“First lady’s gowns falling apart. You may want to read this,” someone wrote me recently.
I’m so appreciative when someone thinks of me and shares articles they know I’ll enjoy. With an attention-getting headline like this one, I knew this was a winning story. I stopped everything and read it right away.
The William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum is involved in a long-term project to raise funds to restore and preserve 20 dresses of First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley’s. This news was too good to keep to myself. In fact, it’s turned out to be the inspiration for a freelance article I’ll be writing for Interweave Press’s PieceWork magazine about Mrs. McKinley, her dresses and the needlework project for which she was best known.
My knowledge of Mrs. McKinley is based on two Ohio landmarks. First, the McKinley Memorial at the Ohio Statehouse recalls how the future President paused on his way to work every morning to wave to his invalid wife as she looked out the window of their room at the Neil House Hotel. Second, the Saxton family home in Canton, where the McKinleys lived between 1878 and 1891, now houses the National First Ladies’ Library. This project is giving me the chance to learn more about this First Lady.
My first discovery was that the Ohio Historical Society owns the gown (H 5204) believed to have been worn by Mrs. McKinley at the inauguration of her husband. During my recent visit to the collections facility, Leslie and Cliff got this beautiful gown out of storage and brought it out for me to admire. Dating from 1897, the gown is made of handmade Venetian lace over ivory silk, with gold trim at the waist, it is said to have cost Mr. McKinley $600.
Then, I learned that Mrs. McKinley made approximately 4,000 pairs of crocheted slippers and gave them as gifts to friends, veterans, orphans or charitable causes. The Ohio Historical Society also owns a pair of slippers (H 51931) that were made by Mrs. McKinley between 1897 and 1901. The blue slippers have crocheted wool tops, blue ribbons, elastic drawstrings, and bound cork soles manufactured by George W. Gittens of Paterson, New Jersey. They were made for Mrs. Bonnet, great-grandmother of Mrs. Keith Walker of Warren, Ohio, who donated them to the Ohio Historical Society in 1986. The slippers are on loan now, so until I can see them, I’m taking a close look at another pair at the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, which you can see in the Ohio Memory online database.
Soon, I’ll be visiting Kim Kenney, curator at the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, to see the dresses that will be restored. In the meantime, I’ll be reading Grand Tour of Ida Saxton McKinley and Sister Mary Saxton Barber, 1869, keeping up with Kim’s work through her blog, where you can see photos of some of the dresses to be conserved, and taking a closer look at a knife in our family archives that has an interesting McKinley connection.