Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Washing, Waxing & Cleaning the President's House

Mary Kaltman works with chef on 1965 Christmas Cookies in White House Kitchen. Photo courtesy White House Historical Association.
Lady Bird Johnson had Mary Kaltman as food-coordinator-housekeeper and for a while she did the same for the Nixons in the White House. She wrote a book Keeping Up With Keeping House: A Practical Guide for the Harried Housewife for those female denizens against dust (known in the day as homemakers) who wanted the information on how to perform the domestic arts in grand style. In school, the subject used to be called Home Ec (for Home Economics), which made cooking and cleaning a subject for mostly girls. In prior years, Mrs. Mary E. Sharpe took upon herself as the housekeeper to make President Truman's waistline trim.

But Mrs. Kaltman was tough enough to send the domestic side of the Johnson white House into domestic hostility, sometimes famous in the East Wing. Seems she and the oo-la-la famed French chef, Verdon René, hired in April 1961 for his epicurean skills, ran into the budget minded housekeeper/Queen of Food at the White House who insisted on frozen foods, recipes from a common book and a president that wanted his fish slathered in sauce with the skin still on. Mon Dieu. They had a similar arrangement to what the Obama Family has now - on the second floor Sam Kass is in charge of the personal meals and he came with them from Chicago while the Executive Chef handles state functions. A hundred years earlier another battle ended as Mary Todd Lincoln had the housekeeping staff report directly to her. Now, that subject is split into two functions at the Executive Mansion, with cleaning it and cooking for it being two different, yet equal professional career paths. (Sasha clearly knows the ropes and speaks to one of the long tenured White House butlers about exactly what she wants while the First Granny looks on.)

Using the latest tools in 1955, the spic and span brigades wore ties while sanding, cleaning and waxing in the East Room during the Eisenhower era. Photo courtesy the White House Historical Association from a series on the Working White House and the national Archives and Records Administration.

The Cross Hall and Grand Foyer getting a thorough polishing in the Obama White House.

Wiping down, waxing a nations antiques, polishing heirloom silver and vacuuming the nap only one way on priceless rugs every day in the White House is akin to auto detailing a pristine parade of 100 Rolls Royces every 24 hours. Mrs. Kaltman believed in good old fashioned elbow grease and did not cotton to fancy tools or words. Her successor Shirley Bailey was of the same mind and used paste wax, one male person polished the brass fixtures and cleaned the little chandelier danglies day in and day out. She had her folks hand ironing all the linen napkins for events after they came out of the industrial strength washers and dryers. (From the Reagan era vacuuming the Blue Room)

There is a wonderful movie, Back stairs at the White House made on the life of an early twentieth century maid. Many of those at the White House worked for the first family while also working with an aunt, uncle, mother, father and brother. No matter the messes made, memoirs and anecdotes focus on the history and the occasions rather than any grist for the mill. Many serve for decades. An amusing anecdote shared by first lady Hillary Clinton came at the hands of an exuberant tween, Chelsea who had entertained friends with a movie. The popcorn did not exactly land in mouths and Hillary was horrified. The White House staff was in shock as Hillary had Chelsea clean up every kernel and they were not allowed to help. Kind of like Sasha & Malia have no bed service in the mornings - bed made with their own hands before leaving for school and they must help carry in the dishes in the morning for their breakfast.

From 1877, the staff/servants during Lucy Hayes' time as first lady. Almost sixty years later the staff was integrated by Eleanor Roosevelt. She felt the need to make White House domestic staff help African Americans only which kept wages lower and reduced any rancor. Photo courtesy Hayes Administration and Bob Cesca.

The Smithsonian has an exhibit, The Working White House, traveling the nation for the next two years about the Working White House and the staff that makes the Executive Residence run amidst thousands of daily events, an active family, and it being the home of the American head of state with an ambitious entertaining schedule. Christine Limerick, the Chief housekeeper during the Clinton years makes appearances to discuss what happens off camera and what the staff does in their daily and special circumstances. There are butlers, ushers, a presidential valet and a small staff of housekeepers who are mindful of the products they use on the nation's antiques. Laura Bush toted up almost 1500 formal events in eight years. That's a heap of cleaning done with dedication and attention to every fine detail. (Shirley Bailey on the second floor residence in the Nixon White house early 1970's.)

Shirley Bailey in 1970 learned her craft working for hoteliers before setting her keen eye about the executive mansion. The job always has perils such as the hate between the president and the person in charge of the food in the 1930s & !940s. Henrietta Nesbitt as the stern housekeeper overseeing cooking for FDR & Eleanor Roosevelt courted fame for the lousiness of the food served during her tenure. In 1926, single lady Miss Ellen Reilly was hired as the head of housekeeping for the White House and even traveled with President Calvin Coolidge being hired from managing a cafeteria at a retailing outfit in Boston. Blair House, the presidential guest house, has the same attention to excellence and the opportunities to transfer over to the White House when an opening becomes available allows them to serve the president directly.

Its not only the floors, walls, and dishes that get a good scrubbing in the White House. Liberty could usually be found in the Oval Office, but here is Susan Ford with Frankie Blair providing a vigorous doggy bath.


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