Oddly, no photograph seems to exist of Mary Lincoln in her 5 March 1861 First Inaugural gown. Were she and the household too busy, were the photographic studios too full of newly minted government workers as a new administration came to town?
Instead, we know that Mary Lincoln wore the strawberry dress in her first spring as First Lady, in 1861. We know that someone in one of Mathew Brady’s two studios took her picture in it. Two questions arise: Why this dress; and where did she pose?
The tradition of a ‘strawberry party’ had been around for at least a generation in Springfield, Illinois, by the time the Lincolns moved to Washington in February 1861. Such parties were held in hundreds of towns throughout what is now the eastern portion of the United States, and so too were raspberry parties. In central Illinois the season for fresh wild strawberries begins in May, while around Washington it might begin a little earlier. Mary and Abraham once hosted such a party for Springfield families and friends, and they attended other such events. A carriage ride into the country with a picnic lunch – the “young people” (teenagers) usually riding in a separate carriage – provided entertainment, exercise, and sociability.
So among the novel, “Western” ideas Mary Lincoln imported to the nation’s capital was to continue the parties even while war loomed. This accorded with her husband’s wishes that, to name two, the Executive Mansion be freshened up and the Capitol dome be completed. She took along her cousin Lizzie Grimsley to shop in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in early May.
It seems most likely that she bought this beautiful black-silk dress, with machine-embroidered strawberry sprigs, in one of those cities. A reporter for a Democratic paper followed her in New York one day to record her extravangances, but this dress was not mentioned. And with her pretty young cousin along, she could well have stopped at Brady’s photographic studio, 10th St. and Broadway, for what we believe was her first formal pose as First Lady. Why this dress? Perhaps it reminded her, and others around her, of their traditions in Illinois. There is also an outside chance that it was made in Chicago before their journey, or made there and shipped to Washington for her.
Three copies of the cdv I have examined all read ‘Brady / New York,’ but Lloyd Ostendorf’s 1963 book of Lincoln family photographs presumes that Mary sat in Brady’s studio on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington. If Ostendorf is right, then Brady may have used the card to let New Yorkers know of his coup d’arte of being the first to capture the new First Lady on chemically treated glass. Brady was known to advertise each studio in the other city this way. But if Ostendorf is wrong, Mary actually sat in New York, where she more likely acquired the dress.
Mary’s other Lizzie, the dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckly, can not be shown to have worked on the strawberry dress. Though the two women met on 5 March, the day after Lincoln’s swearing in, we do not know exactly when and to what extent she began working for the new First Lady. In her memoir Behind the Scenes (1868), she claimed to have made dozens of dresses for Mrs. Lincoln right from the start. We can suppose that Lizzie Keckly at least helped Mary get into the dress and perhaps altered it slightly for her.
Mary gave the strawberry dress and a summer 1861 gown to her cousin Lizzie. The latter is now in the Smithsonian, the former is in Springfield, both of them through Grimsley descendants – the only intact Mary Lincoln dresses in existence now. Donna McCreary’s book Fashionable First Lady: The Victorian Wardrobe of Mary Lincoln (2007) is the best study of all of her gowns, but she is unable to specify its origins, either. So in an unusual twist of the common historical pattern, today we know the provenance of the strawberry dress since 1861, but we do not know the point of origin of either the dress or the photo.