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Lobsters and Snowshoes: The Hayes Presidential Service

By Elizabeth A. Williams
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Theodore Russell Davis, Seafood Plate (detail), ca. 1880. Gift of Christopher Monkhouse.

Theodore Russell Davis, designer
American, 1840–1894
Haviland & Company, manufacturer
American and French, 1864–1931
Seafood Plate and Ice Cream Dish from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Service, 1879–1880
Porcelain with enamels and gilding
Gift of Christopher Monkhouse 2003.111; Gift of Daphne Farago 82.022

A chance meeting between the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes and Theodore Davis, an illustrator and journalist for Harper’s Weekly, in the White House conservatory produced one of the most extraordinary dinner services. The First Lady was selecting botanical samples to be used for the decoration of the presidential service, which had already been contracted with Haviland. On the spot, Davis suggested that Mrs. Hayes use depictions of flora and fauna native to North America, thus celebrating the naturalistic bounty of the country. Mrs. Hayes was in favor of the idea and Davis became the designer of the service, producing 130 distinct decorations for the 562 pieces made for nine courses. Each decoration was drawn by hand, etchings were made to transfer the outlines, basic colors were applied via chromolithographic and decalcomania processes, and finally enamel details and gilding were added by hand.

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Theodore Russell Davis, Seafood Plate, ca. 1880. Gift of Christopher Monkhouse.

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Theodore Russell Davis, Ice Cream Dish, 1879. Gift of Daphne Farago.

The distinct designs ornamenting each piece of the presidential service not only echo the era’s interest in nature, America’s bold pursuit of exploration, and a great spirit of nationalism, they also often indicate the type of food that was to be served on them. The lobster riding the surf in to meet a crab on the shore leaves little doubt as to what the diner would soon enjoy. Creating a wintery ambiance, the gilded snowshoe on a radiant rose background would appear to be covered with snow as the ice cream melted. The three gilded lobster claws on which the seafood plate rests speak to the great detail that Davis bestowed upon his naturalistic designs.

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Theodore Russell Davis, Ice Cream Dish (detail), 1879. Gift of Daphne Farago.

All pieces of the service featured a polychrome version of the seal of the President of the United States, in which an eagle with outstretched wings holds arrows and an olive branch. The seal design used by President Hayes debuted in April 1877 and is the model for the current presidential seal. The ice cream dish bears the marks of pieces belonging to the original service delivered to the White House in 1879: an inscription stating that the pieces were made by Haviland after the designs of Theodore R. Davis, in red above his signature in black; a cipher composed of the artist’s initials (T in blue and D in red pennants hanging from a crossbow), with 1879 below “Limoges Haviland & Co.”; and “H&Co.” stamped in green. The 1880 patent date on the seafood plate indicates that it was part of a limited number of pieces made by Haviland for public sale, which were marked the same as the presidential pieces with the exception of the absence of the 1879 cipher; the cipher was replaced with the patent mark of August 10, 1880, no. 1193.

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Theodore Russell Davis, Seafood Plate (back), ca. 1880. Gift of Christopher Monkhouse.

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Theodore Russell Davis, Ice Cream Dish (back), 1879. Gift of Daphne Farago.

The Haviland presidential service arrived at the White House on June 30, 1879, accompanied by an 88-page booklet produced by the company entitled The White House Service Porcelain Service, Designs by an American Artist, illustrating exclusively American Fauna and Flora, 1879. The booklet contained an introduction listing the 16 artists involved in the service’s production, a list of the service’s composition and their decorative subjects, and 67 pen-and-ink drawings of pieces with descriptions of the scenes depicted.

For further information on this and other presidential services, see Official White House China: 1789 to the Present by Margaret Brown Klapthor (Barra Foundation, Inc., in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999).

Elizabeth A. Williams
RISD Museum Curator of Decorative Arts and Design