Monday, March 20, 2017

The Case for a Museum Dedicated to Francis Folsom

A couple weeks ago one of my friends from Washington D.C. came up to visit and tour Buffalo. On the last day of his visit we were on our way to Founding Fathers when we passed the house where First Lady Francis Folsom grew up. Like me, he's a history buff so we stopped to read the plaque outside the house at which point he remarked that cities like Buffalo needed more museums, little educational centers capable of highlighting the connections our towns and cities have to the broad tapestry of American history. I gave his words some thought as we walked around the rest of Allentown and my mind was continually drawn back to Francis Folsom who I see as one of our more interesting and significant First Ladies our country has ever had. In the annals of American presidential history she is wholly unique. She is the youngest woman to become First Lady doing so at 21(For comparison Jackie Kennedy was 31 and Michelle Obama 45 when they became First Lady). She is also the only woman to be married in the White House, as well as the only woman to give birth while First Lady. However, all these facts, while interesting, amount to little more than trivia. Francis Folsom's significance lies in her portrayal through the newspapers. She was a sensational figure whose actions were heavily scrutinized and whose image was monetized by fashion magazines and hundreds of other strange outlets such as playing cards and smoking pipes. In many ways Francis Folsom was the first celebrity First Lady, a woman whose actions carried intrigue and whose persona captivated much of America.

Francis Folsom was born on July 24th 1864 to Oscar and Emma Folsom. Oscar Folsom was a lawyer partnered with New Jersey born Grover Cleveland. Oscar Folsom was also a wild man who enjoyed racing his carriage, a hobby that cost him his life in 1873 when he crashed his carriage just before Francis's 11th birthday. Despite the loss of her father, Francis Folsom was well cared for by her mother's family and by Grover Cleveland who acted as a guardian for the young woman. In 1882 Cleveland helped Francis attend Wells College one of the first colleges for women in New York State. At Wells she took courses in an eclectic mix of the humanities and corresponded with Cleveland who was climbing the political ladder, moving from Mayor of Buffalo to Governor of New York with an eye on the presidency. In the 1884 election Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated James G. Blaine and by spring of 1885, the same year she graduated from Wells College, Cleveland asked Francis Folsom to marry him.

Cleveland was a private man who didn't want his young bride to be hounded by the newspapers and took precautions in order to keep the press away from Francis as she toured Europe and prepared for married life. The intrigue surrounding Cleveland and his bachelorhood was fodder for the tabloids and many suspected he intended to marry Francis's mother Emma. Thus, when it was revealed that Cleveland would marry Francis, a woman twenty years his junior the press went into a frenzy and she became an instant celebrity. This was only exacerbated by the private nature of the Cleveland-Folsom wedding which featured the couple's immediate family, a few friends, and members of Cleveland's cabinet to whom he hand wrote the invitations. The wedding was so anticipated that when it was announced that Francis and Grover Cleveland were officially wed the entire city of Washington D.C. erupted in a cacophony of church bells, ship horns, and cheers as people celebrated the marriage.

Because of her age, attractiveness, and improvements to camera technology, Francis Folsom became the most visibly recognizable First Lady ever. Women copied her style, and as a young woman she broke significantly from past styles of dress, exposing her shoulders and arms in photographs. With so many women paying attention to Francis Folsom her image became an incredible marketing tool and advertisers used her image to sell sewing machines, medicines, and eventually her husband attempt at reelection in 1888 a move that sparked the Republican party to use Caroline Harrison's image in their advertisements.

Taken from the National First Ladies Library

Poster Featuring President Cleveland and Francis Folsom prior to the Election of 1888 which Cleveland lost. Taken from the Washington Post.

Though Grover Cleveland lost the election of 1888 he and Francis Folsom were back in the White House following the 1892 presidential election. By this point Francis Folsom had given birth to two of the family's children and a third would be born in the White House making the children instant celebrities like their mother. Many speculate that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Folsom's first daughter Ruth. 

While Francis Folsom did not push the boundaries of a First Lady's role in society in the way we associate with modern First Ladies like Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, or Michelle Obama, her presence in the public eye and the obsessive coverage of her actions can be seen as a preview to the modern life of our First Ladies. Her use in the 1888 presidential election also marked a major shift in political gamesmanship as the wives of presidential candidates had never been scrutinized before. She was instrumental to transforming Grover Cleveland's image from that of a coarse Buffalo politician to that of a loving and gentle father.  

Outside of her role as First Lady, Francis Folsom was a strong proponent of women's education, though she was an anti-suffragette. She became a trustee of her alma mater Wells College and worked to give female artists, particularly female musicians opportunities that had historically been denied to them. Later in her life Francis Folsom became the president of the Needleworking Guild and became active in university life at Princeton. She died in October 1947, 51 years after first entering the White House as a young woman. 

Whenever I walk by the Francis Folsom House I'm struck by how interesting yet overlooked the life of Francis Folsom is today. Folsom broke down so many barrier and changed so much about the role of First Lady that I feel like she deserves a museum. Her life in the White House offers a great deal of insight into the culture of journalism and celebrity that existed in the 1880s, as well as the evolution of the role of First Lady. As one of our most unique First Ladies Francis Folsom is a great treasure to Buffalo and deserves greater recognition from the city. Hopefully one day we can walk by her childhood home and take a tour of her life, legacy, and the artifacts and objects produced using her image. 

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