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January 18, 2017

A Japanese Ball at the White House, 1877-1881

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Lori Williamson @ 11:20 am

This silk satin and brocade reception dress was given to the Society in 1920 as part of several large donations of household goods from the LeDuc family of Hastings, Minnesota. General William Gates LeDuc was a quartermaster in the Civil War and then U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture. He sought his fortune in frontier industries — railroads, mining, real estate, lumber, steamboats and farming.

LeDuc served as Commissioner of Agriculture in the Hayes administration from 1877-1881. Mary embraced Washington social life.  In her letters she wrote about visiting the White House, social events and her wardrobe. She wrote to her daughter Minnie:  “I have a great taste for all this life.”

This dress was called “ashes of roses” by the donor’s entry in the collections register, referring to the name of a popular color in the 1870s and 80s. Typically “ashes of roses” is described as a faded blush color resembling faded pink rose petals.  It was one of the colors popular during the rise of the Aesthetic period, when neutral colors were understood as more tasteful than the new synthetic aniline dyes and their popular bright hues.

Mary LeDuc’s dress with its combination of ashes of roses silk taffeta and white brocade would have been worn during the LeDuc’s residence in Washington between 1877 and 1881. Both Lucy Hayes and Rutherford Hayes kept diaries and entertainment logs during this period. There are various State Dinners and receptions for the Diplomatic Corps noted during the social season each year but no specific mention of a “Japanese Ball.” Thomas Corwin Donaldson, a personal friend of Hayes, noted in his memoirs a communication from the White House doorkeeper, Thomas F. Pendel, that the “receptions and parties they [the Hayeses] gave were the most expensive and costly ever given in the White House. “

These social engagements are also noted in the diary entries of Lucy Scott West, cousin of Mrs. Hayes, who spent the social season of 1878 in Washington. Her diary is full of almost daily receptions, weekly State Dinners and balls in February and March of 1878.  Lucy Scott described one such event on February 16th 1878 that the Japanese minister also attended:

“Thursday night I attended Secretary Evarts Reception & Mrs. Jeffrey’s Ball; both most elegant entertainments but “Oh ye Gods & little fishes” what a crush. Upon my word we were half an hour getting up the steps to the dressing room (at Sec. Evarts) & down again. Every body [sic] & his wife was there & the rooms presented the strange appearance of a dense mass of human beings struggling about helplessly in the most inextricable confusion. Two thousand invitations had been issued. The house is lovely & large enough for airy[any] seasonable festivity. The library, supper room & saloon parlors were thrown open on the first floor & there were two or three lovely little apartments up stairs where you could take yr ease & sip coffee, chocolate, or tea. A great many celebrities were present among others the Japanese minister. . .”

The week before, on Feb 7, 1878, Florence LeDuc wrote to her friend Minnie:

“After all I did not enjoy the President’s reception. There was such a great crowd. Papa does not like crowds but must say go as soon as we have spoken to President & Mrs. Hayes. On Monday night we were invited to the Japanese Minister’s – Papa, Mamma, Minnie went. I did not go.”

The Japanese ambassador,Yoshida Kiyonari, served in Washington D. C. for seven years during both the Grant and Hayes administration. One of his accomplishments concluded in an 1879 commercial treaty with Japan, enabling increased trade between the US and Japan. He also coordinated former President Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879. The Hayes’ formed a particular friendship with Minister Yoshida and his wife. Hayes wrote in 1881. “I shall always cherish most agreeable recollections of the friendship formed with you and Mrs. Yoshida during our late residence at Washington.”

Clearly the Japanese minister and his wife were active in this Washington social life, as were the LeDucs, but the specific occasion for which Mrs. LeDuc wore this dress remains a mystery.

Linda McShannock, Textile Curator

*Special thanks to MNHS textile conservator Ann Frisina for her conservation of this dress and mannequin dressing.

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