Caroline Harrison (1832-92) was an American first lady (1889-92) and the wife of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States. While first lady, Caroline Harrison worked on behalf of several Washington charities; served as a fundraiser and supporter of John Hopkins Medical School; was a patron and the first head of the Daughters of the American Revolutiion (DAR); and oversaw an extensive remodeling of the White House, which included the installation of electricity. In 1891, she contracted tuberculosis and despite frequent attempts at a cure, she died in 1892, becoming only the second first lady to die in the White House.
Raised in Oxford, Ohio, Caroline Lavinia Scott developed her considerable artistic talents at an early age. Her mother, Mary Potts Neal Scott, taught her to play piano, and an aunt, Caroline Neal, helped nurture her drawing and painting skills. Caroline was an assistant piano instructor during her final year at the Oxford Female Institute and taught music at a girls’ school after graduation, but painting was her true love. While living in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the 1870s, she had a studio in her home and regularly exhibited her works in shows. As first lady, she continued to take weekly art lessons.
Caroline’s father, Dr. John Witherspoon Scott, was a Presbyterian minister and a science teacher at Farmer’s College in College Hill, Ohio, when Benjamin Harrison enrolled at the school in 1847. Harrison met Caroline through visits to the Scott home, and the future president soon fell for her vivacious spirit and sharp wit. After Dr. Scott moved his family back to his hometown to head the Oxford Female Institute in 1849, Harrison transferred to the nearby Miami University to be close to Caroline. They were engaged during Harrison’s senior year, and were married in Dr. Scott’s parlor on October 20, 1853.
Caroline enjoyed being surrounded by family, and as such the White House was filled to the limit with occupants during her husband’s administration. Its residents included daughter Mary and son-in-law J. Robert McKee; daughter-in-law Mary; and grandchildren Benjamin, Mary and Marthena. In addition, Caroline took in her aging father and a widowed niece, Mary Lord Dimmick, and found room for son Russell when he was in town. The cramped residential space was one of the primary factors fueling the first lady’s desire to expand and renovate the White House.
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While rooting through the White House, Caroline came across old sets of china in closets and attics. She had the items cleaned and repaired, and took pains to identify which sets belonged to which of her predecessors. In addition, Caroline used her painting skills to design new formal presidential china, depicting the United States coat of arms bordered by corn and goldenrod to symbolize the nation’s abundance and natural beauty. Her new and restored pieces formed the nucleus of the White House china collection, which remains one of the main public attractions of the mansion.
After becoming President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Harrison addressed the organization’s first continental congress on February 24, 1892, in which she stated: “Since this society has been organized, and so much thought and reading directed to the early struggle of this country, it has been made plain that much of its success was due to the character of the women of that era. … If there is no abatement in this element of success in our ranks, I feel sure their daughters can perpetuate a society worthy the cause and worthy of themselves.” Although she was never known as a feminist, Caroline’s speech underscored her belief that women were capable of contributing beyond the household.