Dining with Buchanan

Over the next few weeks, we will look at some dinnerware objects on our Instagram page. Today’s blog post will reveal what it may have been like to be a dinner guest at Wheatland.

Small Guest Lists

Meals at Wheatland generally had a smaller guest list. Buchanan preferred to entertain smaller dinner parties between two to six guests, like when Mrs. Magaw, Jessie, and Clementina and Laura Pleasonton came to visit in May 1866.

We know that Buchanan had more dinner parties with smaller guest lists through his letters. There are many instances in which he name drops only a few visitors to Wheatland. The Daily Democrat and News in Iowa also published about Buchanan’s daily habits on 20 December 1859. They describe Buchanan as one who “dines plainly.” And so, family, friends, and political figures would experience a more intimate dining experience when visiting Wheatland.

However, there were a few occasions when Buchanan hosted larger dinner parties at Wheatland, such as the 1856 Presidential Campaign and Harriet Lane’s wedding on 11 January 1866. On these occasions, the parlor converted into a dining room. Domestic workers would be tasked with rearranging furniture and using part tables in the broad hall to convert the parlor into a dining space.

Arriving for the Meal

On 12 October 1868, four months after Buchanan’s death, the New York Daily Times published an article describing the dining experience for breakfast and dinner at Wheatland.  Thirty minutes before mealtime, guests would hear a knock at their bedchamber door. This alerted them to make their way downstairs. Upon arriving in the dining room, guests would find Buchanan standing and waiting to greet them.

Meal Service

Meals in the 19th century were commonly served à la Russe, or in the Russian style. This type of dining service compares to the dining service we experience in restaurants today. There are a few key elements to a dining service à la Russe:

  • Place settings include everything (dishware, silverware, etc.) needed for the entire meal
  • Wait staff carry in and serve fully prepared courses in sequential order
  • Wait staff use sideboards to cut dishes (such as meats) and display foods
  • A flower arrangement sits at the center of the table
  • A menu sits at each place setting for formal occasions

Domestic workers would generally serve as waiters during meals. According to Buchanan, they included his stand (known as a personal attendant), and standby workers and chambermaids for busier occasions.

What’s on the Menu?

Though we don’t have records of specific menus served at Wheatland, Buchanan didn’t refrain from speaking about some of his favorite foods. Sauerkraut, strawberries, Delaware shad, Jacob Baer’s rye whiskey, Madeira wine, and ice cream were among his favorites, and guests may have enjoyed these dishes when visiting Wheatland. If strawberries were on the menu, it is likely that they came from Buchanan’s strawberry patch right on the Wheatland grounds.

Interested in learning more about some of the objects that may have been present at a dinner party at Wheatland? Be sure to check out our Instagram for weekly updates!

Photograph of the Dining Room at Wheatland
The Dining Room at Wheatland

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House