Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Washington Whirlwind #2: Boy's Playmate


Washington Whirlwind #2: Boy's Playmate by Becky Collis

Mary Todd Lincoln 
Photo by William Mumler, 1865

During the social whirlwind of a new presidential administration in the spring of 1861 Mary Cook Taft, wife of the Patent Office's chief examiner, was introduced to First Lady Mary Lincoln. Once Mary Lincoln heard that the Tafts had two boys about the same age as her own sons she invited them over to play at the White House.

Halsey Cook Taft "Holly" & Horatio Nelson Taft Jr. "Bud" 

The Lincolns had four boys. During the first years of the war Robert was at Harvard.
Eddie had died of a disease at the age of 3 in 1850.

The White House in the 1840s

Boy's Playmate by Jeanne Arnieri

Mary's impulsive move worked out well, at least in the beginning, although advisors might have told Mrs. Lincoln the Tafts, despite being New Yorkers, were appointees of the Democrat Buchanan with a reputation for Southern sympathies. The Tafts were "doughfaces" in the slang of the day. Once Lincoln was elected, however, and Southern states began seceding Taft became a strong Union man.
"There has been no startling News today, but the right of Secession is contested by all northern men who with the president consider it Revolution. I have not hesitated to call it Treason." Horatio Taft's diary January 17, 1861

Horatio Nelson Taft (1806-1888)

Horatio Taft and Mary Malvina Cook Taft had three boys and an older girl Julia together. Through his first marriage, Horatio had two sons Charles and Frank, grown by the time of the Lincoln White House. Mary Taft's youngest son Willie was too small and shy to keep up with his older brothers and the Lincoln boys but he was invited over occasionally.

The Patent Office
During the war as patent applications dwindled, the building was taken over for a hospital and Horatio was laid off in late 1861.

Halls and storage rooms at the Patent Building were filled
with bunk beds for wounded and sick soldiers, but Horatio
visited the old office often, according to his diary.

Horatio was bored, puttering around their rented house, discussing war news at the Willard Hotel and thinking up inventions to patent when there wouldn't be a conflict of interest. Mary Taft didn't like living in Washington and neither did he so in the fall of 1861 he decided to move back to New York and perhaps resume his career as a lawyer. 

The view in war-time Washington was dominated by the unfinished Capitol
 building where work continued on a new dome.
"This has been a delightful day and our sale of furniture has passed off. It mostly sold at a low rate, but it was mostly purchased at Auction two or three years since. We sold nothing but the bulkey articles amounting to only $140.00." September 24, 1861

Vintage Boy's Playmate block, about 1900 

After selling their furniture, the Tafts crated up possessions to ship home and bade the Lincolns farewell.
"My wife went today to pay her respects to Mrs Lincoln before leaving the City. Was very graciously received by Mrs L. and assured that if she could do anything to keep our Family here she would do it as she was anxious to have our boys come there as companions & playmates for hers." September 25, 1861
We then get a glimpse of Mary Lincoln's typical manipulations. She did not want to lose the Taft boys. 
Horatio went to see a Major Watt who told him: "Mrs L. always succeeds, and is enlisted in my behalf."

Before a week was out the Tafts had been persuaded to rent a house about 5 blocks east of the White House: "On 9th St No. 346, having 9 rooms and back buildings, rent $200.00 pr year. House in tolerable repair and convenient, shall move in tomorrow." 
"I called upon Mrs Lincoln this evening with Julia and had quite a long conversation with her. She was quite indignant that I had not been restored to office." October 10, 1861

Boy's Playmate by Denniele Bohannon

 October and November passed with no new occupation for Horatio but Mary Lincoln was at work.

"Wife went up to the Presidents to see Mrs Lincoln, did not see her. She however got a strong letter from the President to the Sec'y of the Interior in my favor." November 21, 1861
The next day his old boss at the Patent Office reluctantly offered him "a 2nd Class Clerkship in the Land Office for the present if I would accept of it. It is $1400 pr year. That is certainly better than no business in this extravagant City and I shall take it till I can do better."

Julia Taft: "It was an outstanding characteristic of 
Mary Todd Lincoln that she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it."

Mary Lincoln earned a reputation for shady manipulations of government appointments for her friends, patrons and creditors. An elegant carriage given to the First Lady might insure an appointment as an agent in the New York custom house, a potentially profitable job if one wasn't too strict about ethics. Here we see her at work on a smaller scale, engineering playmates for her boys.  

The idealized Lincoln family was the subject of many lithographs,
this one by a rather untalented portrait artist.

Julia's book goes into pleasant detail about the Tafts and the Lincolns. She often escorted her younger brothers on visits and was happy to chat with Mary Lincoln who treated her with a leniency and familiarity her own mother could not. Julia read novels in the White House library, novels being forbidden by Mary Malvina Taft.

In his diary, Horatio is pleased to mention the boys' visiting their home, which took place often in the winter of 1861-1862.
"The Lincoln Boys have been here twice today after our boys to go there. (December 12) ...Both the Lincoln boys were here this afternoon looking over the pictures with Bud & Holly. They are evidently not kept on Sundays with puritan Strictness. They like to come here and feel quite 'free and easy' with our boys." (December 15, 1861)

"This has been 'Christmas day'... I have spent the day at home fixing up things....It has been quite a noisey day about the house. Our three boys and the Two Lincoln boys have been very busy fireing off Crackers & Pistols. Willie & Thomas Lincoln staid to Dinner at 4 o'clock."
Boy's Playmate by Becky Brown with a black & white sashing.

Tad Lincoln was the leader of the pack. When he and Holly disappeared into the many basements of the Capitol building, causing a crisis, sister Julia recalled Holly telling her: "Tad dared me to explore around and we did and got lost." 

The Block

The block has several names, all relating to the mischievous children in the Lincoln White House's first year.

Cutting a 12" Pattern

Model Maker Becky Brown is a precision piecer and she advises me:

Horatio Taft's Washington diary was donated to the Library of Congress
in 1970, a gift from Mrs. Willoughby Davis, a family member.

Read the transcript of his diary entries here:

 See the transcription here here:

And one more Taft link:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City owns
this chintz applique quilt attributed to Mary Malvina Cook Taft.
See a post on this quilt---unlikely to be by her hand:

Did she obtain it during her wartime residence in Washington?
Perhaps a stolen Southern quilt?

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