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Dress made by Elizabeth Keckley

Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown

Mary Todd Lincoln’s silver service

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861



Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was intelligent, witty, keenly supportive of her husband’s political career, a devoted wife, and an attentive mother. Early in their lives, she was the first to realize Lincoln’s potential for national leadership and the presidency. She alone had wooed a most remarkable human being to be her life’s companion, and this was done contrary to the wishes of her socially prominent relatives, with whom she was living at the time of her engagement. They considered Lincoln to be inferior.

Yet a vein of antagonism ran deeply through Mary Todd Lincoln, which surfaced inexplicably at times. Often her wrath was excited by little more than her own imaginings and self-delusions. Just as her husband took pains never to give offense, Mary Todd seemingly never let opportunities escape her.

If not always gracious, Mary Todd Lincoln could always be counted on to give the administration a sense of style and fashion. A compulsive shopper, the first lady delighted in refurnishing the presidential mansion, overspending the twenty thousand dollars Congress had allotted. She was just as lavish on herself, especially in her wardrobe and jewelry. Her dresses were designed and made to her specifications, regardless of cost. On one gown alone she spent two thousand dollars. As her personal debts grew and grew, they added to her husband’s many war-related vexations.

According to one source, this photograph of Mary Todd, wearing a meticulously fashioned black dress with coordinated black jewelry, is believed to have been taken in the autumn of 1863. She was still in mourning for her eleven-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever in February 1862. Willie’s death precipitated his mother’s rapid psychological decline, which would become almost clinical after the president’s assassination in April 1865.

Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–1883)
Collodian glass-plate negative, circa 1863
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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