The role of first lady is ambiguous. It is not an elected position, and the Constitution is silent on the issue. By custom, the first lady is the official hostess of White House social functions. More recently, first ladies have become spokespersons for social and charitable causes.
By default, the position has been assumed by the wife of the president, but on several occasions, the responsibilities were assumed by a relative or friend. For this four-part series, non-spouses who assumed the role of official White House hostess are included alongside the traditional first ladies.
For Part 1 of this 4-part series, click here.
13. Priscilla Cooper Tyler, 1842-1844
First Lady Letitia Tyler was semi-invalid and unable to fulfill the duties of White House hostess. The responsibilities fell to President Tyler’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper Tyler. Although her role was as an acting first lady, she was the first First Lady, acting or otherwise, to travel with the president as an official member of the presidential party.
14. Julia Gardiner Tyler, 1844-1845
John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, passed away in 1842. Less than two years later, the president eloped with his second wife, Julia. She became the first of the first ladies to be photographed. She was the one responsible for the custom of playing “Hail to the Chief” upon the president’s arrival.
15. Sarah Childress Polk, 1845-1849
James Polk’s wife worked as the president’s secretary without taking a salary, and forbid dancing and card playing in the White House. Following her devout Presbyterian faith, she forbade the consumption of alcohol in the White House, earning her the nickname “Sahara Sarah,” due to the White House being “as dry as the desert.”
16. Margaret “Peggy” Taylor, 1849-1850
Zachary Taylor’s wife learned to shoot a gun when she lived with her husband on the Western frontier. When she lived in the White House, she refused to serve as hostess, giving that role to their daughter Betty Taylor Bliss. She refrained from social activities, saying that she promised God she would give up the pleasures of society if her husband returned home safely from war. During the presidential campaign, she prayed for her husband’s defeat, dreading the implications for their lives if they had to move to the White House.
17. Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Bliss, 1849-1850
Although Margaret Taylor was officially the first lady during the Zachary Taylor administration, she delegated that role to their daughter, Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Bliss. The youngest of the five Taylor daughters, she became known as the “Wild Rose of the White House.” Betty charmed Washington society with her simple, unadorned fashion and outgoing personality.
18. Abigail Fillmore, 1850-1853
Millard Fillmore’s wife was the first presidential spouse to work and earn a salary before marriage—as a schoolteacher. When she was 23 years old and teaching at Hope Academy, she had 19-year-old Millard Fillmore as one of her pupils. They married five years later. The year her husband was elected as vice president, she broke her ankle. The injury never fully healed and sent her health into decline. She died three weeks after leaving the White House.
19. Jane Pierce, 1853-1857
Franklin Pierce’s wife discouraged her husband’s interest in politics. On the way to Washington for his inauguration, their family was involved in a train accident. Their 11-year-old son, Bennie, was killed before their eyes. Jane fell into a deep depression and was referred to as “The Ghost of the White House” due to her almost total reclusiveness during her husband’s administration.
20. Harriet Rebecca Lane, 1857-1861
James Buchanan was the only president to remain as a bachelor. His niece, Harriet Rebecca Lane, took on the role of White House hostess. Her beauty, brains, and graceful style earned her great popularity in this role. A popular song of the day, “Listen to the Mockingbird” was written in her honor. She was the “Sweet Hallie” who was mentioned in the lyrics.
21. Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861-1865
Abraham Lincoln’s wife fell under suspicion during the Civil War because of her family’s Southern connections. Congress convened a secret inquiry to determine whether she was involved in espionage on behalf of the Confederacy. Her husband learned of this and showed up at the committee’s meeting to offer surprise testimony. After the president’s assassination, Mary had a mental breakdown and was committed to an institution by her son.
22. Eliza McCardle Johnson, 1865-1869
Andrew Johnson was unable to read at the time of his marriage to Eliza McCardle. Being a schoolteacher, she took on the responsibility of teaching her husband how to read, write, and do arithmetic. Tuberculosis prevented her from performing her duties as first lady. She made only two public appearances during her husband’s administration. Instead, their daughter Martha Patterson served as White House hostess.
23. Martha Johnson Patterson, 1865-1869
Because of her mother’s illness, Martha, the eldest child of Andrew and Eliza Johnson, served as the White House hostess during her father’s administration. She oversaw a massive renovation of the White House, fixing it up from the disrepair that had occurred during the Civil War. The $300,000 project repaired and replaced furniture, replaced tobacco-stained floors, applied new wallpaper, and many other features to make the mansion respectable again.
24. Julia Boggs Dent Grant, 1869-1877
Ulysses S. Grant’s wife was cross-eyed. This fact led to many unflattering comments about her appearance during their eight years in the White House. A newspaper reporter said, “She ain’t near as handsome as you think and keeps the lights low so no one can see her well.” Embarrassed by her appearance, she considered corrective surgery, but her husband stopped her, saying he preferred her just the way she was.
25. Lucy Ware Webb Hayes, 1877-1881
Like her predecessor, Sarah Polk, the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes was strongly opposed to alcohol. Her stance earned her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.” She started the practice of having the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.
26. Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, 1881
James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin just four months into his term. He died two months later. Consequently, Lucretia Garfield’s tenure as first lady was brief. Shortly after moving into the White House, she contracted malaria and went to New Jersey to recuperate. While there, she received word of her husband’s shooting and returned to Washington, DC to be the primary caretaker for the president. After his death, the public showed their love and concern for the widowed Lucretia by raising nearly $360,000 to support her.
27. Mary Arthur McElroy, 1881-1885
Chester A. Arthur’s wife Ellen Arthur died from pneumonia nearly two years before he ascended to the presidency. His sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, served as White House hostess. She lacked the skill and time to work effectively in this role, however, and invited two of her predecessors, Julia Tyler and Harriet Lane, to assist.