First ladies' lives on display at Hoover museum in West Branch

A dress worn by First Lady Pat Nixon, with her portrait. (Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library)
A dress worn by First Lady Pat Nixon, with her portrait. (Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library)

Martha Washington’s mourning ring, Mary Todd Lincoln’s opera glasses and fan and Abigail Adams’ bullet molds are just a few of the items going on display this month at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

The America’s First Ladies exhibit opens Saturday and will be on display through Oct. 26 at the museum.

“The first ladies appeal to a large audience, so we thought it would be a great fit,” said museum public affairs specialist Janlyn Slach. “We’re interested in the lives of the first ladies.”

The exhibit includes clothing from first ladies Hillary Clinton, Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Edith Wilson, Rosalyn Carter, Bess Truman, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

It also includes 14 reproductions of dresses worn by different first ladies from the Eisenhower museum and a 1929 touring Cadillac, believed to have belonged to Lou Henry Hoover.

Most of the items are on loan from museums and historic sites around the country. Or, in the case of other items — like the Cadillace — private collectors lent them to the museum.

The 18-foot-long car was custom built for the first lady, museum director Tom Schwartz said, and was meant to be driven by a chauffeur. However, Henry Hoover didn’t let that stop her from taking it for a drive around Washington, D.C.

“She caused quite a stir because the newspapers frequently saw her driving around town without a chauffeur or Secret Service,” Schwartz said. “She had something of a lead foot and often exceeded the speed limit.”

He said the first lady, who is buried at the West Branch historic site alongside her husband President Herbert Hoover, didn’t let tradition define her.

“She was her own woman and didn’t let convention dictate to her,” he said. “If she wanted to go somewhere, she’d just get up and go.”


What: America’s First Ladies

When: During museum hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Oct. 26

Where: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, 210 Parkside Dr., West Branch

Cost: $6 for adults, $3 for seniors over 62 and free for children under 16

Special events: May 3, Andy Och, a producer for C-SPAN’s original series, “First Ladies: Influence and Image;” July 12, scholar Annette Dunlap, “The Politics of Fashion,” examining the first lady’s fashion choices and the public image they projected; Sept. 27, Betty Boles Ellison will discuss her soon-to-be-published book “The True Mary Todd Lincoln.” All talks are at 2 p.m. in the Hoover Auditorium.

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