DES MOINES, IA.- They were maids, cooks, butlers, doormen, electricians and all the people who kept the country’s most famous household running efficiently. Covering 200 years of White House service, their narratives provide a rare and intimate perspective on the ceremonies, elegant state dinners, national celebrations and heartbreaking tragedies that shape and make United States history.
The workers and their unique stories are the subject of the The Working White House: 200 Years of Tradition and Memories, an upcoming exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). The tour, which debuts Sept. 6 at the State Historical Society of Iowa and continues to 12 cities during the next four years, is developed with and supported by the White House Historical Association, with assistance from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The exhibition will travel to Anniston, Ala., Canton, Ohio, Atlanta, Baldwin Park, Calif., Kennesaw, Ga., Hyde Park, N.Y., Logan, Kan., California, Pa., Little Rock, Ark., and Ontario, Calif.
"The Working White House gives exhibit visitors a rare view of the inner workings of America’s most renowned residence through the experiences, firsthand accounts and one-of-a-kind artifacts of the largely unrecognized people crucial to the everyday lives of our first families,” said Neil W. Horstman, president of WHHA. “For two centuries, workers at the White House have witnessed history in the making and, in the process, they have created their own. We are pleased to share that proud history with the nation.”
The exhibition showcases the souvenirs, housekeeping implements, clothing, letters, menus, photographs and other objects to help illustrate the full story of the presidential residence. New interviews conducted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and WHHA staffers with past workers provide eyewitness accounts of White House work culture and will be included in an audio tour and exhibition video. Veteran doorman Preston Bruce shared a particularly painful White House memory from 1963. “It was sad, very sad,” said Bruce of the hours following President Kennedy’s funeral ceremony. “When we came back from Arlington, Robert [Kennedy] pulled off his gloves and said to me, ‘Keep these gloves and remember always that I wore them to my brother’s funeral.’” Robert F. Kennedy’s gray gloves, featured in the exhibition, bear the memory of that difficult time for a family and the nation.
With memories and household treasures from the presidencies of William Taft through George W. Bush, visitors will take a walk behind the scenes at the White House, guided by the men and women who managed every detail of the inner workings at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “I had to produce glossy, smooth confections on an almost daily basis at the White House,” said former executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier. He developed his own signature chocolate-tempering techniques and used them to delight White House guests for more than 25 years. Mesnier’s plastic chocolate mold from the1990s, designed to yield nine candies embossed with the presidential seal, is on view in the exhibition.
“Behind the scenes, the workers of the White House welcomed and helped guide new administrations and got to know the American presidents as few could,” said Anna R. Cohn, director of SITES. “While Americans don’t know them, it’s clear that the presidents, first ladies and their children did and came to deeply honor their service.”