A Tradition of Service

Although John Adams (1797-1801) was our second President, he was the first to live in the White House. When he moved into the building in 1800, it was barely finished. In fact, the plaster on the inside walls was still wet! The Grand Staircase was not even begun, wood shavings and carpenter tools littered the shell of clay bricks that was the East Room, and Mrs. Adams' letters tell us that clotheslines were strung up in its vast emptiness. During their stay, the house stayed shivering cold, and its windows rattled against the strong northwest winds. The President's wife, Abigail, even had to seek enough firewood to heat the rooms.

Abigail Adams 






Abigail Adams oversees the hanging of laundry in the East Room.

The house was under the charge of the Adamses' steward, John Briesler, who had been with them for nearly 20 years. No household staff was provided for the White House by the government, so Mr. Briesler completed the organization of the house, arranging the rooms to suit the Adamses' customs. His wife, Esther, was the housekeeper.

Over the years, the White House slowly evolved into the stately residence we know today. Each First Family left a legacy to the next and influenced the historic period they each, in turn, represented. The changes made to the White House as each President and First Lady added their own stamp have been more than architectural and decorative -- they have also affected the mansion's staffing and management.

President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) hired a housekeeper, Elizabeth Jaffrey, who became a familiar sight throughout Washington, traveling by horse-drawn carriage to do the marketing for the First Family. She bought butter by the tub, potatoes by the barrel, fruit and fresh vegetables by the crate.

Henrietta Nesbitt came to the White House as chief housekeeper during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Administration (1933-1945), charged with supervising the maintenance of 60 rooms and 20 bathrooms (today the White House has 132 rooms and 32 bathrooms). For years she oversaw the cleaning of the immense chandeliers in the East Room. Workmen stood on specially built trestles to care for each of the 22,000 separate pieces of glass. The prisms were removed, one at a time, washed, polished, and hung back in place. This job was done once a year, just before the formal social season began, and took six men a full week to finish.

Because of the large number of people visiting the building, simply keeping the White House clean was a major undertaking. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the ground floor was scrubbed every morning and mopped as needed during the day. The linen covers on the chairs had to be changed each day. One man was assigned to take care of the Grand Staircase alone. Starting at the top of the stairs, he would dust his way down to the bottom -- and then began working his way up once more. Meanwhile, painters, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers were constantly at work. Others kept busy by washing the 160 windows, skylights, and mirrors, dusting furniture, polishing the brasswork and silver, cleaning the hearths, and setting out flowers throughout the mansion.

Fall 1997

A Tradition of Service

The Tradition Continues

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