My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I, a poor nobody then, fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out.  Abraham Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln grew up in comfortable surroundings. As was typical for well-to-do Kentuckians, her family owned slaves. Mary had 12 years of schooling, including finishing school. The vivacious young woman spoke fluent French. She had several suitors when she moved to Springfield to stay with her sister Elizabeth Edwards. One was the popular Stephen Douglas who was later a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln.

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But it was the rough lawyer and fellow Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln who caught her fancy at a party held at the Edwards’ home.  Both enjoyed politics and reading.  The fact that Mary was a family friend of Lincoln’s idol, Henry Clay, enhanced her charms for Lincoln.
Family Life

Mary had a quick temper that flashed and waned.  Lincoln was inclined to brood and keep things to himself.  This led to a turbulent courtship and a broken engagement. After more than a year apart, they were reunited through the help of mutual friends and married on November 4, 1842. 

Kiss and love the dear rascals.
- Abraham Lincoln in letter to Mrs. Lincoln, July 2, 1848

Children followed; Robert Todd in 1843, Edward Baker in 1846, William "Willie" Wallace in 1850, and Thomas Tad in 1853. Willie and Tad never knew their brother Edward, who died the spring before Willie was born. The Lincolns were lenient parents and often upset friends and neighbors by allowing the boys to be rowdy and disturb conversations.  In an era when children were supposed to be seen and not heard, and work to help their parents, the Lincoln boys were spoiled.  They had expensive toys like a stereoscope, a photograph viewing device that made the pictures appear three-dimensional.  Mary had birthday parties for the children, remarking one year that she had just finished hosting a party for Willie in which “some 50 or 60 boys and girls attended the gala.”

The young Lincoln boys, Robert, Willie and Tad, were frequently underfoot.  When not playing around the house, they attended school, acquiring considerably more formal education than their father.  Robert was considered an average student, needing a year of prep school in New Hampshire before attending Harvard University.  Willie was bright, and wrote poems and short stories.  Tad had more challenges in school and did not learn his alphabet until the family was in the White House. 

All three Lincoln boys were popular with their friends, especially the youngest two who were often the ringleaders in pranks.  A favorite activity was hiding behind a high fence and using a stick to knock men’s hats off.  Legend says, Willie and Tad were also caught behind the sheriff’s barn across the street smoking cigars.  The neighborhood children enjoyed rolling wooden hoops down the street to see who could keep the hoops rolling the longest.  There were always cats around, and a special dog named Fido kept them company.

When not entertaining, Mary was at a sewing table working on the boys’ clothes, Mr. Lincoln’s shirts, and some of her own undergarments and simpler day dresses.  Her schooling would have made her proficient in embroidery but she seemed to prefer plain sewing.  With three growing boys and Mr. Lincoln’s carelessness when it came to his appearance, she was constantly darning or making new clothes to make sure everyone was properly outfitted.  Mary liked stylish clothes and had dresses made in Springfield.  Godey’s Lady’s Book provided illustrations of the latest fashions, gossip, and literature.

Food and Entertaining

Mary loved entertaining.  Living in the state capitol and being married to a politician and popular lawyer meant there was always an event to attend or host.  Springfield ladies held berry and cream parties in season. Bountiful New Year’s Day buffets were found in many homes. Mary’s lively wit and southern hospitality made her a popular hostess.  She once held a party to which 500 people were invited. But as it rained that night and there was a society wedding in a nearby town, only 300 people came.  While these were essentially social occasions, Mary used these events to study people.  She considered herself a good judge of character and gave her husband tips on dealing with people that he greatly appreciated. 

Mary’s main homemaking interest appeared to be cooking, especially making sweets.  The cookbooks she purchased after getting married are in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential library in Springfield.  Her white almond cake was one of Mr. Lincoln’s favorite desserts.  She had brought the recipe from her favorite bakery in Lexington, Kentucky.  Mary baked the white cake for Abraham Lincoln when they were courting, as a Springfield housewife, and when she was First Lady.  Today, there are many versions of it, including the one listed below.

Mr. Lincoln enjoyed oysters, venison, corned beef and cabbage, and other Midwestern foods, including beef, pork, chicken, potatoes, and corn. They had a large backyard garden with apple trees and currant bushes.  The market was a block away so Mary probably got most of her non-homegrown foods there. 

The Lincolns purchased macaroon pyramids (macaroon cookies stacked in a pyramid and covered with caramelized sugar drizzle) from local confectioners when they had a big party. Mary often served strawberries and cream, probably with cookies.  Oral tradition had it that the neighborhood children were guaranteed a cookie or donut from Mrs. Lincoln when they played with the Lincoln boys.  With Mary's copious amounts of sugar purchased, there were plenty of cookies.  During the course of one week in 1849, Mary purchased 13 pounds of sugar!

Lincoln's inaugural luncheon menu consisted of mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, parsley potatoes, blackberry pie and coffee. The menu from the party held by the Lincolns in February 1862 shortly before Willie Lincoln died was reported to be an elaborate menu, especially when compared to the inaugural lunch.  It consisted of champagne punch, stewed scalloped oysters, boned truffle-stuffed turkey, pate de fois gras, aspic of tongue, Canvasback Duck, Partridge, Fillet of Beef, Ham, Venison, Pheasant Terrapin, Chicken Salad, Sandwiches and Jellies, Cakes & Ices.

Mary Todd Lincoln's White Cake

1 cup blanched and chopped almonds
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
confectionary sugar

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Cream butter and sugar.
  • Add flour and baking power to creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk. Add chopped almonds and mix well.
  • Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Stir in vanilla extract.
  • Pour into greased and floured Bundt pan.
  • Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on wire rack. When cool, sift confectionary sugar over top.

A basic white frosting sprinkled with almonds was also popular.

Courtship and Marriage
Mary’s Loyalty to the Union
Mary’s Wedding Ring Links
The Insanity File