By the time Lucy Ware Webb Hayes moved into the White House, the business of being First Lady was big news. She was the main beat for female journalists who had emerged in the late nineteenth century to challenge the male-dominated industry of reporting. Anxious to keep their jobs and to prove their worth and importance, female reporters increasingly devoted their time and energy to the most visible woman in America. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, that woman was First Lady Lucy Hayes. And as a subject for journalists, Lucy did not disappoint.
Though Lucy Hayes was the first first lady to have a college education, journalists chose not to focus on this aspect of her background. Instead, hundreds of articles, cartoons, and poems were devoted to chronicling and parodying her opposition to drinking. She has been called "Lemonade Lucy" (by later generations not by contemporaries), but it was her husband who decided to ban alcohol from the White House. She was pleased by that decision, but although a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she opposed prohibition. She never drank, but wished to set a good example, and would rather persuade than prevent, refraining from condemning those who used alcohol in moderation. Her tolerance of temperate drinking at times angered ardent total abstainers, but the WCTU paid for a splendid portrait of Lucy by Daniel Huntington before she left the White House.
Lucy refused to adopt temperance as her special project and, in fact, declined to make any one issue her sole focus. As the First Lady of Ohio, Lucy had adopted war orphans, mental institutions, and reform schools as her projects. As First Lady of the United States, however, she rejected pleas from groups requesting her public support for a range of issues, committing herself instead to serving as a moral example to the nation.
Publicly, Lucy Hayes was a poster girl for clean living and high morals. Politically, she was her husband's silent partner, a dramatic change from the outspokenness of Julia Grant. Although it was the First Lady who encouraged the President to complete the monument to George Washington that had been started four decades earlier, she did not in any way become involved in the project. Nevertheless, though Lucy shied away from a politically visible presence, many believed she exerted a strong influence over her husband, not only on this issue but on others as well. It was a view Rutherford B. Hayes seemed to support when he commented, "I don't know how much influence Mrs. Hayes has with Congress, but she has great influence with me."
Although politically mute, Lucy Hayes was a visible social presence in her husband's administration. A skilled and experienced hostess, Lucy found formal events uncomfortable and adopted a more casual style that was reflected in the receptions she held during Washington's winter social season. She asked cabinet wives to help her hostess and urged guests to wear street clothes. During the holidays, she invited staff members and their families to Thanksgiving dinner and opened presents with them on Christmas morning. When Congress no longer allowed the Easter Egg Roll on the Capitol grounds, she offered the White House lawn as a permanent substitute.
Her social calendar also included concerts in the presidential mansion. Music was important to the First Lady and while famous musicians performed downstairs at White House events, informal "sings" occurred upstairs in the family quarters. Lucy sang and played the guitar, and was assisted by the talents of friends and family. At times, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz played the piano while Vice President William A. Wheeler, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, and his brother, Gen. William T. Sherman, joined in singing gospel songs.
If Lucy Hayes stopped short of organizing a White House band, she did not shrink from establishing a White House mini-zoo, conservatory, and First Lady Hall of Fame. Lucy was fond of animals, so much so that a cat, a bird, two dogs, and a goat joined the Hayes family in residence at the White House. She also loved flowers and plants, and had greenhouses built so she could pursue her passion for gardening. Ultimately growing to twelve in number, these buildings required upkeep amounting to twenty-five percent of the White House budget and a crew of ten. When presidential portraits were commissioned for the White House, Lucy insisted that paintings of both Martha Washington and Dolley Madison also grace the walls of the presidential mansion.
But in recognizing the history of her role, Lucy Hayes did more than hang a few pictures. During her tenure as First Lady, she visited with Sarah Polk and journeyed to Martha Washington's Mount Vernon and Dolley Madison's Montpelier. She asked Julia Tyler to help officiate at a White House reception and was friendly with former First Lady Julia Grant. If Lucy Hayes had a sense of her First Lady past, she was also friendly with women who would be future First Ladies, such as Lucretia Garfield, Ida McKinley, and Helen Herron Taft. In fact, Lucretia Garfield would become Lucy's successor when Rutherford B. Hayes declined to run for a second term.
Lucy Hayes was an extremely popular First Lady who set precedents for those who came after her. She was the first in her role to have a college education. She was the first presidential spouse to visit the West Coast while her husband was President. She was the first in her position to become the main beat for female journalists, many of whom used her stand on alcohol to sell newspapers. She was the first to make use of a typewriter, a telephone, and a phonograph while in office, and was also the first to enjoy a permanent system of running water in the White House. And while she was hardly the first to shape the actions of future First Ladies, she drew attention to the contributions of those who came before her, establishing their place of importance not only on the walls of the White House but in the history of the nation.