Mary Lincoln’s Shopping Habits in Perspective

Mary Lincoln

Mary Lincoln’s shopping habits and most other aspects of her life made news once Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) won the presidential election of 1860.

Though Lincoln would not take office until March of 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) found herself under constant scrutiny for where she went, what she purchased, and what she said from November 1860 forward. Mary, who came from a well-to-do family, understood the pressure she was under and wanted to succeed at fulfilling the role of First Lady.

Press reports then and now have subjected Mary to great criticism for her spending habits. While she ultimately caused great stress for herself and the President over her expenditures, her shopping can be better understood when examined in context.

Growing Up to Become Mary Todd Lincoln

ML striped dress

Mary Todd grew up in a wealthy family in Lexington, Kentucky. When Mary was 7, her mother died and her father remarried shortly after. Mary and her six other siblings felt emotionally isolated from Robert Todd’s new wife and family, however, they still received the benefits of an upper-class lifestyle as well as a sound education.

Though the Todds were well off, there were so many children (15 children from Robert Todd’s two wives survived beyond infancy) that a single “sewing woman” could not make everything the family needed. As a result, Mary and her sisters learned to make some of their own clothing. They took pride in their work and followed the current fashions so that their creations were as up-to-date as possible.

Mary Todd Meets Abraham Lincoln

Mary Todd was visiting her married sister in Springfield, Illinois when she met a young local attorney, Abraham Lincoln. Mary had always been very clear about aspiring to marry a man who might find himself in the White House. Though their relationship was off-and-on for a time, Mary’s acceptance of Abraham’s proposal would indicate that she thought the homespun, down-to-earth attorney was filled with potential.

Mary Lincoln

They married in 1842 and made their home in Springfield in a house located at 8th and Jackson Streets. (The home and neighborhood have been preserved and are open for tours.)

During these years, Mary was described as a mother who loved her boys and enjoyed having neighborhood children in the house.  She was also known for her frugality. Money for the Lincoln family was tight, and Mary was careful about what she spent.

Since Mary came into her marriage with excellent sewing skills, she may have used them to make some things for the family. Historians have not been able to document that she owned a sewing machine while living in Springfield, but her purchase of fabric from the dry goods store (and the family’s lack of money for hiring a seamstress) has caused some historians to speculate that she may have had access to a friend’s machine.

From Springfield Wife to First Lady

When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, Mary had enjoyed a previous glimpse of Washington, D.C. She and the children joined Lincoln for several months of the time he served in Congress (1847-1849).  Her background as a member of Lexington, Kentucky’s upper class also gave her an understanding of what it would mean to move in Washington social circles.

Mary knew that some people felt that Abraham Lincoln’s western roots meant the new first family lacked social sophistication, and Mary would have felt it important that her wardrobe convey that she was educated, well mannered, politically informed, and patriotic.

WH 1860s

Before the family was to travel to Washington, Mary went to Chicago to shop so that she would have some of the fine clothing she felt would be expected of her when she moved into the White House.

Merchants were delighted for the business, and everywhere, they extended credit to her. Having the President’s wife procure items from one’s shop was good for business.

Shopped for the White House as Well

Though shopping for the White House when the country was sinking into crisis may seem inappropriate to us today, an understanding of the times puts this in perspective.  Despite the specter of war, Congress allotted $20,000 for Mary to use to re-furbish the White House shortly

Unfortunately, Mary overspent this allotment by $6,000, which angered the President. He pointed out that to overspend the allotment at a time when “the poor soldiers could not have blankets” was wrong, and he covered the excess expenditures out of his own pocket.

Wardrobe Also High on her List

Once the family occupied the White House, she frequently traveled to New York City to shop for items for the house as well as things she felt she needed for her wardrobe. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written: “Mary’s self-conscious attention to the details of her bonnet was not entirely misplaced. Newspaper reports of her evening receptions invariably commented on every piece of her apparel.”


Mary was also urged to buy imported goods.  The President and his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, told her it was important for foreign countries to see that the North would continue to trade with other countries. To some extent, this made the wearing of rich clothing seem like a patriotic duty.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article I wear with critical curiosity,” Mary said to her White House seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly, who later wrote a book, Behind the Scenes, in which she writes of this conversation.

Not All Press Reports Can Be Assumed to be True

Biographers have also noted that not all reports of Mary’s shopping trips can be documented.  One story concerned a trip to New York made by Mary Lincoln and her friend Mrs. Elizabeth Grimsley. They were said to have purchased some extraordinarily expensive shawls, but biographer Jean H. Baker writes that Elizabeth Grimley said that the two of them had not even visited the stores that were mentioned, and Baker quotes a letter where Mrs. Grimsley wrote that “[the newspaper article was the nearest she ever came to having such a shawl.”

 Kid Gloves: A Major Extravagance?

Then and now, much has been made of Mary Todd Lincoln’s purchase of three hundred pairs of kid gloves procured during the first four months of 1865. Yet Donna McCreary, who writes extensively on Mary Lincoln and fashion, writes that there were many reasons that this purchase can not be fully assessed. In her essay included in The Enigma of Mary Lincoln: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady, McCreary writes that at that time, ladies were required to wear gloves for all social activities except eating, so any woman would naturally own several pairs.

kid gloves

McCreary also notes that because the bill lacks detail, no one knows if the gloves purchased also included gloves for her sons and husband. (Men wore gloves if they were dressing for an occasion.) Mary was also known for expecting bargains, and perhaps a bulk purchase brought down the cost per item.

But let’s suppose that three hundred pairs of gloves were purchased for Mary’s exclusive use, McCreary again points out that throughout the war the Lincolns had maintained the tradition of holding weekly receptions at the White House. Mary clearly would have needed many gloves. What’s more, kid gloves were not laundered; soiled pairs were discarded.  If Mary used ten pairs of gloves per week, then three hundred pairs would have been a seven-month supply.

So while Mary Lincoln’s purchase of the gloves may well be a sign that her spending was veering out of control, McCreary writes: “The modern historian will never know [if Mary had use for them or if they were a sign of mania.]”

Mary Lincoln Did Have a Shopping Problem

While certain purchases can be justified and explained, Mary Lincoln—when viewed overall—did have a shopping problem. As her debts grew, Mary Lincoln looked for ways to hide her expenditures in other budget categories, which of course angered all involved.

Ultimately, one of her main concerns about Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 had to do with her debts. She knew that if he was re-elected, her lines of credit would not come due, and she might have an opportunity to continue her efforts at creative accounting.  However, if he lost, she was becoming aware that she could bring on them financial ruin.

The President is Killed

Mary Lincoln in mourning

Mary Lincoln may have had a few days to breathe somewhat more easily about her purchases, but then the couple made the fateful trip to Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was assassinated.

Mary was incapable of rising to the occasion of such a tragedy and did not even attend her husband’s funeral. For four weeks she remained fully entrenched in the White House, unwilling to vacate it so that vice president Johnson could move in.

Finally she moved out. After staying with friends for a bit, she began traveling in the U.S. and Europe, and continued shopping for herself as well as sending numerous items home for her family.  Travel and shopping were the two elements of Mary’s life that seemed to make her happy.

Just as many addictions begin innocently enough, Mary Lincoln’s shopping may have started as an activity for which there was a valid reason. Soon, however, she slipped into buying habits she couldn’t control.

Today readers are left with little but speculation as to when Mary Lincoln’s shopping was a “necessary” part of serving as First Lady, and when it became an obsession.


To read about the former slave who spent many years as Mary Lincoln’s seamstress, click here: Elizabeth Keckley: Slave Turned Entrepreneur.

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