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Lawrence County Museum Celebrating Women Who Stood Beside The Presidents

Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013

(BEDFORD) - Presidents’ Day is Feb. 18, and the Lawrence County Museum of History is honoring the holiday by celebrating women who stood beside the presidents.

Becky Buhler reports that the February feature of the month celebrates the U.S. first ladies by highlighting a recently received collection, Hostesses of the White House, by Lois Wiley. The doll collection was donated to the museum by Wiley's daughter, Ruth Godsey of Fayetteville. When Ruth was a child, her mother created story book dolls for her, but Lois also crocheted tablecloths and doilies. Lois liked to stay busy, and she loved to crochet.

Lois found the idea for creating the hostess collection in a magazine. Most likely, it was Workbasket Magazine, which was published for 60 years and used by many creative homemakers. The White House hostesses were usually the first ladies, but when a spouse was unavailable, the president chose someone to serve as official hostess. Often it was a relative of the president, but once it was a future first lady, which was the case when Thomas Jefferson called upon both his daughter, Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph, and also the future first lady, Dolley Madison.

Lois lovingly recreated miniatures of each dress, crocheting an artistic rendering of each gown. If she didn't already have the correct crochet thread color, she would order the right color from the Lee Wards catalog. When completed, she placed the dresses on 8-inch-tall dolls.

The collection begins with Martha Washington. When George Washington was elected president in 1789, Martha Washington was 58 years old. She would not have been called the "first lady," because that term had not yet been coined. She filled the role as presidential hostess with dignity. She presided over weekly receptions at the temporary seat of government in New York City. She was Washington's helpmate when the seat of government moved to Philadelphia. Martha did have style, and, on average, the Washingtons each spent between $600 and $800 a year on clothing. Lois created Martha Washington's outfit by crocheting a pink dress with a white shawl.

The last gown Lois completed was of first lady Barbara Bush. For the 1989 inauguration of the 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, Mrs. Bush chose a sapphire blue velvet-and-satin gown by designer Arnold Scaasi.

Lois broke her hip and was unable to continue the hostess project. She died March 6, 1997, in Bloomington. Lois was a homemaker, a member of the Fairview United Methodist Church, member and past president of Pleasant Hour Home Demonstration Club and Monroe County United Ministries. She was an honorary member of the Monroe County Fair Board, and a member of the Monroe County Red Cross where she taught first aid. She was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star and the Social Order of the Beauceant. She was indeed a busy woman, and you will enjoy her creations.

If you like dolls, and if you like hand-made textiles, go to the museum's first floor gallery and enjoy this array of 41 dolls. You will also find a booklet describing the presidential first ladies and where possible, pictures of their inaugural gowns.

Anyone interested in helping the museum update this collection by creating inaugural gowns for Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama can contact the Lawrence County Museum of History at (812) 278-8575 or email Rowena Cross-Najafi, president of the Lawrence County Historical and Genealogical Society, at president.lchgs@hpcisp.com.

Museum Corner is a monthly feature highlighting events and exhibits at the Lawrence County Museum of History.

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