When some of the current presidential hubbub leaves me cold, I like to warm up by learning more about our earlier presidents and their wives. It is especially interesting to read about our first ladies and how they entertained during their tenure in the White House. This February, I have been reading up on the Presidential entertaining by First Lady Julia Tyler, second wife of tenth President, Virginian John Tyler.
Born in 1820, Julia Gardiner was brought up and trained in a well-to-do family on Long Island, New York, to take her place in society. She traveled in Europe and Washington, D.C. In 1842, twenty-one-year-old Julia was the belle of the Washington social season. She was introduced to President John Tyler at a White House reception. After the death of his first wife in September, Tyler made it clear that he wished to get involved with Julia. But a thirty-year age difference between this high-spirited beauty and the sober, reserved Virginia gentleman made her put him off at first.
She first rejected his proposal in 1843 at a White House Masquerade Ball. Later, Julia, her sister and her father joined a Presidential excursion on the new steam frigate Princeton. During this trip, her father and a number of others, lost their lives in the explosion of a huge naval gun called the Peacemaker. Julia was crushed by her father’s death, but the President’s quiet strength sustained her during this difficult time. Tyler won her consent to a secret engagement, proposing in 1844 at the George Washington Ball. Julia was the first woman to marry a seated President.
Since Julia would only be the First Lady for eight months, having married an incumbent one-term President, she accelerated the regular pace of entertaining. She drove through town in a regal coach of eight matched white Arabian horses. “This winter I intend to do something in the way of entertaining that shall be the admiration and talk of the Washington world,” she said.
Not everyone approved of her European social airs. She received guests by seating herself among a dozen young women dressed alike in white and nicknamed her “vestal virgins.” From the religious press, she earned disapproval for the large supply of champagne she had served to guests and the physical closeness of the new waltz dancing she sponsored and participated in.
Already popular in the European capitals where she first witnessed the dance, Julia Tyler also helped popularize the polka in Washington, dancing it in the White House. Julia was also the first First Lady to be photographed.
The second youngest First Lady also changed public presidential ceremony. She directed that the President be removed from more direct access to the public when he received them. There was a practical reason for Julia Tyler’s changing the format in which a presidential couple received their guests, related directly to the safety and security of the President himself. Previously, the President would simply stand in the middle of the Blue Room to welcome guests but Julia’s new configuration had the President standing against the wall, in the deeper side of the oval room. It kept people from coming up behind him and also allowed for the single line of guests to stream in and out efficiently.
Julia has also been credited with directing the Marine Band to always play a specific march whenever she and the President entered a public event, later to be famously known as “Hail to the Chief.” This innovation has also been credited to her immediate successor Sarah Polk.
After leaving the White House, Julia and John retired to his Virginia estate, Sherwood Forest, near Richmond, VA. They raised five daughters and two sons. They both remained interested in politics, through and after the Civil War. Tyler’s death in 1862, was a real blow to her. Julia continued to move in high social circles and championed the nation’s First Ladies. She died in 1889 in Richmond, VA.