On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated the first President of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City. He was entrusted with the establishment of the office as well as the definition of its role in government and in society. In addition to his appearance in public settings, Washington paid close attention to the manner of domestic entertaining that he felt best defined the new American presidency.
Washington understood the need to open the executive residence and properly receiving those who called on the President. To provide order to the steady stream of visitors to the executive residence and to allow members of the legislature, judiciary, and other governmental officials access, Washington established prescribed days and times to meet with his various constituents. Every Tuesday afternoon Washington received male callers from three until four o'clock in the afternoon. The reception was a formal series of gentlemanly introductions and greetings where Washington was visited in a formal manner as President of the United States.
The levees held by Martha Washington every Friday evening were less formal affairs that included both women and men. The menu for the evenings changed with the seasons—including ice cream and lemonade during the warmer parts of the year to hot tea and coffee, cakes, and candies during the winter. Dinners for members of Congress and other important government officials were held on Thursday afternoons at four o'clock. Martha Washington joined these meals, often the only woman present.
George Washington understood that his forums set precedents for future presidents to follow, and he took seriously the need to make certain that dinners were dignified and befitting of his guests. Washington sought a stylistic balance between dining pieces that were sufficiently grand to impress foreign dignitaries, while also not conveying the image of a royal court culture. Washington understood the important role tablewares played in communicating this balance, and throughout his life he paid a great deal of attention to his dining table and the surrounding spaces. Once he became President, Washington ensured the purchase of an ensemble of tablewares appropriate to the type of entertaining that he sought to establish.
Presidential guests were served by slaves wearing livery in the red and white Washington family colors. Approximately three dozen dining chairs, probably upholstered in matching crimson satin, circled the tables assembled for Washington's guests. Washington's carefully-planned ensemble of dining ware produced an image of elegance mixed with respectability. Washington complemented the tablewares and furnishings supplied by Congress with additions at his own expense that he felt was necessary to provide respect for the young republic and the role of the presidency.
Robert H. Smith Senior Curator and Vice President for Collections
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
Christmas with George Washington 1776-1799. Philadelphia: Franklin Printing Co., n.d..
Decatur, Jr., Stephen. Private Affairs of George Washington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
Lossing, Benson J. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860.
Sullivan, William. Familiar Letters on Public Characters and Public Events. Boston: Privately printed, 1834.
The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 12 vols. eds. Dorothy Twohig, Mark Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987.