Who Was the First First Lady?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

The “First Lady” is a title which refers to the official hostess of the White House. Although it is not a firm prerequisite for the title, the First Lady is commonly thought to be the wife of the president. But who was actually the first-ever First Lady?

If you guessed the logical answer, you, of course, said it was Martha Washington. After all, Martha was the wife of the first U.S. president, George Washington. But actually, the title First Lady was never used regarding Martha during her lifetime.

In the early years of U.S. presidents, their wives were referred to by several different monikers. Their titles were often based on the wife's personal preference. The titles “Mrs. President" and “Mrs. Presidentress" were sometimes used.

Martha Washington was often addressed as “Lady Washington.” The wife of John Tyler, our 10th U.S. president, liked to be called “Queen of the House.”

In an 1843 article in the Boston Courier titled "Martha Washington,” the author, a Mrs. Sigourney, wrote: “The First Lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence she left the pillow at dawn, and after breakfast, retired to her chamber for an hour for study of scriptures and devotion.” (June 12, 1843) This was the first known reference to the First Lady in print.

Some sources claim that in 1849 president Zachary Taylor called Dolley Madison First Lady at her state funeral in his eulogy. No actual written copy, however, of the eulogy exists.

By a slight bit of irony, the first woman to definitely be referred to as the First Lady during her term as such, was not the wife of a U.S. president.

Our 15th U.S. president, James Buchanan, was our one and only bachelor president. Therefore, he had no wife to be the official White House hostess. His 27-year-old niece, Harriet Lane, took on the role during Buchanan's term in office (1857-1861) at official White House functions.

In a March 1860 article in Frank Leslie's popular Illustrated Newspaper, Harriet was unofficially (but popularly) dubbed so when she was referred to as "the Lady of the White House,” and by courtesy, "the First Lady of the land.” This was to be the first time a sitting First Lady was actually called a First Lady.

The term gained popularity during Harriet Lane's White House years and it also began to be used retrospectively in referring to former presidents' wives.

The earliest known written evidence of the term being used by a person, as opposed to a newspaper, comes from the diary of William Howard Russell, who wrote in a November 3, 1863 entry, and referred to gossip about the "First Lady of the land" in regard to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The title picked up steam and gained nationwide recognition in 1877 when Mary C. Ames wrote in the New York City newspaper the Independent, describing the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes (at his inauguration). Lucy Webb Hayes was called "the First Lady.” Frequent reporting about Lucy Hayes' activities during Hayes term in office (1877-1881) by the press helped the term gain greater popularity outside Washington.

A popular 1911 comedy play written by playwright Charles Nirdlinger titled First Lady of the Land popularized the sobriquet further. By the 1930's, First Lady was in wide use.


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In late 1958, I was cast as Mary Todd Lincoln in a Columbia Short that was to be called "Violent is the Word for John Wilkes Booth", but Columbia closed down their shorts department a few weeks later, and the film was never made. One positive result was that I met Jules White, who helped me get my role as Sita in “Belly Dancers From Bali-Bali”.
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I found a few, which differ depending on whether you look at pictures of them in their young adult days or their White House days. One took their personalities into account. Jackie Kennedy is always #1. I didn't keep the links because two were from NSFW sites and one was just too mean-spirited.
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