so they could have a
good laugh at his expense. When he came, they sprung the news– that the lady was
the Colonel’s wife. Without batting an eye, the new recruit said, “I don’t know who she
was, but she treated me kindly.”
Dolley Madison was as popular as Jacqueline Kennedy. Before becoming First Lady
in her own right upon marrying James Madison, Dolley had acted as part-time White
House hostess for the widower, Thomas Jefferson. She was spunky and described
herself as “no old prude.” And she must have been physically fit as well. As a child she
and her siblings liked to run races. In her 60's, when Dolley and James had retired to
Montpelier, Dolley challenged her sister once again to a race. Dolley said that she and
Madison (that’s what she called her husband) still ran races (1).
Martha Washington, a skilled rider even as a child, shocked the family at her Uncle
William’s house, by riding her horse inside the house, up the stairs and back down
Rachel Jackson, Andrew’s wife, who smoked a pipe, was very unpopular in society, and
the target of much unwarranted gossip. She was originally married to a cruel and
extremely jealous husband who made living with him impossible. She left him,
assuming since he had no use for her he had gotten a divorce. Meanwhile, she met
and married Andrew Jackson. Later she learned he had taken his time in getting the
divorce, so she and Andrew remarried. Still, it wasn’t soon enough to keep halt gossip.
Andrew fought duels for her honor (1). Rachael was a big woman, but not obese, by
today’s standards. Anyway, the gossipers said, “She shows how far the skin can be
When Andrew was governor of Florida, Rachel was utterly shocked to see the Sabbath
so profaned. Her heart broke as she witnessed, people gambling on the holy day,
shopping more than other days, and swearing in the streets. She got Andrew to pass a
“Sabbatarian Order” which caused the commotion to cease (1). Rachel had a heart
attack just before Andrew’s inauguration. Her niece took over her official White House
Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, said of her husband, “He may not be a handsome
figure, but people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are
long.” Abe often referred to Mary as his “child wife.”
John Tyler’s 51-year-old wife, Letitia, a quiet little lady, who wanted nothing to do with
Washington life, suffered a stroke and died two years later. His daughter-in-law,
Priscilla Tyler, briefly acted as hostess until the president remarried lovely 24-year-old
Julia Gardner. With only a year left in his term, Julia initiated the custom of having
musicians play, “Hail to the Chief” when the president entered.
Gorgeous Frances Folsom became First Lady in 1886 and was extremely popular. Her
husband, Grover Cleveland, had just 21 years earlier, bought Frances her baby
carriage. He led little Frankie as he called her, around by the hand as a toddler, and
when her father died (she was eleven) Grover became sort of a guardian for her (5).
Washington gossip hinted falsely that President Cleveland was being abusive to young
Frances. She issued a press statement: “These were wicked and heartless lies aimed
at Grover, and I wish the women of this country no greater blessing than that their
homes and lives may be as happy, and their husbands may be as kind and attentive,
considerate and affectionate, as mine.”
In the following election Cleveland was defeated. He won the popular vote, but not the
electoral. When they were leaving the White House, Frances told the servants to take
good care of the belongings because they would be returning in just four years. And
that’s exactly what happened. Her husband was reelected in 1893.
William McKinley’s wife, Ida Saxton McKinley, suffered epileptic seizures. That didn’t
stop her from appearing at public gatherings. If she suffered an attack while seated
next to the President, he would just cover her face with a napkin.
Lou Hoover loved company, loved to entertain, and she did so lavishly. When they
exhausted the White House budget for entertainment, they personally picked up the
tab. Once she sat down and figured out that in their first three years in the White House,
they had dined alone only three times, their three wedding anniversaries, on February
Lou Hoover and Grace Coolidge were life-long friends. Lou was for women’s rights.
When the Great Depression was in full swing, the Hoover’s popularity waned, as they
were personally blamed for the catastrophe. Even Secret Service protection was
denied them upon leaving office.
Ellen, Woodrow Wilson’s beloved first wife, died after some 30 years of marriage.
Several months later, he met Edith Bolling Galt. When a doorkeeper at the White
House first saw Edith Bolling Galt with President Wilson, he said, “She’s a looker.”
Another aide said, “He’s a goner!” And so it was. They were married and were very
happy. Then Wilson become bedfast after suffering a stroke. Edith, his second
cherished wife, protected him from visitors and politicians. For 17 months, she made
the decisions about what national business needed acted on and what didn’t. People
called her “Mrs. Wilson Regency” and “The Presidentress” and called the ailing
Woodrow “The First Man”. Edith Wilson’s family were direct descendants of the Indian
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to continue her own career while living in the
White House. A woman’s rights advocate, even in the 1920s, she spoke out strongly for
causes she believed in. She wrote columns and books, lectured, and had her own
radio program in the 1930s. In a take-off from the John Dillinger title “Public Enemy
Number One”, Eleanor was labeled “Public Energy Number One.”
Eleanor Roosevelt did not have to change her name with marriage. Being a distant
cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, her name was already Roosevelt, so she became
Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt. FDR loved and respected this woman who had a great
head for politics and a great heart for the underdog. He called her “the misses.” When
he gave speeches and was about to make a major point, he often quoted her, “My
After 19 years of courtship, at age 34, Bess married Harry Truman who had loved her
since she was five and he was six. Bess was a prim and proper lady, and Harry was a
self-proclaimed “country bumpkin” from Missouri. At their engagement he admitted to
Bess that he was “a nothing”, but that “he did have his eye on being chief executive.”
They made it, and together they called the White House the “Great White Jail.”
Jackie Kennedy, like Mary Todd, had expensive taste and loved clothes. During Jackie’
s first year in the White House (1961), even though Jack’s presidential salary was
$100,000, spent $105,446 on her clothing alone. The next year she spent $121,461 (2).
On the other hand, cost-conscious Ellen Wilson when Woodrow was teaching at
Princeton, innocently remarked that she spent only $40 a year on clothes. According to
Paul F. Boller Jr. in Presidential Wives, a facility wife was headed to a reception and
said she would like to meet Ellen. “She will probably be there, said the woman, and
she will be wearing a brown dress.”
“How do you know that?” asked another wife.
“Her best dress is brown,” came the reply.
Supposedly another unkind faculty wife said to Ellen, “Every fall you look sweeter in that
Nancy Reagan’s mother, an itinerant actress, carried Nancy around from theater to
theater in a travel trunk in which she slept backstage, says authors Alice Anderson and
Hadley Baxendate in Behind Every Successful President. They tell that when Nancy
outgrew the trunk, she went to live with the Galbraith family. Once they took her to see
her mother act on stage. Her mother “died” in the performance. Little Nancy did not
understand it was make-believe. She screamed and cried out so loudly that her mother
had to “rise from the dead” and wave at her.
Barbara Bush’s first official act as First Lady was quite unusual. She and George,
following his inauguration, were riding down the street in their bullet-proof limousine
hoping to find a spot to watch the parade. She and George got out and began walking.
There Barbara saw the flirty Willard Scott, the weatherman, and placed a big kiss right
on his lips. Shortly thereafter, Scott proclaimed on his weather program that he had
been appointed “Secretary of the Lips” and that he planned to have his lips bronzed (2).
Hillary Clinton was voted “most likely to succeed” in her high school class. As a student
who loved to learn, Hillary was usually the teacher’s pet. Her sixth grade teacher,
Elizabeth King, liked Hillary so much that she transferred schools when Hillary moved
up to junior high so she could teach her another two years (4).
I could go on and on. The study of Presidents and their wives is so fascinating.
Information is abundant, so discussing them could easily be a monthly or even a
weekly activity. If you are interested, check out the library for books, or see those listed
below. So if you have a day soon without time to hold a big activity, why not pull out this
column and have some fun discussing the First Ladies? Your residents will love it.
God bless you all. Marge.
1) Presidential Wives, An Anecdotal History, Paul F. Boller Jr., Oxford Press
2) Behind Every Successful President, Alice E. Anderson & Hadley V. Baxendale, S.P.I.
3) First Ladies, by Betty Botd Caroli, Doubleday
4) Hillary Rodham Clinton, Donnie Radcliff, Warner Books
5) Newsletters Simplified, Marge Knoth, Valley Press.