First Ladies: Harriet Lane

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Harriet Lane was the niece of bachelor President James Buchanan. She would serve as his First Lady during his presidency.

Harriet Lane

Harriet Rebecca Lane was born on May 9, 1830 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Elliott Tole and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. When she was nine her mother died and two years later her father passed away. Upon becoming an orphan she asked to live with her favorite uncle, James Buchanan. He was then appointed her legal guardian.

Harriet attended boarding schools in Charles Town, Virginia and Washington, DC.

When James Buchanan was minister to the Court of St. James, Harriet joined him in 1854. It is said, ” Queen Victoria gave “dear Miss Lane” the rank of ambassador’s wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty.”

While in England, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, then Prime Minister Palmerston’s attorney general, proposed marriage. This was a union Queen Victoria supported, but Lane turned down the proposal.

Harriet was described as “as a flirty beauty with masses of golden hair and violet eyes”. During her time in the White House, she was known for her “ deeply plunging lace “bertha” collars”.

In 1857, she became First Lady and was a popular hostess. Her brother, Elliott Lane, died of food poisoning from the inauguration dinner of their uncle.

She used her position as First Lady to promote social causes, such as living conditions on the reservations for Native Americans.

Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane was the first hostess in the White House to be referred to as First Lady in print. She also placed the signature furniture in what is now known as the Blue Room.

The president required her to refuse all gifts from foreign powers, of which she said, “Think of my feelings when the lovely lacquered boxes and tables the Japanese Embassy brought me were turned from the door, to say nothing of the music boxes and these fascinating sewing machines they had just invented.”

Upon James Buchanan leaving the presidency in March 1861, Harriet accompanied him to his estate, Wheatland.

On January 11, 1866, at the age of 36, she married Henry Elliot Johnston. The couple would have two sons together before the end of the decade.

In 1881-1882, the Johnston’s lost both son’s. Then in 1884, Harriet was widowed with the death of her husband. Her Uncle James died in 1868 and she inherited his estate, Wheatland.

Harriet Lane Johnston died on July , 1903 in Narragansett, Rhode Island from cancer. She left directions and a financial gift for the construction and upkeep of St. Albans School, which opened in October 1909.

She also dedicated a large amount to establish the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children as a memorial to two sons who had died in childhood at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. This home officially opened in October 1912.

She also donated a large art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in her will.

Harriet Lane even had a presidential yacht named after her. As of 2017, a ship is still in service bearing her name.


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