Frances Folsom Cleveland - Table of Contents

Frances Folsom Cleveland
First Lady of the United States


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The text below is excerpted from
Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland
By Stephen F. Robar

Nova Science Publishers, Incorporated, 2002

Frances was the daughter of Oscar Folsom and Emma (Cornelia Harmon) Folsom.

She was an only child but for a brief period after a sister, Nellie Augusta, was born. Nellie, however, who was born in 1870, eventually died in infancy.

She [Frances] was blessed with a strong family background, coming from a "long line of substantial, real people, on both her father and mother's sides."

Frank's father was one of six children whose family was relatively wealthy. Her grandfather, Colonel John B. Folsom, owned a mill and lived in a well apportioned Federal style home in Cowlesville (also known as Folsomville), New York, about thirty miles east of Buffalo.

Her mother's roots were equally impressive. Emma Harmon came from the prestigious Harmon family of Caledonia, New York, a good Baptist family and early benefactors of the University of Rochester. In fact, it was her father's time at the university that would bring Oscar and Emma together.

In 1859, and just recently graduated from the University of Rochester, Oscar was invited by Elisha Harmon to be the keynote speaker at a Fourth of July picnic at "Oak Lawn," the Harmon estate in Caledonia, near Medina in upstate NewYork ... It was at this Fourth of July event that Oscar met and fell in love withEmma.

Oscar courted Emma while studying law and working as a law clerk for several prominent law firms in Buffalo, one of which Grover Cleveland worked at. Oscar, who was admitted to the bar in 1861, married Emma two years later on September 2, 1863; he was 26 and she was 23.

168 Edward Street

The couple lived in a number of boarding houses while his career was getting started, not being able to afford anything more. However, in 1864 they occupied the house at 168 Edward Street, a quiet side street off Elmwood Avenue, in Buffalo where Frank was born. Oscar built the sturdy red brick house in 1863 in anticipation of the birth of his first child. The house stood in Allentown (an area of Buffalo), named after Lewis F. Allen, who was a wealthy businessman, farmer, and orchard developer, and who was also Grover Cleveland's uncle.

The Folsoms and Grover Cleveland

It was in Buffalo where his friendship with Stephen Grover Cleveland, then a lawyer in private practice (and soon Assistant District Attorney for Erie County) began. In fact, it was Cleveland who provided the family with Frank's first baby carriage. Several weeks after Frank's birth, Cleveland and another partner in Cleveland's law firm, Lyman K. Bass, visited the Folsoms. As the story is told, it was on this occasion that Cleveland would hold in his arms the child that would twenty-two years later become his bride,

Just a year after Frank was born, Cleveland ran for District Attorney, but was defeated. It was at this time that Grover became a law partner with Oscar, and they began to practice together in the firm Lanning, Cleveland and Folsom. When in 1870 Cleveland was elected Sheriff of Erie County, he left the firm. His friendship with Oscar, however, survived.

rances Cornelia Folsom was born in 1864 in Buffalo, New York, the only child of Emma C. Harmon and Oscar Folsom - who became a law partner of fellow Buffalonian Grover Cleveland. As a devoted family friend Cleveland bought "Frank" her first baby carriage.

The family lived at 168 Edward Street.

When Frances Folsom's father died, she was nine, and his law partner, Grover Cleveland
, became administrator of the Folsom estate, though never her legal guardian. Cleveland guided her education. When she entered Wells College, he asked Mrs. Folsom's permission to correspond with her, and he kept her room bright with flowers.

The Marriage Proposal

The Folsoms did not attend Cleveland's presidential inauguration in March 1885 due to Wells' refusal to let the student miss any classes, but after graduating that spring Frances Folsom soon accepted Cleveland's secret proposal of marriage - despite 27 years' difference in age.

During the close presidential election of 1884,
Cleveland had weathered revelations that he had previously fathered a child out of wedlock (by Maria Halpin). Once in office, speculation arose about the marriage prospects for the nation's first bachelor president since James Buchanan(1857-1861), and quickly focused on Mrs. Folsom.

When she left for Europe with her daughter in late 1885, the press was certain that Emma Folsom was off to buy her wedding trousseau, and they besieged the ship when the Folsoms returned to New York on May 27, 1886. The next day, the White House issued a brief statement that the president was not engaged to Mrs. Folsom, but to her daughter, Frances.

The Wedding

The wedding took place at the White House on June 2, 1886,
making them the first and only first couple to be wed in the executive mansion. The preacher was Grover's brother.

The small but elegant event saw the White House festooned in flowers, and John Philip Sousa leading the Marine Band. The guest list was limited to family, close friends, plus cabinet officers and their wives. Journalists were barred from the wedding (except for a last minute glimpse at the floral displays), and participants refused interviews, none of which precluded the press from covering the story from the preparations to the honeymoon.

The event was only the second wedding of a sitting president and the first and only one to occur at the White House (in 1844, John and Julia Tyler married in New York City during his term).

Cleveland's scholarly sister, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, had acted as her bachelor brother's hostess for the first 15 months of his first term of office. Rose gladly gave up the duties of hostess for her own career in education.

The First Term as First Lady

Despite the best efforts of the Clevelands, Frances Folsom Cleveland became an instant celebrity, affectionately called "Frankie" (a name she despised). She was so mobbed by admirers at public events that the president feared for her safety. She received thousands of fan letters, inspired fashion imitators, and prompted periodicals to report and illustrate her every move.

In November 1887, for instance, Harper's Weekly published an illustration of her greeting working women at the opening ceremony for an establishment providing educational, social, and practical opportunities for factory workers. Although Frances Cleveland refused to champion any particular cause (as Lucy Hayes had with temperance), she did encourage working women to attend weekly receptions on Saturdays at the White House and set a personal example of temperance (while allowing wine to be served).

Businessmen quickly realized the marketing potential of the young, pretty, and vivacious first lady. Without her permission, her "endorsement" and image appeared on an array of products, including candy, perfume, face cream, liver pills, ashtrays, and women's undergarments. The problem became so widespread that one of the president's supporters introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit using the image of any real woman without her express written permission. The bill's failure left the Cleveland's with no legal recourse, so they could only plead with businesses, usually to no avail, to cease and desist.

President Cleveland professed that "a woman should not bother her head about political parties and public questions," yet once used his wife in an overtly political manner. In the presidential election year of 1888, the president called Congress into special session to enact his proposal for a lower tariff. During House debates on the bill, Frances Cleveland sat noticeably in the visitors' gallery to lend tacit support to her husband. Although the bill failed, her act of political symbolism was a marked departure from the normal behavior of past first ladies.

Cleveland's political enemies spread rumors about his wife in order to discredit him. A Republican after-dinner speaker gave credence to the fiction that Frances Cleveland was having an affair with newspaper editor Henry Watterson (the two had simply attended the theater together). Just before the 1888 Democratic National Convention, Democratic opponents of Cleveland published accusations that the president beat his wife and mother-in-law. The first lady was forced into the unique position of issuing formal statement denying the allegation, and praising her husband's tenderness and affection. Her mother dismissed the charge as " a foolish campaign ploy without a shadow of foundation."

Against the Clevelands' wishes, Frances Folsom Cleveland's image appeared on numerous campaign paraphernalia, such as flags, posters, handbills, plates, ribbons, handkerchiefs, napkins, and playing cards. One poster even placed her portrait between that of her husband and his running mate, Allen Thurman.

The pervasive merchandising of Mrs. Cleveland was unprecedented; only in two limited cases had the likeness of a wife of a presidential candidate been used before (a medallion of Jesse Frémont in 1856 and a poster of Lucy Hayes in 1876). In response, the Republicans placed Caroline Harrison's picture on posters. Although they could not vote, women were very active in campaigns, and in 1888, Democratic women across the country organized themselves into Frances Cleveland Influence Clubs.

After the President's defeat in 1888, the Clevelands lived in New York City, where baby Ruth was born.

The Second Term

Mrs. Cleveland was apparently not featured as much in the 1892 campaign, but she remained a very popular focus of press and public attention.

This was especially true when the couple's second and third children, Ester and Marion were born in the White House (1893 and 1895). Ester was the first child born in the White House, and her older sister, Ruth, was the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar.

During her husband's second term, Mrs. Cleveland became the first presidential wife to pay a call on a head of state (the queen regent of Spain visiting Washington).

When the family left the White House, Mrs. Cleveland had become one of the most popular women ever to serve as hostess for the nation.

She bore two sons while the Clevelands lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and was at her husband's side when he died at their home, "Westland," in 1908 at age 71.

The Second Marriage

In 1913, at age 48, she became the first widowed First Lady to remarry when she wed Princeton U. Archeology Professor Thomas Jex Preston, Jr. (1862-1955). Source: Wikipedia

First Lady Helen Taft threw them a pre-wedding reception at the White House.

Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston remained a figure of note in the Princeton community until she died at age 84 in 1947.

The excerpt below is reprinted from
"John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer,"
by Daniel L. Larkin.
Western New York Wares.
(As an aside, Frances Folsom Cleveland's nickname was "Frankie," a name she despised, and
Frances Hubbard Larkin's nickname was "Frank.")

Mrs. Folsom, whose niece, Frances Folsom, had married President Cleveland during his first term in office in 1886, had become quite fond of Frank (Mrs. Larkin), and on March 7, 1890, she invited her to a family luncheon at the Folsom home on Linwood Avenue. Frank, with her literary flair, left us in her notebook an account that shows a journalist's penchant for detail:

I have just taken lunch with Mrs. Grover Cleveland at her Aunt Mrs. Folsom's on Linwood Ave. - I had expected from all that I had heard and from her pictures to see a very lovely person - and was charmed with the unaffected almost girlish manner of this ex-president's wife. She is so free from all the little affectations of most society women, all her movements are so free and unstudied, that I must confess l had to watch myself to keep from watching her.

Tall, quite erect, a graceful head covered with an abundance of brown hair - worn pompadour in front and in a large high coil at the back - dark, clearly penciled eyebrows, very frank sparkling clear grey eyes - rather small expressive mouth, red lips, a pretty, well-cut chin, handsome, rather large soft throat - this is the head and face of Frances Folsom Cleveland.

Her hands are large but very well shaped and white - she wore today on her hands only her wedding ring. Her dress I should judge was her traveling costume and was of fawn colored cloth combined with a rich shade of brown velvet - at the neck was narrow pleated valenciennes lace, the collar was fastened by a dull Roman gold medallion pin - being an informal luncheon at one o 'clock, no one except relatives present beside Mrs. Tabol; her son and myself - Mrs. Cleveland was very simply and elegantly dressed . . .tucked in her belt was a bunch of double purple violets.

At the table she sat opposite me and had an appetite like any other healthy young woman. She spoke of her friend Mrs. Whitney who had just died - of the little baby she had left - then of the book "Lorna Doon" by Blackmur.

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