James Buchanan’s White House China

On the afternoon of April 19, 2023, I attended the inurnment ceremony of a relative at Arlington National Cemetery. Knowing I would be staying in the Washington D.C. area, I reached out to the office of Congressman Lloyd Smucker to see if I could participate in a public tour of the White House in the morning. When I learned that my request had been approved and that the White House China Room was part of the tour, I contacted the Office of the Curator for the White House. I was interested to see three pieces of Buchanan’s White House china which are on loan from LancasterHistory to the White House. Only a few months earlier, I renewed the loan and thought this would be an excellent opportunity to photograph the pieces for our records and to learn more about the room and its contents.

The White House China Room

As part of the self-guided public tours of the White House, visitors to the White House are given the opportunity to peek into the White House China Room. In this instance, “China” does not refer to the country, but to examples of state service china selected and used by presidents as far back as George Washington. These china pieces are displayed in built-in wall cases lining three of the four walls in the room. Seven pieces of various patterns owned and used by President James Buchanan (1857-1861) are located on the west wall in the first case from the left on the second shelf, directly above china used by the Lincolns. Three pieces on the far left of the shelf, including the shell-shaped pickle dish and matching demitasse cup and saucer, are on loan from LancasterHistory to the White House. They are exhibited with additional pieces of Buchanan’s china that are part of the permanent White House collection.

Two individuals standing in front of the cabinet pointing to the Buchanan china on exhibit.
James McMahon, Curator, Lancaster History on left and Donna Hayashi Smith, Associate Curator of Collections/Registrar, Office of the Curator for the White House examining the Buchanan china.

Knowing that I would be in Washington for a public tour of the White House and having recently renewed the loan of the Buchanan china pieces to the White House, I reached out to Donna Hayashi Smith, Associate Curator of Collections/Registrar, Office of the Curator for the White House who coordinated the renewal of the loan. She graciously agreed to provide “behind the rope” access to the China Room so that I could take a closer look at all the Buchanan objects.

From Harriet Lane to the Virginia Governor’s Mansion to the White House

The story of how these three Buchanan pieces ended up at the White House (and the remainder of the service collection returned to Lancaster) is interesting. James Buchanan divided up his furniture and belongings between various family members, including his younger brother Edward Buchanan, niece Harriet Lane Johnston, and nephew James Buchanan Henry. Many of the objects that have been donated to LancasterHistory have come from the descendants of the Buchanan, Johnston, and Henry families. In this particular instance, however, the china collection took a more roundabout route.

Built in china cupboard containing two different china patterns.
Built in china corner cupboard, Wheatland dining room. Sevres pattern lower two shelves, Pink Parisian pattern top three shelves.

The three pieces on loan to the White House were part of a 200+ dinner service collection passed from Harriet Lane Johnston to her cousin Katherine W. Riddle. A later descendant gave the collection to a friend who later donated the collection to the Virginia Governor’s Mansion. In 1974, at the request of the White House, six of the pieces were placed on loan to the White House. In 1997, the Citizens Advisory Council for the Governor’s Mansion sold the entire china service (including the six pieces on loan to the White House) to the then James Buchanan Foundation for the Preservation of Wheatland. In 2008, the White House returned three of the six pieces to Wheatland. In 2009, the James Buchanan Foundation merged with the Lancaster County Historical Society to form today’s LancasterHistory.

Although unmarked, we know that the hard-paste Limoges porcelain pieces originated at the Sevres factory in France before being decorated and sold by Haviland. Our records indicate that this particular pattern was purchased by Harriet Lane while she was in London (April 1854-Octoberr 1855) during the period Buchanan served as Minister to Great Britain (1853-1856). While the set was used by Buchanan at the White House, it is often referred to as the “Harriet Lane China” since she served as First Lady during the Buchanan presidency. Many of the Sevres china pieces are exhibited on the two lowest shelves of the dining room corner cupboard at Wheatland.

Other China Patterns in the White House and at Wheatland

Dining Room table at Wheatland set with Pink Parisian china.
Wheatland dining room table set with Pink Parisian china.

Did you know that you can see other examples of Buchanan’s presidential china patterns at Wheatland? The china display on the top three shelves of the corner cupboard in the Wheatland dining room and on the Wheatland dining room table match the plate on the far-right side of the Buchanan shelf in the White House China Room. We refer to these plates with the flower decoration and pink band as “Parisian Pink.” These pieces are part of a set purchased by James Buchanan while serving as Secretary of State under President James K. Polk from 1845 through 1849. Buchanan purchased the china from French Ambassador, Louis Adolphe Aimé Fourier, comte de Bacourt. LancasterHistory has received many examples of this hand-painted porcelain pattern over the years from many different Buchanan, Henry, and Lane/Johnston descendants. Manufactured between 1814 and 1825 in France, the pattern was designed and decorated by Jean-Pierre Feuillet in Paris at his studio on rue de la Paix no. 20.





China cupboard showing seven plates and one teapot; white glaze with gold trim.
Porcelain china, white with scalloped edges trimmed in gold.

A third pattern in the White House collection – represented by the white cup and saucer with the scalloped edge and gold decoration – is also displayed here in our collections at LancasterHistory. Our collection includes a teapot and seven plates. These pieces are marked “Limoges France” and stamped Ovington Bros. Co., New York. These pieces came to us through members of the Henry family and are currently in storage.

Because the Buchanan pieces in the White House came with very little contextual information, I followed up my visit by sending Donna information that LancasterHistory has about all these various Buchanan china pieces.

The White House Visitor Center & A Buchanan Fun Fact

A short walk away from the White House is the White House Visitor Center. The visitor center features objects, exhibits, interpretive panels, and interactive elements designed to give visitors “alternate access” to the White House proper. An interpretive panel titled “White House State Dinners” included the following “fun fact” related to James Buchanan:

“In 1860, President James Buchanan entertained the Prince of Wales. This was the first visit to the United States by an heir to the British throne. The president gave up his own second floor bedroom to the prince and slept on a sofa.”

Who knew!

The visit to the White House more than exceeded my expectations. I not only learned a new “fun fact” about James Buchanan and the Prince of Wales, but I discovered that the White House collection of Buchanan china included more than just our three pieces and more than just one pattern. I was even more surprised (and pleased) to learn that the other patterns on the shelf are also represented here at LancasterHistory as well as at Wheatland and that the Buchanan pieces really are in a prime spot – if you know where to look. Next time you find yourself on a White House tour, take a few extra minutes outside the entrance to the China Room to locate James Buchanan’s White House china. Focus your gaze to the right side of the room, to the case at the far end, to the second shelf from the top and share that insight with those in your party. I’m sure they will be glad you did!

From Object Lessons