There is kind of that celebrity status that surrounds the wives of U.S. presidents that’s unique.
“They’re not someone you’ll see walking around on the street,” says Patricia Krider, executive director of the National First Ladies’ Library.
Many wonder what the life of a first lady is like, but not many get to peek behind the curtain, which gives them a fascinating subject.
Smart Business spoke with Krider to learn more about the National First Ladies’ Library, a one-of-a-kind site dedicated to exploring the lives of the first wives.
Called the National First Ladies’ Library, and sometimes referred to as a museum, its official name is the First Ladies National Historic Site since it became part of the U.S. National Park Service. It’s a multifunction site that includes a museum, historic home, research center and a theater. A bill signed in October 2000 by then-president Bill Clinton established the nonprofit as the First Ladies National Historic Site.
The concept was conceived by Mary Regula, wife of Ohio Sen. Ralph Regula, who thought that first ladies were largely ignored and wanted to do something to educate the public on the impact of the nation’s first ladies on history.
It began as a virtual library, then added physical locations such as the historic Saxton McKinley House, a restored Victorian-era home, and the City National Bank building, built in 1895
The First Ladies National Historic Site is the “first and only facility of its kind.” No other single site in the world — including presidential libraries or the Library of Congress — has an equal collection of information dedicated to first ladies.
The site sees some 10,000 guests annually who come from all over the country and beyond. Visitors are typically history enthusiasts, are interested in the history of first ladies or are on a mission to visit every site within the National Parks system.
The site hosts tours of the Saxton McKinley House, which was the private residence of president William McKinley restored and decorated in period style, and also puts on themed exhibits. For example, a Mom and Chief exhibit was put on display that looked at how first ladies dealt with their formal role while being a mom.
Exhibits typically include photographs, letters, dresses, videos and personal artifacts. Krider’s favorite exhibit is a collection of letters by first ladies.
Though many people are interested, it’s hard to acquire Jackie Kennedy memorabilia because anything of hers that goes up for sale is extremely expensive. Other hard to obtain items relate to Martha Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln.
The site has a number of quirky memorabilia, such as Rosalynn Carter playing cards, Mary Todd Lincoln candies, a Dolly Madison cigar box and a Laura Bush bobble head that are put in the collection to show the media fascination with first ladies.
The site’s most successful exhibit was called Caring Hearts, which focused on first ladies’ efforts to raise awareness of national healthcare concerns. The main highlight of the attraction was The Heart Truth’s First Ladies’ Red Dress Collection, which included red suits and dresses of seven of America’s first ladies.
Most often, collectors donate items on display at the site. Sometimes first ladies themselves will make donations, which have come from Rosalynn Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan. Otherwise, items must be purchased