Elizabeth Keckley- Dressmaker to the President's Wife

 

 

Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Dinwiddie, Virginia, in February 1818. After purchasing her freedom in 1855, for $1200.00, she became a dressmaker for the wives of the political elite in Washington, D.C. Keckley was a confidante of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, but their friendship ended after the publication of the dressmaker's memoir in 1868.

 

Not many of Keckley's designs still exist actually. And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices, that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration. There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it.
 


At the time, no labels or tags were used. And because fabric was so expensive, dresses were often taken apart and reconstructed as a completely different dress using the same material. She made clothes for many official women in Washington, so one way to determine a Keckley dress is if any of those women kept a journal and noted that kind of detail within it.


In addition to her sewing skills, Keckley was very skilled at building a client network, which was very notable considering she was a black woman and previously enslaved. She consistently made friends with the right people and got them to help her, which was not only a testament to those people, but also to her. She had incredible business savvy.
 

In her later years, Keckley led a quiet and secluded life. She suffered from headaches and crying spells, much as had her estranged friend Mary Lincoln. She had the First Lady's photograph hung on the wall of her room and told friends that Mrs. Lincoln had contacted her, and they became reconciled some time after her book's publication. 

 

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In May 1907, Mrs. Keckley died as a resident of the National Home, located on Euclid St. NW, in Washington, D.C. She was interred at Columbian Harmony Cemetery. In 1960, her remains were transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, when Columbian Harmony closed and the land was sold.

A historic plaque installed across the street from the site of the former home commemorates her life. Jennifer Fleischer wrote:

"Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the different fates of these two women is found in their final resting places. While Mary Lincoln lies buried in Springfield in a vault with her husband and sons, Elizabeth Keckley's remains have disappeared. In the 1960s, a developer paved over the Harmony Cemetery in Washington where Keckley was buried, and when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave—like those of her mother, slave father, and son."