Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker and First Lady Confidante

Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker and First Lady Confidante

This month’s post reflects the pursuit of highlighting more stories from forward femmes of color going forward on FFF. The post will focus on an important African-American female from the 19th century, Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), though much of her story takes place a little earlier than the usual FFF timeline. Keckley was a former slave who ultimately became primary dressmaker and dear friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, a confidante to Mary and the wives of politicians she dressed, as well as an activist. Against all odds, and being born into a nightmare of slavery, Keckley became a self-supporting dressmaker to some of Washington’s most influential women. As if that doesn’t already sound incredible enough, just wait to read more of the amazing details of Keckley’s life and her contributions to American society!

Elizabeth Keckley
Portrait from her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, ca. 1868

Fortunately for historians, Keckley’s memoir Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, provides a great deal of information on her life. Unfortunately for Keckley, the memoir would ultimately drive a wedge between herself and her friend, former First Lady Mary Lincoln, upon its publication in 1868. The focus of this post is on Keckley’s contributions to fashion and her relationship with Mary Lincoln, but links are provided throughout the post for further reading on other details of Keckley’s life.

Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia and lived in harsh, abusive conditions (more specifics are listed in her memoir and also summarized here) while with the Burwell family. She was assigned work while still practically a toddler herself, and at four years old she recounts already having understood the need to rely upon herself as she was given the duty of caring for the family’s newborn baby. At this time, she wore a simple white apron over a short dress.[1] It wasn’t long before Keckley’s never-ending workload included knitting socks and assisting her mother in making clothes for the large Burwell family and other slaves, among numerous tasks.

After a hellish period with the family’s oldest son (see Chapter 2 of the memoir) in North Carolina, she was given to one of the oldest daughters of the family, Ann Burwell, who married into the Garland family, and lived with them in St. Louis, Missouri. Due to the family’s poor financial status, the idea of having Keckley’s mother sent out to work for strangers was proposed. Horrified at the idea of her elderly mother sent to strangers, Keckley bargained to find another way to make money for the family. In applying her prior skills, she found work and, in her words:

“in a short time I had acquired something of a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders. With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.”[2]

It was here that Keckley grew into her dressmaking skills and supported the Garland household while she worked tirelessly. She married James Keckley, a friend from Virginia whom she believed to be a free man, but discovered that she had been misled and that he was indeed still a slave. After much struggle (see pages 48-56 in Chapter 3), she was able to purchase her own and her son’s freedom from the Garland family for $1,200 in 1855, as was the consenting price given to her by Mr. Garland for legal freedom.

In 1860, she left her husband, who had long been a burden to her small family, and made a stop in Baltimore on the way to Washington, D.C. She attempted to teach her “system of cutting and fitting dresses” to burgeoning black dressmakers but abandoned the idea of six weeks when the project did not seem successful.[3] She then made her way to Washington, D.C. in 1860, and began dressmaking once again.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis
Mrs. Davis is likely wearing one of Keckley’s gowns in this full-length studio portrait as this was taken in 1860.
 Abstract/medium: 1 photographic print on carte de visite mount : albumen silver, 1860. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain


Keckley heard that Varina Davis, wife of Senator Jefferson Davis was looking for a modiste (a fashionable dressmaker) and by recommendations from Keckley’s other clients, she was soon hired and began coming to the Davis residence nearly every day to make clothing for Varina Davis and the family.

Jefferson Davis would soon become the President of the Confederate States.  Anticipating the Civil War, Varina Davis pleaded that Keckley come with her to the South, and then presumed would accompany the family to the White House after winning the war.[4] In her memoir, Keckley’s first response was surprise at the confidential information revealed to her by Davis. I think because she felt they were good patrons of her work, she half-considered the idea, but she soon felt resolute in staying in D.C. and was never to see the family again. One of the last items she made for the family were a couple of chitz wrappers, or waxed cotton over-dresses. Though it is difficult to find evidence to support this, Keckley says in her memoir that when she saw a statue at a fair in Chicago depicting the capture of Jefferson Davis, she remarked that he was wearing one of the wrappers she made and a crowd began following her![5] She notes that the statue likely did not accurately portray what had since been reported as a waterproof cloak and not a disguise of women’s clothing, but she believed they must have had the wrappers she made in their possession when Davis was captured.

John Barber, and Henry Howe, Dec. 30, 1865 / Public domain


Keckley soon had other clients of the political set and it was Mrs. General McClean who introduced Keckley to Mary Lincoln, on the provision that Keckley sew her a new dress in record timing for an important dinner party. Keckley was told that Mrs. Lincoln spilled coffee on the dress she planned to wear after her husband’s inauguration and was in desperate need of a new dress.

During her time as dressmaker to Mary Lincoln. 1861, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Unidentified photographer / Public domain

After the success of this first dress, Keckley was regularly employed as Mary Lincoln’s modiste but with busy with other politician’s wives’ orders as well. She writes:

“I made fifteen or sixteen dresses for her [Mary Lincoln] during the spring and early part of the summer, when she left Washington; spending the hot weather at Saratoga, Long Branch, and other places. In the mean time I was employed by Mrs. Senator Douglas, one of the loveliest ladies that I ever met, Mrs. Secretary Wells, Mrs. Secretary Stanton, and others. Mrs. Douglas always dressed in deep mourning, with excellent taste, and several of the leading ladies of Washington society were extremely jealous of her superior attractions.”[6]


Based on the year this was likely taken, 1860-1865, this dress very likely would have been made by Keckley. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) / Public domain

Her reputation as Lincoln’s dressmaker became known, and Keckley mentions that many bribes were made in order to tempt her to influence Lincoln or infiltrate the White House in some way, but she adamantly refused these, remaining loyal to the Lincolns.

In her early stages as an activist, in 1862, Keckley conceived of the idea of the wealthier black community members gathering funds to support newly-freed slaves who were struggling in their new life. This resulted in the formation of the Contraband Relief Association, which was supported by many prominent philanthropic groups and Mary Lincoln herself, who made frequent contributions thereafter.[7] Keckley became president of the association in 1863.

Lincoln and Keckley bonded over the loss of their young sons and Keckley became a confidante to Mary Lincoln. Lincoln soon sought Keckley’s advice in stately matters as a first lady, the Lincoln’s both spoke of political happenings in Keckley’s presence, and the first lady’s jealous tendencies over her husband were exposed in front of Keckley. Mary Lincoln even confided in Keckley the expense of her wardrobe of which her husband was not aware… Keckley recorded Mary Lincoln saying:

“I owe altogether about twenty-seven thousand dollars; the principal portion at Stewart’s, in New York. You understand, Lizabeth, that Mr. Lincoln has but little idea of the expense of a woman’s wardrobe. He glances at my rich dresses, and is happy in the belief that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West, subjects me to more searching observation.”[8]

Upon Keckley’s first consultation with Lincoln, she had asked about her prices upfront, letting her know that she needed to be economical. Especially with the Civil War and added expenses of fighting the northern cause, Lincoln knew she should be as restrained as possible with her ensembles, although it seems this was not the reality based on her debt.

Likely 1880s. Unknown author / Public domain

Towards the end of the Civil War and at the time of President Lincoln’s reelection, Keckley asked for one of his gloves worn at his inauguration ceremony as a memento, which Mary Lincoln gave to her. Little did they know how soon this important day would be to his assassination in 1865. After the assassination, Keckley received other items from Mary Lincoln who was all too happy to part with the clothing items that reminded her of her husband’s tragic end. Keckley said:

“As may well be imagined, I was only too glad to accept this comb and brush from the hands of Mrs. Lincoln. The cloak, bonnet, comb, and brush, the glove worn at the first reception after the second inaugural, and Mr. Lincoln’s over-shoes, also given to me […]”[9]

This depiction of Lincoln’s assassination shows Mary Lincoln wearing the bonnet and cloak that were some of the items given to Keckley. Unattributed; based on the depiction from a mechanical glass slide by T. M. McAllister of New York, c1865-75, Restored by Adam Cuerden / Public domain

Sadly, after the President’s assassination in 1865, Mary Lincoln sold much of her wardrobe and jewelry to pay off her debts. After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Keckley helped to raise money for Mary Lincoln, being keenly aware of the debt.  In fact, her memoir was published in part to raise funds for her friend and to speak in support of her against public criticism. Keckley writes:

“My own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake, since I have been intimately associated with that lady in the most eventful periods of her life. I have been her confidante, and if evil charges are laid at her door, they also must be laid at mine, since I have been a party to all her movements.”[10]

Keckley had been close to the Lincolns for years and was genuinely grieved at the assassination, both on a personal level and because she held the President in high esteem as someone who could unite the nation.

Not long after Mary Lincoln departed the White House, someone came knocking at Keckelys’s dressmaking shop to ask if she could make a dress for the daughter of President Johnson, and thus, her work continued in D.C. as Lincoln moved away…

Unfortunately, due to the personal nature of the information that was published in Keckley’s memoir, Mary and the remaining Lincoln family condemned the publication and the two former close friends never spoke again.

Elizabeth Keckley ca. 1870. Unknown author / Public domain

Ever the independent female, Keckley left Washington and became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University in 1892, where she also donated much of the President and First Lady’s items that were gifted to her. After much ill health, she lived her last years in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which was one of her own former projects.[11]

Keckley is best remembered for her days in the White House as a dressmaker and the closeness of her relationship with Mary Lincoln. Her life is a remarkable feat and testament to her talent and that of a friendship that overcame many obstacles (although ultimately could not overcome the embarrassment of the private details published in the memoir). Even though Keckley’s autobiography was the downfall of her friendship with the First Lady, as a historian, I feel incredibly lucky to have such insight into the life of Elizabeth Keckley!

Keckley memorialized as a statue here at the Virginia Women’s Monument.  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikimedia/commons/c/c1/Elizabeth_Keckley_VWM_Statue.jpg


You can view the book online here, thanks to UNC Chapel Hill, and it is also available for purchase in its entirety on Amazon!


-Danielle Morrin

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like these other posts based on Forward Femme autobiagraphies: Always in Vogue: Edna Woolman Chase and The Australian Mermaid: Annette Kellerman.

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[1] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868, 20.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 70-72.

[5] Ibid., 70-75.

[6] Ibid., 90.

[7] Ibid., 115-116.

[8] Ibid., 149

[9] Ibid., 203.

[10] Ibid., xiv.

[11] Jenn Williamson, Elizabeth Keckley, ca. 1818-1907, Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/keckley/summary.html



3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker and First Lady Confidante

  1. Lovely summary of her memoir. She had such an inspiring and heartbreaking life and career. If only we could go back as a society and right the inhumanities. I first read about Elizabeth Keckley in the fact-based novel, ‘Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker’. I will want to read her memoir, too.


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