Our 8th president (1837-1841), Martin Van Buren, had been a widower for nearly 20 years and hence had no first lady, yet someone needed to fill the position. He called upon his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren (1818-1878).
Angelica has been described as a beguiling; everyone loved her, every woman wanted to be her. She was the Jackie O of the 1800s. She has also been described as a young, beautiful, gentle woman who was confident, poised and religious. Raised in South Carolina as the daughter of wealthy southern plantation owners, she had a genteel southern spirit and had benefited from an excellent education, which was only afforded to few young women at the time.
And remarkably she served as the the first lady of the United States at just 21 years old.
|Angelica Singleton VanBuren's portrait was painted by artist Henry Inman in 1842. Today it hangs above the fireplace mantle in the Red Room of the White House .|
Enter Dolley Madison, former first lady and D.C. socialite, with her young cousin Angelica in-tow for a dinner with the Van Buren men. The president's eldest son, Abraham, is smitten with the young lady who is described as "a lovely, charming belle with "Roman goddess" features, dark, expressive eyes, fashionable corkscrew curls, and a long neck." Angelica and Abraham are married in November 1838. The President reportedly approved of the marriage and the ties it brought between the White House and the powerful Southern aristocracy. Van Buren found himself in the crosshairs of the North and South; the Northern Democrats had abolitionist sentiments and the Southern Democrats wanted to ensure that slavery continued to support their agrarian economy.
The new Mrs. Van Buren made her debut as official White House hostess on New Year's Day, 1839. It is said that Cousin Dolley coached and trained Angelica extensively for her role. The annual White House New Year's reception, which is the only social function that had taken place thus far during Van Buren's presidency, was a massive success.
At the end of the 1839 social season, Abraham and Angelica honeymoon by taking an extensive grand tour of Europe. While abroad, Angelica achieves celebrity status. She was presented to the royal courts of England and France meeting the then freshly coronated Queen Victoria as well as France's King Louis Philippe.
Upon returning to America, Abraham and Angelica Van Buren moved into the White House. Angelica employed many European-style etiquette techniques she had witnessed in her extensive traveling. While many in Washington high society admired her regal style, Angelica was criticized by the president's foes as being extravagant and monarchical at a time when the majority of the U.S. was languishing in economic despair.
Angelica is unflappable and continues as the White House hostess, but perhaps in a more understated way. It is well quoted that the French minister, Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, who was often critical of Americans, claimed that "in any country" she would "pass for an amiable woman of graceful and distinguished manners and appearance." Many historians agree that President Van Buren enjoyed Angelica’s company and truly appreciated her assistance with the social duties of the presidency.
During her years as "Lady of the President's House" she brought back not only style, but true etiquette to the White House. The President and she gave mostly small dinner parties dispensing with all large functions other than the New Year's Day reception. When it became necessary to redecorate and replace some of the furniture that remained from the previous administration, she was careful to not be extravagant as she had learned a hard lesson of how appearances can be perceived during a time when hard economic depression gripped the land.
|Angelica in a later portrait, although the exact date of this portrait is unknown. Notice the dress. The neckline is similar, she clearly liked this style of dress.|
Angelica’s time at the White House was also marked by personal tragedy. In 1839, she became pregnant, and give birth in March of the following year to a daughter, Rebecca. Details are varied, some reports claim that Rebecca dies within hours, other claim that both mother and daughter were ill for several months following the birth, and that Rebecca died at the White House in the fall of 1840. Angelica and Abraham had three sons after they left the White House. During those years, they maintained close relations with former President Van Buren. Angelica Singleton Van Buren died in 1878.
|Angelica Van Buren's wedding gown. Is it the same gown as in the White House portrait?|
What do you think? Is it the same dress?
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice. Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper. Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled. To contact her, please visit her website.