I am so grateful for the White House Collection/White House Historical Association giving us these forgotten stories of the First Lady’s legacies. Most left their mark, mostly taking their roles seriously and making a difference. One thing Lucy had demonstrated was impressing her suitor Rutherford B. Hayes, with her quiet resolve and engaging conversations. Being educated by progressive parents gave her an upward motion and Rutherford was impressed.
Timing is everything when looking back at history. When Lucy arrived, the new era was waiting and ready for her.
She won the affectionate name of “Mother Lucy” from men of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry who served under her husband’s command in the war. They remembered her visits to camp–to minister to the wounded, cheer the homesick, and comfort the dying.
Hayes’ distinguished combat record earned him election to Congress, and three postwar terms as governor of Ohio. She not only joined him in Washington for its winter social season, she also accompanied him on visits to state reform schools, prisons, and asylums. As the popular first lady of her state, she gained experience in what a woman of her time aptly called “semi-public life.”
She took criticism of her views in good humor (the famous nickname “Lemonade Lucy” apparently came into use only after she had left the mansion). She became one of the best-loved women to preside over the White House, where the Hayeses celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1877, and an admirer hailed her as representing “the new woman era.”
“Rud” Hayes at 27 had set up a law practice in Cincinnati, and he began paying calls at the Webb home. References to Lucy appeared in his diary: “Her low sweet voice is very winning … a heart as true as steel…. Intellect she has too…. By George! I am in love with her!” Married in 1852, they lived in Cincinnati until the Civil War, and he soon came to share her deeply religious opposition to slavery. Visits to relatives and vacation journeys broke the routine of a happy domestic life in a growing family. Over twenty years Lucy bore eight children, of whom five grew up.
Lucy Webb was born to parents James Webb and Maria Cook in Chillicothe, Ohio, on August 28, 1831. As a teenager, she took classes at Ohio Wesleyan University and later enrolled in Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College; her graduation in 1850 makes her the first first lady to graduate from college.
Webb married lawyer Rutherford B. Hayes on December 30, 1852, and over the coming decades they raised a family together. After the Civil War, Lucy and the children stayed in Ohio while Rutherford pursued a career in politics. Following the turbulent election of 1876, the Hayeses moved into the White House on March 5, 1877.
A long-time supporter of the temperance movement, Mrs. Hayes banned alcohol in the White House. She also took interest in the historic nature of the home, bringing old furnishings stored in the attic downstairs for display and lobbying congressmen to commission a Martha Washington portrait to match Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of President Washington. Mrs. Hayes also expanded the White House Conservatory and emphasized the importance of charity, donating time and money to fight poverty, promote social reform, and encourage education for all Americans.
At the end of President Hayes’s term in 1881, Lucy and her family returned to their Fremont, Ohio, home, Spiegel Grove. On June 25, 1889, she passed away after experiencing a stroke. She is buried alongside her husband at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum at Spiegel Grove.
Lucy Hayes was an intellectual and moral first lady and this month we will share some lesser-known insights about her — who she was, and how she used her influence during her time at the White House.
Stay tuned as each month we examine a different first lady and their profound impact on the Executive Mansion and beyond.