FREMONT — First Lady Lucy Hayes and two of her children were enjoying the White House conservatory in early 1879 when famed Civil War artist Theodore R. Davis visited.
A lacy fern leaf, she said, would be a good motif for the set of fine china she planned to order for the White House. That simple idea evolved as Mr. Davis suggested a variety of native American flora and fauna, and she agreed. Showcasing all regions of the country would nurture pride in the wake of the horrendous War Between the States.
Over the next six months, Mr. Davis, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine, painted 70 wildlife designs that she approved and sent to the Haviland company in Limoges, France, a region known for its hard-paste clay that resulted in bright-white, chip-resistant china that took and maintained color beautifully.
Several of those pieces and 200 more are displayed in the Gilded Age of Haviland China, through Sept. 16 at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.
Mrs. Hayes ordered 600 pieces suitable for serving captains of industry and foreign dignitaries: soup, salad, dinner, dessert, and oyster plates; platters for fowl, fish, and meat; soup tureens; tea and coffee cups and saucers. The terrific set, still on view in the White House China Room, was used by President Gerald Ford for congressional breakfasts and by President Richard Nixon for ash trays. President Jimmy Carter’s family is said to have made sure little Amy Carter always got the plate with the wolf on it, which she hated, much to her older brothers’ glee, said Thomas Culbertson, executive director of the center.
Haviland was founded in 1842 by David Haviland, a Quaker and a New York importer, who established a factory in central France despite resistance from the French. He and his sons hired excellent artists, and used the best technology and raw materials (available then in only two other places: Germany and China).
The result was decorative art bearing floral, animal, and Japanese-style motifs, often encircled by cobalt blue and trimmed with 22-karat gold paint. It was collected by Judy Garland, President William McKinley, Samuel Clemens, J. Edgar Hoover, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Margaret "Unsinkable Molly" Brown. President Ulysses S. Grant is said to have sent his American wildflower paintings to be copied onto china.
The exhibit includes rare figurine vases dating to 1845-1865, a punch bowl set with a delicate rose pattern, charming chocolate pots, and deviled-egg and lobster plates. Clam chowder and oyster tureens sport clam and oyster handles, and a stunning little tea set is stark white with just a few butterflies on each piece and whimsical butterfly handles.
On the hygienic side are tooth and shaving-brush jars, soap dishes, and chamber-pot sets with basin, pitcher, and slop jars aka "thunder mugs".
The exhibit came about after Mr. Culbertson spoke at a meeting of the Haviland Collectors International Foundation in Toledo and members asked if the Hayes Museum would host an exhibit. Five regional collectors loaned objects, including Janice Stockman from North Toledo. She discovered Haviland about 40 years ago when she was charmed by eight pieces and snagged them at a neighbor’s estate sale for $2.
"It took me another 35 years to find cups and saucers to match," said Ms. Stockman, a retired machine operator from GM Powertrain.
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com or 419-724-6075.
IF YOU GO:
The Gilded Age of Haviland China continues through Sept. 16 at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. Admission is $7.50; $6.50 for people aged 60 and above and those with a AAA membership; $3 for ages 6 to 12. The same admission is charged separately for tours of the Hayes home. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and holidays; closed Monday. Information: 800-998-7737 and rbhayes.org.