The practice of selecting the official state service for the President’s House dates back to 1789, when George Washington first held the prestigious office of president of the United States. However, the tradition wasn’t formally acknowledged until Mary Todd Lincoln became First Lady in the 1860s—around the same time that afternoon tea was rising in popularity in England—and she selected a state porcelain service and commissioned a silver service, including a teapot, from the Gorham Silver Company.
“Historically speaking, [commissioning] china services has fallen under the umbrella of household functions, which traditionally have fallen to the office of the First Lady,” Matthew Costello, senior historian with The White House Historical Association remarks. “However, that doesn’t mean the presidents weren’t interested in selecting china services. In fact, there are quite a few examples of presidents interested in the design, as they were keenly aware that the service would have their surname attached to it.”
As the roles and duties of the United States presidency were first being established, the government appropriated funds to stock the nation’s first capital, a house located in New York City. According to Matthew, the Washingtons used a portion of those funds to obtain dinnerware, which likely included exports from France and China. However, Matthew also noted that several early presidents most likely brought china from their personal households or used china left behind in the President’s House because it was purchased by the government.
“The early presidents were wealthy people, so they could bring china they already had with them to The White House,” Matthew notes. “That really changed during the James Monroe administration, when a dinner and dessert service for specific use by the president was ordered from France.”