Caroline Scott Harrison Chapter, NSDAR Indianapolis, Indiana Join Now »

Orchids and Art-old

By Patricia Hahn, Kik-Tha-We-Nund Chapter, Indiana
in collaboration with the NSDAR Archives,
Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, February 1993, p. 91-93, 160

Transcribed by Jane Smithenry Klotz, Caroline Scott Harrison Chapter, Indianapolis, IN February 14, 2005

One hundred years ago, Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland were both seeking re-election to the presidency of the United States. The vote counts for each candidate promised to be close. There were no rallies and speeches, however; Mrs. Harrison lay dying in the White House and the President chose to be at her bedside, rather than out campaigning. Out of respect for the first lady Cleveland curtailed such activities as well.

Sixty years before, on the first day of October 1832, Caroline Lavinia Scott was born in Oxford, Ohio. Her parents were Mary Potts Neal and Rev. John Witherspoon Scott. She was well taught as her father, a Presbyterian minister, was a pioneer in the education of women, and was considered one of the “most illustrious educators of the early West.”

After spending his early years in North Bend, Ohio, young Benjamin Harrison attended Farmer’s College, a small school located in Walnut Hills, a section of Cincinnati. He studied there for three years. As a freshman, he met “Carrie” Scott, whose father had organized a women’s college nearby. Ben was attracted to the fifteen-year-old girl who had beautiful brown hair and soft brown eyes. Accomplished in painting and music, she was bright and witty. Ben found her irresistible.

In 1849, Reverend Scott established the Oxford Female Institute in Oxford, Ohio. The next year Ben came to Oxford where he attended Miami University. There Benjamin Harrison staged his first front porch campaign – his campaign to win Carrie Scott’s heart. The teenagers were a study in contrasts. She was lively and spirited. He tended to be serious and reserved. When not spending their evenings together there on the porch of the Scott home, they took buggy and sleigh rides, and they even slipped away to dances which was against the rules of the refined, cultured, and religious Scotts. Artistic in taste and temperament and merry and fun loving, Carrie enjoyed dancing, even though Ben did not join her because of his religious convictions.

When Ben graduated and left the university to read law in Cincinnati, Carrie stayed in Oxford to finish school and to teach music and sewing to younger pupils. During this time, the pair corresponded. Her schedule was already overcrowded when she was asked to substitute for a teacher who was ill. She also helped nurse at the bedside of this young lady who was her friend. This allowed absolutely no time for writing. Ben became very impatient for letters and was kidded unmercifully by the post office clerks in Cincinnati. The following year, Carrie graduated from the Oxford Female Institute. She then taught music.

On October 20, 1853, Ben and his “charming and loveable Carrie” were finally married in a simple ceremony in Oxford conducted by her father. The bride, then barely twenty-one, wore a simple gray traveling dress. Ben, who was only twenty years of age and looked even younger, wore a new black suit with a frock coat. They lived in North Bend for a short time caring for Ben’s younger sisters and brothers, while his father, a widower, was in Washington, D.C., serving in the House of Representatives. Everyone in the household was charmed by the new sister-in-law, who seemed to know intuitively how to please each of them. Meanwhile Ben commuted to Cincinnati to complete his apprenticeship.

After Ben was admitted to the bar in 1854, the newlyweds moved to Indianapolis. The young couple immediately joined the First Presbyterian Church and became very active members. In fact, their social life centered around this church. Besides attending services regularly, Carrie went to the sewing circle where all the current events of the city were discussed, while the reporters sewed for worthy causes. Both Ben and Carrie participated in many other church activities throughout the year as well. Carrie is described in the Centennial Memorial publication of the church: “Her tastes were artistic, her creations in needlework lovely and her vitality charming. She laughed readily and her gaiety and intellectual gifts made her delightful…”

One reason Ben had chosen Indianapolis for their home was the idea that being the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, who was so popular in Indiana, would be an advantage. Nevertheless, the young married couple faced financial hardships. William Sheets and his wife, an adopted daughter of Grandfather Harrison, lived in Indianapolis and were very reliable connections. Other friends and family members came to their assistance, as well. Just when their financial situation seemed the bleakest, Ben was offered a job as the law partner of William Wallace who was busy running for political office. Although the burdens of supporting a family were somewhat alleviated when he obtained this position, Ben had already acquired the habit of overwork. This habit was good for his pocketbook, but bad for his health, and limited the time he spent with his growing family.

The Harrisons’ first home in Indianapolis was the ground floor of a two-story apartment. After a fire forced them to vacate this apartment, Carrie returned to Ohio where their first child, Russell Benjamin, was born on August 12, 1854. They were separated for longer than intended due to illnesses and the fear of disease in the Indianapolis climate. A daughter was born in Indianapolis in 1858. Her name was Mary Scott, but she was always called Mamie. Sadness came to the household, already darkened by the Civil War, when their third baby, a little girl, was stillborn.

A little over a year later, Ben was heroically commanding Company A of the Seventieth Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. Carrie visited her husband twice at camp in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where she mended clothing for the soldiers and helped nurse the sick and wounded. While Ben was away, Carrie became a leader in the Ladies Patriotic Association, the Ladies Sanitary Committee, and other local groups concerned with the care of wounded soldiers.

At church, she found friends and activities to take her mind off the tormenting rumors of disasters experienced by the men fighting in the South. She taught needlework and china painting to many church members, worked for the missionary society, and became a well-liked Sunday School teacher. When Ben returned, he found his wife’s natural friendliness and talents had won her almost as much popularity as he had achieved as a war hero. After the War, Carrie continued teaching the skills of painting, music, and needlework to younger women.

Carrie had received many affectionate letters from Ben during the war. In one he wrote, “If my ambition is to soar to any more after I come home, you will have to give it wings.” Being a loyal and devoted wife, Carrie helped Ben in many ways during the ups and downs of his legal, military, and political careers. As a busy young lawyer, Ben had not taken the time to learn how to act in social situations. His integrity, intelligence, and ability as a lawyer could never be ignored, however. He gave incredibly good speeches, much of the time without any notes or preparation, but many times Carrie had to use her charm to rescue him during personal conversations. His manner was often mistakenly perceived as cold and aloof. Carrie must have realized this, for she constantly went out of her way to help make friends for him. One of Ben’s most valuable assets, even in Washington with its formal customs, was Carrie’s Hoosier friendliness.

The family became a part of the social life in the city. They attended church-sponsored strawberry festivals and dinners. Carrie even convinced her husband to spend an occasional evening at the opera, the theatre, or a concert. She was disappointed, however, when he came downstairs dressed for a concert with paperwork in his pocket.

Constant work was still a way of life for Ben. After Carrie nursed him back to health when he collapsed from exhaustion, he dropped a job as a court reporter. Thereafter, the family occasionally took vacations. In their later years together, Deer Park, Maryland, was a favorite vacation spot for them and their friends. The ladies spent their time sewing, painting, and gossiping, while the men talked politics and fished.

In Indianapolis, Carrie was in demand as a hostess. At gatherings in the Harrison home the men talked, while their wives planned church activities and evening socials. The young wives skilled with needle and paint brush gathered there whenever their husbands went hunting and fishing together. In 1875, the home on North Delaware Street, which they had been planning since 1868, was completed. The two-story brick Italianate mansion had sixteen rooms for the family to occupy.

In 1881, Ben became a United States Senator. Illness delayed Carrie’s departure for Washington, D.C. and she was frequently ill during his term. Ben’s repeated separations from his wife and home life were a trial for him. He said that when they were together, Carrie’s charm would make the afternoon receptions more a pleasure than a duty. Her warmth continued to smooth the way for them. She became very popular in the Capital, entertaining many visitors and engaging in much charity work.

After achieving success as a lawyer and then a senator, Ben gave even more time and attention to Carrie. He encouraged her to express herself through painting watercolors in her home studio and teaching china painting to young ladies. Ben was especially proud of his wife’s creativity in delicate water colors. He even turned his head when the children took dancing lessons. However, in 1886, Carrie suffered “a violent illness” that her husband attributed to her “constantly working on…tapestry painting.”

The Harrisons had always been interested in education and social service. For over thirty years, Carrie served on the board of managers for the Indianapolis Orphans’ Asylum. On the day of the 1888 presidential election, Carrie had worked at the asylum with charity cases all day, and, being tired, went to bed before the election results were known. Ben thought going to sleep at that time was a good idea and retired, also. Finally, the outcome was decided; Benjamin Harrison had been elected the next President of the United States, by surpassing Grover Cleveland in Electoral College votes.

The Harrisons tearfully left their Indianapolis home for Washington, D.C., after breakfast, Bible reading, and prayers on February 25, 1889, by special train. Carrie’s arms were full of roses before they were even out of their own hometown. After arriving in the Capital, they stayed in rooms in the Johnson House annex of the Arlington Hotel on Vermont Avenue. Carrie, who had been showered with floral tributes during the trip, was captivated by a large display of orchids in the Louis XIV parlor there.

Her six years as the wife of a Senator familiarized Carrie with social life in the Capital. In the White House, she continued the gracious way of life she had always created in her own home. She was an extremely attractive first lady with her soft white hair waved back off her ears, her large expressive eyes, her firm, clear-cut mouth. Her queenly figure, always clad simply and tastefully in American-made clothing, seemed to belong there.

On October 22, 1889, the New York Sun reported that, with her practical experience, Caroline Harrison was very capable of managing the domestic affairs of “a four generation home with part of her day and still find time for fine needlework…china painting and orchid culture.”

The eldest of the four generations living in the White House was represented by Rev. Scott, Carrie’s ninety-year-old father. Then came the President and the First Lady themselves. Their children were both happily married by then. They, with their spouses, composed the third generation. The President’s three adored and much-photographed grandchildren were the youngest generation. Also, Carrie’s sister and niece assisted her. All resided in the Executive Mansion for at least part of the term.

While managing the domestic affairs of the four generation home, Carrie continued to pursue one of her favorite hobbies, needlework. She donated most of her handiwork to church bazaars and charities. Carrie was well thought of for working for local charities, such as the Aid Society of Garfield Hospital which she headed and the Washington City Orphan Asylum. She even agreed to help raise funds for the Johns Hopkins University medical school on the condition that it admit women.

While managing the domestic affairs of the White House, Carrie’s brush painted hundreds of porcelain dishes for Washington ladies desiring souvenirs. Vases, platters, and an assortment of other pieces were sent to her with requests. Reporter Frank G. Carpenter wrote that, “Many a baby whose parents have named him for the President has received a milk set painted by Mrs. Harrison.” She even decorated White House candlesticks, cheese covers, crackerboxes, flowerpot saucers, milk pitchers, chocolate jugs, tiles, and the grandbabies’ bathtub with her paintings. Carrie brought in an expert china painting teacher from Richmond, Indiana, German-born Paul Putzki, and organized classes. A professor of French was then hired. Both taught the wives and daughters of government officials, along with other society people. There were almost twenty-five students in all, most attending both classes. The chine was baked in Carrie’s own kiln. Her favorite flower, the orchid, was the subject of many of Carrie’s paintings, in watercolors, as well as on porcelain. In 1890, she painted a white “White House Orchid” with her water colors and dedicated it to “mothers, wives, and daughters of America.” This painting was lithographed and distributed.

While managing the domestic affairs of the White House, Carrie requested that the orchid be grown in the greenhouses of the executive mansion for the first time, and she is said to have been the first First Lady to use orchids for floral decorations at official receptions. Carrie filled the White House with an assortment of live flowers and plants. She broke with tradition by holding bouquets in receiving lines to save her hands from vigorous handshaking.

Because of her excellent domestic management, Carrie was reportedly “the best housekeeper that the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion has yet known.” When the Harrison moved in, Carrie was very displeased with her new home, however. “We are here for four years,” she told a reporter, “…I am very anxious to see the family of the President provided for properly, and while I am here I hope to be able to get the present building into good condition. Very few people understand to what straits the President’s family has been put to at times for lack of accommodations. Really there are only five sleeping apartments and there is no feeling of privacy.”

Architect Fred Owen drew up three new plans for the house under Carrie’s supervision. The last plan included a long row of greenhouses. Congress did not approve any of the plans to have the overcrowded mansion enlarged, but did okay an extensive renovation with up-to-date improvements. Overseeing each project carefully and budgeting well, Carrie achieved remarkable results with the allotted $35,000.

Carrie saw to it that layers of moldy flooring, old paint, and basement dirt were removed. A new method of pest control was used and old floors were replaced with new ones. The faulty plumbing was repaired. The kitchen was modernized. A new heating system was installed. Painting and wallpapering the bedrooms, cleaning the chandeliers, and purchasing new curtains, upholstery, and furniture were all undertaken. Private bathrooms were put into each of the bedrooms. In May of 1891, the first electric lights and doorbells were installed by the Edison Company and a new central switchboard was put in, allowing for multiple telephones instead of only one for the entire mansion. Carrie managed to modernize without destroying the look of the aging White House.

While carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, and electricians were busily working about the place, Carrie carefully went through closets and cabinets, sorting out broken dishes and worn-out items. From the broken and incomplete sets, she assembled and identified the first collection of White House China, locating dishes used by all the former presidential families, except the Jacksons.

With some of the appropriation for furnishings, Carrie arranged for the purchase of the state china of the Benjamin Harrison administration, which she had designed herself. She had tried to make the design symbolic and meaningful to Americans in her own dignified style. Margaret Brown Klapthor, an expert on White House china, states that Carrie “contributed to the White House what many think is the most handsome of all the formal dinner services designed specifically for the house.”

Additional pieces of the Harrison China were ordered during the William McKinley administration. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt apparently admired the Harrison china, as she placed a rather large order for more of the plates in 1908. Never having ordered any china for the White House herself, Jacqueline Kennedy used the china of the Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison administrations to represent the traditions of the past. According to Mrs. Klapthor, Mrs. Kennedy’s “preference for the Harrison china was shown in her selection of pieces from that service to decorate the breakfront which she had placed in the family dining room” during the time her family occupied the mansion.

In 1890, Carrie, who was eligible through a number of ancestors for membership in the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, agreed to become the first President General of that newly organized women’s organization. On the evening of February 24, 1892, Carrie gave one of her elegant White House receptions and suppers for the regents and delegates at the first Continental Congress of NSDAR. The new Benjamin Harrison china service was used for the first time that evening.

Until she became ill in the spring of 1891, Carrie thoroughly enjoyed the social life of the White House and presided graciously at official functions. Carrie had often worn orchids at official meetings of cabinet wives and at DAR functions. She established the custom of the traditional orchid corsages for the DAR. Her fondness for the flower inspired its use by other women. She popularized the wearing of orchids for formal occasions to such an extent that florists of the time found it difficult to keep up with the demand.

One of the First Lady’s final public appearances was at the first DAR Continental Congress. Immediately after Carrie’s death on October 25, 1982, Mrs. Ellen Hardin Walworth, the first recording secretary of the NSDAR, suggested that the organization commission Daniel Huntington to paint a life-size portrait of their beloved first president to be given to the White House. This project was completed, although the young DAR could ill afford it.

An exact copy of this beautiful portrait painted by Mathilde Leisenring in 1931 hangs in the President General’s Reception Room in Constitution Hall. Accompanying the picture in one of the lovelier reception rooms in Washington, stands a sofa once owned by Rev. and Mrs. John Scott, Carrie Harrison’s parents.

As the NSDAR approached its 50th anniversary, plans were adopted for celebrating this important milestone in October of 1940. One of the projects was the presentation of yet another portrait of the revered First President General. The President Benjamin Harrison Home in Indianapolis was the fortunate recipient of this painting.

In this picture, a pleasant moment captured on canvas, Caroline Harrison looks serenely down from the wall, unaware of her husband’s defeat and Grover Cleveland’s historic re-election just two weeks after her death.

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