Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Shopping

While perusing the Sunday paper I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new “Lincoln” movie with Daniel Day Lewis was third in the box office ($34 million in weekend sales) behind the last in the Twilight saga line ($64 million in weekend sales) and Sky Fall ($51 million in weekend sales), the latest in the James Bond series with Daniel Craig as the intrepid secret agent. Taking nothing away from the Twilight and Sky Fall movies, okay I am not a big fan of the Twilight movies but then I am not a teenager or of the female persuasion either. But it’s nice to see a historically important movie like Lincoln find an audience especially when it deals with the incendiary topic of slavery.

It appears that we are still in love with any and everything Lincoln. In fact, Ford’s Theater Center for Education and Leadership, determined that there have been 15,00 books written about Honest Abe – enough, when stacked one upon another, to reach three stories inside the Ford Center.

So, why am I talking about the Lincoln movie and Honest Abe in this blog? Very simply, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (MTL) was a compulsive buyer, adding to the already heavy burden on the weary shoulders of our 16th president.

As she saw it, MTL’s job was to give her husband’s administration a “sense of style and fashion” ( One of her first forays in over-spending surfaced when she was faced with the task of refurnishing the presidential mansion. Congress, talk about a serious creditor, had allotted her the princely sum of $20,000 to complete the task. MTL bought every item of Victorian furniture and furnishings available and ended up exceeding her generous budget by $6,000.

She enlisted the help of Benjamin Brown French (Federal commissioner of public buildings) to plead her case with President Lincoln. But Honest Abe would have nothing to do with it. How would it look, fumed Lincoln, to overrun a generous $20,000 allotment for furnishings when soldiers were freezing without blankets to keep warm.

MTL increasingly squandered, made easy by eager creditors, large amounts of money on custom-made dresses ($2,000 for her husband’s last inauguration), piles of fur coats, and 300 pairs of gloves purchased in four months’ time (and this was before Internet shopping!). Her profligate spending became a campaign issue. The democrats planned to expose MTL’s many excesses, especially her clothing expenditures.

MTL was outraged. Why, she thought, Republicans should pay off her bills rather than simply worrying about them being exposed. Historian Margaret Leech had this to say about MTL’s compulsive buying, “Like a drug for her tortured nerves, she indulged in her orgies of buying things … The charge accounts for her purchases mounted to appalling sums – things she could never use, for which she could never hope to pay” (

By 1864 MTL had rung up “store bills” of $27,000 – more than she spent on redecorating the presidential mansion which sent President Lincoln into a rage. Blindly, she continued to spend “hoping that good fortune would favor her, and enable her to extricate herself from an embarrassing situation” ( Alas, as we all know, good fortune did not shine down upon Mrs. Lincoln and she ultimately died penniless – another victim of Shiny Objects.

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