White House

New exhibit serves up the dish on presidents' china

A dish from the James K. Polk administration is on display at The Presidential Dish.
A dish from the James K. Polk administration is on display at The Presidential Dish. Woodrow Wilson House

WASHINGTON — Even presidents have to eat, and a new exhibit in the nation's capital shows what they ate on.

"The Presidential Dish: Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and the White House China Room" opens Sunday at the Woodrow Wilson House museum in Washington. More than 130 presidential dishes will be on display, including an elaborate hand-colored Rutherford B. Hayes set; James Monroe's private service, with pink roses; and the purple-bordered Abraham Lincoln service, which Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur reordered.

"These are more than just dishes — they are history," said exhibit curator James A. Abbott. "There's the political symbolism. In the early dishes, you have the eagle and shield, which represented the strong federal government." By the time of the James K. Polk plates, "the simmering issue of slavery has really placed an importance on devaluing the importance of a strong federal government and re-emphasizing the strength of the individual states. We don't see an eagle. We have the shield of the Stars and Stripes, the union of each independent state."

After the Civil War, "The Hayes service . . . brought together at the president's table the North, the South, the East and the West, because in his inaugural address he tried to bring the nation together . . . as a united country," Abbott said.

Until 1900, presidential porcelain was ordered from France. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the first American-made state dinner service. In 1917, first lady Edith Bolling Wilson created the White House China Room to exhibit rare presidential china.

The exhibit includes porcelain from the private collection of Set Charles Momjian, who served in the past five administrations as a presidential adviser, to re-create the original China Room. The china starts with George Washington's administration and ends with Wilson's in 1921.

Momjian started collecting the china in the 1950s as a sideline to presidential documents.

"A lot of the dealers would have some letters and documents and a piece of china," he said. "I wasn't interested in the china, but I wanted to be a good businessman, so I'd buy everything. I'd take the plate and put it in my wife's laundry room. One day my wife says, 'Set, can you get those plates out of the laundry room?' " She needed the space for her cookbooks. As he laid out the dishes, Momjian realized that he had quite a collection.

Presidential china wasn't always specially commissioned. "The Grant set (without the presidential seal) is actually a stock pattern that you could have purchased in New York, Boston, made in France for the American market," Abbott said.

During Arthur's presidency, he "sold wagonloads of presidential objects at public auction," a common habit among presidents at the time. Years later, Abbott said, Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore, was dismayed at seeing chipped presidential china sold in local antique shops and instituted a policy in which "damaged or chipped White House plates, cups and saucers were taken to the basement, smashed and poured into the Potomac River."

Sometimes there's no presidential china. Jacqueline Kennedy selected a prototype plate, "yellow, almost melon-colored . . . not too ostentatious," Momjian said, but the set was never made because of her husband's assassination. Momjian later bought the single dish, along with a note from Lillian Parks, a maid in the White House for 35 years, at an antiques market in Atlanta. The note said the president and first lady had taken "turns eating off this plate for one week to see if they would like it."

Momjian said he told first ladies that "if you don't own china, there's not one thing in this White House that's yours."

"When they leave, everything goes with them," he said. "The only thing that remains is china, if they ordered it, and it gives the taste and the time."

"The Presidential Dish: Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and the White House China Room" runs from Sunday through Aug. 4, 2008, at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington. Details at http://www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org.

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