Under the previous administration of James Buchanan, a glass conservatory was built on the White House grounds. The Conservatory, into which the public could walk, was located just west of the White House and provided both fruit and flowers for its occupants. President Lincoln took some visitors to the Conservatory to visit a prize lemon tree on the morning of the day he was assassinated — and gave them the lemons to take home. But Mr. Lincoln’s visits were infrequent while other visitors were limited “to that portion of the public who might be presumed to be above stealing flowers.”1 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that “Visitors picked the flowers so often that eventually the conservatory was declared off-limits to the public.”2
Others coveted those flowers for patriotic purposes. A Connecticut postmaster wrote John G. Nicolay in February 1864 about a fair being held to benefit the orphans of soldiers. The postmaster suggested “that you see Mrs Lincoln and have her send a few flowers to me by Express with a Line showing her interest in the fair. It would ‘take well,’ beside I believe a few flowers thus sent, we raise Forty, or Fifty, Dollars. The fact that they were sent by her, and picked from the ‘Presidential Green House’ would be every thing to us.”3
“We have the most beautiful flowers and grounds imaginable,” wrote the First Lady. But her enthusiasm was not shared by the president.4 Sister-in-law Elizabeth Todd Edwards told Lincoln biographer and law partner William Herndon about the President’s first visit to the conservatory. She visited the White House after Willie Lincoln’s death in February 1862: “One day while there in order to calm his mind, to turn his attention away from business and cheer him up, I took Mr. Lincoln down through the conservatory belonging to the Executive Mansion, and showed him the world of flowers represented there. He followed me patiently through. ‘How beautiful these flowers are! How gorgeous these roses! Here are exotics,’ I exclaimed in admiration, ‘gathered from the remotest corners of the earth, and grand beyond description.’ A moody silence followed broken finally by Mr. Lincoln with this observation: ‘Yes, this whole thing looks like spring; but do you know I have never been in here before. I don’t why it is so, but I never cared for flowers; I seem to have no taste, natural or acquired, for such things.'”5
The gardens and conservatory were a source of fresh flowers — and Mary Todd Lincoln used them to show favor and atone on occasion for her sharp tongue. On March 28, 1864, she wrote Sen. Charles Sumner after criticizing his failure to attend a White House levee: “”Words, are scarcely an atonement, for the inadvertent manner, in which I addressed you on yesterday, therefore, I pray you, accept this little peace offering, for your table, a few fresh flowers, brought up, by the gardener.”6 Mrs. Lincoln also used flowers from the conservatory to distribute bouquets to the hospitals in and around Washington.
Noted presidential assistant William O. Stoddard, “It was from the conservatory the flowers came which cut such a figure in newspaper descriptions of the ‘lavish profusion and extravagance at the Executive Mansion.’ Economy, as interpreted by some people, would have consisted in allowing the gorgeous exotics to wither on their stems, in the congenial warmth and moisture of the conservatory.”7 Sometimes, Mrs. Lincoln’s most generous impulses went awry — as when she sent flowers to Governor William Sprague, who temporarily occupied the office in the Patent Office of the father of Julia Taft. She later wrote:
Mrs. Lincoln often told me when I left her to go to the conservatory and have the bouquet man make me a nice bouquet for my mother. He would take a perfect flower, rose, cape jasmine or Camellia and with his assistant tying the short-stemmed flowers on to broom straws, build up a structure of the size and shape of a cabbage, with an edging of forget-me-nots or delicate ferns. This was then put into a stiff paper bouquet holder and was ready for presentation.
One day, when the bouquet man had made an unusually fine bouquet, Mrs. Lincoln suggested that I give it to Governor Sprague. I presume she had heard me speak of him and surmised that I admired him greatly. But as I was proudly bearing the bouquet to my father’s room in the Patent Office, thinking on the way, of a proper speech to go with it, Miss Kate Chase appeared, sweeping along the hall escorted by two officers.
Miss Chase was a reigning society belle and, as the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury, very much in the swim.
‘Where are you taking those flowers, child?’ she asked.
‘Mrs. Lincoln gave them to me to take to Governor Sprague,’ I answered.
‘I will hand them to the governor with Mrs. Lincoln’s compliments,’ said Miss Chase imperiously, taking the bouquet from me. She was very handsome, beautifully dressed, and accustomed to have what she wanted, and she took the bouquet from me before I could get up enough spunk to resist.
I went back to Mrs. Lincoln in wrath and tears. ‘Never mind, Julia,’ she said. ‘You shall have another just as pretty for the governor when Miss Chase isn’t around.’ But Miss Chase was always around. In fact, she married him.8
Some of Mrs. Lincoln’s flowers caused even more trouble. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, according to one of his aides, “was often enraged because Mrs. Lincoln sent quantities of flowers from the Government greenhouses to the residence of Congressman Fernando Wood whenever Mr. and Mrs. Wood — both of whom denounced the Secretary and the war incessantly — gave a public reception. She retaliated by sending to him books and clippings describing an exacting and disagreeable person.”9
The gardens and the conservatory were the source of a less fragrant product — the scandals produced by the interaction of an unscrupulous gardener, John Watt, and Mrs. Lincoln. “In her visits to the conservatory, she began discussing the matter [of her excessive redecorating bills] with Watt. First she hinted, then she poured out the whole tale of woe as he worked nearby among the pots and tubs of plants. This rarest of opportunities was not missed by the gardener, who soon won her confidence with his optimistic ideas on avenues of escape.” wrote White House historian William Seale.10 Seale suggested that Watt shifted $700 from the landscaping to the redecorating account.
Doorkeeper Thomas Stackpole told Senator Orville Browning on March 2, 1862 that after President Lincoln barred journalistic spy Henry Wikoff from the White House, Mrs. Lincoln adopted “the habit of meeting him in the Green House, Watt arranging the interviews.”11
William S. Wood
Benjamin Brown French
Elizabeth Todd Edwards
Orville H. Browning
Edwin M. Stanton
Salmon Chase’s Home
Edwin M. Stanton
William O. Stoddard
Pre‑Inaugural Visit to New York City