During the Civil War, there was no third floor to the White House. (It was not completed until 1927.) The White House attic and roof were the Lincoln boys’ playground. Julia Taft, who often oversaw her own brothers as well as Willie and Tad Lincoln, recorded a typical incident in their play:
I ascended to the attic and as I opened the door, Tad rushed at me, shouting. ‘Come quick, Julie. We’re having a circus. I’ve got to be blacked up and Willie can’t get his dress on and Bud’s bonnet won’t fit.’ They had two sheets pinned together for a curtain, behind which was a crowd of soldiers, sailors, gardeners and servants. Anybody, white or black, who had five cents, could go up the back stairs and see the show.
I took away from Tad the bottle of shoe blacking he was flourishing and made him up with some burnt cork. I told him burnt cork would do just as well and be easier to get off than shoe blacking. Willie was struggling with a lilac silk of his mother’s. The gown had a long train and was cut in the expansive Victorian décolleté. I pinned it up, so he could manage it, then straightened the bonnet, which Bud had stuck sideways firmly upon his head. He was wearing a white morning dress of Mrs. Lincoln’s pinned around him in billowy folds.
‘Boys,’ I said, highly scandalized at these proceedings, ‘does the President know about this?’
‘Yep,’ said Tad, ‘Pa knows and he don’t care, neither. He’s coming up when those generals go away.’
Willie handed me a bottle of ‘Bloom of Youth,’ saying, ‘Put some of this on Bud and me.’ I swabbed them both liberally with the beautifier. Tad was singing at the top of his voice, ‘Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness.’
‘Tad, Tad,’ I remonstrated, ‘don’t sing that., Suppose the President hears you.’
‘I don’t care if he does,’ answered Tad. ‘Anyway, pa won’t care. I’m going to sing that song in the show.’ I don’t think, however, that he did. At any rate, it wasn’t listed on the ‘official program’ gotten up by Willie.
I had quite enough and, thoroughly disgusted, made my escape from the attic.1
On another occasion, Julia went up to the attic looking for the boys on a day where snow had threatened but never really materialized: “In the attic was a large bin of visiting cards, which apparently had been lately disturbed, as there was a nest hollowed out in the center, and the cards were scattered all around the floor. But the boys were not there; so I went home and reported.” When the boys later turned up, their play had clearly centered on non-existent snow. They complained about “snowballs we’ve got down our backs.” When asked what snow they could possibly be talking about, Willie explained “Why, Mama Taft, Tad’s snow is cards. There are bushels in our attic in a big bin and we throw them up and play it’s snowing. There are all the cards all the people have left on the Presidents since General Washington.” When Bud Taft protested that George Washington had never lived in the White House, Willie responded: “Well, there’s enough to make a snowstorm without his.”2
The attic also included a mechanism that controlled the White House bell system by which the First Family could summon assistance from the White House staff. Tad cooked up some mischief, according to historian Ruth Painter Randall: “Tad’s resourceful mind found other ways of throwing the White House into a dither. In an early exploration of the garret he and Willie discovered the center of the White House bell system. Tad, like his father, loved to investigate the mechanics of any contrivance and was very good at it. He soon found how to work the bells and the result was that bedlam broke out on the second floor of the White House: the secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, were rushing to the President’s office with visions of a sudden national emergency or presidential ire; old Edward, the doorkeeper, was hurrying up the stairs; everyone was running somewhere to answer the violent ringing. The bells, as another secretary, William Stoddard, said, seemed ‘bewitched.’ Investigation disclosed Willie and Tad in the garret, Tad, of course, being the one who was seated by the ‘yoke’ of the bell system, ‘tugging hard and bringing out at once all the tangle there was in the mansion. Both boys in high glee.”3
- Julia Bayne Taft,Tad Lincoln’s Father, pp. 102-104.
- Taft,Tad Lincoln’s Father, pp. 193-195.
- Ruth Painter Randall,Lincoln’s Sons, p. 73.