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Featured Museum Piece

Harry S. Truman State China Dinner Plate

After a fun session rummaging through our vault of museum pieces, we found a piece that has to qualify as a real gem in tableware, a dinner plate from the official White House state dinnerware service of President Harry S. Truman.  This plate was crafted from Lenox China’s trademark ivory-colored porcelain body and is accented with a wide, gold-encrusted band, a deep celadon border, and a center design that includes 48 stars and the Great Seal of the United States.  Viewing this plate, and realizing where it has been, can literally send chills down one’s spine.  If it could only talk and tell us about the goings on at state dinners of the past!  The back of the piece is stamped with Lenox’s cursive “L” flanked by a laurel wreath and bow.  The backstamp reads, “White House China Service by Lenox, X-307, Made In U.S.A., B. Altman & Co.”  The number on the plate designates the factory in which the plate was manufactured.  The acquisition of the Harry S. Truman state dinnerware was handled by B. Altman & Co. of New York City for the White House, but the story behind the set actually begins several administrations earlier.

As we’ve shared in prior newsletters, Lenox was the first American china manufacturer whose services were requested by the White House when, in 1918, Woodrow Wilson ordered a dinnerware service for the White House.  This service would be the White House state china during the administrations of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.  By the time President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Wilson Service had endured rigorous service and experienced a significant number of broken pieces.  Because of this, Eleanor Roosevelt ordered a new set of china from Lenox at a cost of $9,301.20, which proved to be highly controversial.  Because the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, people were understandably upset that Mrs. Roosevelt had purchased a new and extravagant state service for the White House.  On December 4, 1934, she gave a press conference in which she defended her decision to order the new service, saying the White House was in desperate need of a complete service.  She also defended her actions by saying that she made sure to give the work of manufacturing the china to a domestic firm.  Not helping her was the fact that the design of the new service included a portion of the Roosevelt coat of arms, which was also controversial.  In the last days of World War II and in his fourth term as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away and his Vice-President, Harry S. Truman, was sworn in as President of the United States.  In 1951, Mrs. Truman ordered a new set of china for the White House.  According to some, the new service was ordered because the Truman administration was not happy with the current Lenox service that included the Roosevelt family crest.  Mrs. Truman ordered the set to match the Roosevelt-decorated “Williamsburg Green” dining room.  1,572 pieces were ordered from Lenox at a cost of $26,944.10.

In addition to the deep celadon, or “Williamsburg Green” that was used in the wide color band on the plate, the defining characteristic of the Truman state service is the Great Seal of the United States used as the center design on each piece.  The Great Seal was commissioned on July 4, 1776 by the founding fathers on the very day they signed the Declaration of Independence.  Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams each submitted personal designs to the Continental Congress for consideration.  These designs were somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  Both Jefferson and Franklin included the children of Israel and the story of the exodus as part of their design.  Franklin suggested using the motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  Adams designed a seal that pictured Hercules choosing between an easy, self-indulgent path or a more difficult and virtuous path in life.  Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, studied these three designs and decided to create his own design using the Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams attempts as inspiration.  His resulting design would be formally accepted in 1782, and was converted into a stamp for official state documents.  The press moldings for this stamp were first replaced in 1841, when the 1782 stamp became too worn to impress an image.  Since the original stamp was used in 1782, there have been 7 re-engravings.  Today, the stamp of the Great Seal of the United States is on display at the National Archives.  An officer from the State Department is charged with removing the seal from its case and using it to impress documents.  On average, the seal is used about 3,000 times per year.

The Great Seal of the United States that Thompson designed features a prominent bald eagle whose body is covered by a heraldic shield.  When the seal is shown in color, the shield has a top banner, or chief as it is called, of blue, with 13 white and red stripes beneath the blue banner.  Unlike the American flag, the white stripes appear on the outer edge of the shield.  This represents the original 13 colonies being unified under one federal government.  The eagle’s head is turned left, facing an olive branch that is clutched in his left foot.  This olive branch has 13 olives representing the first 13 colonies.  The branch itself represents peace.  The eagle’s right foot is clutching 13 arrows, representing America’s readiness to defend itself.  The eagle’s head is pointed to the left toward the olive branch, indicating that the new nation preferred peace.  In its beak, the eagle holds a banner that reads, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “One Among Many.”  (Even the number of letters in our nation’s motto is 13.)  Usually, some form of “glory” appears above the head of the eagle.  This is similar to a halo or the light that is depicted around the face of a saint or prophet.  With relation to the Great Seal, this is generally a group of 13 stars.    The Truman service design features 48 stars encircling the Great Seal of the United States.  (At the time of the Truman presidency, Hawaii and Alaska had not yet become states.)  Replacements, Ltd. is in a select club as of institutions in possession of a piece of the Harry S. Truman state dinnerware service.  This group includes the Smithsonian, the Truman Library, and the Lenox museum.  If you can come to visit us, this is a must see piece of American history!  And while this piece is not for sale, we do have a huge collection of great Lenox patterns, many in the famous “Presidential” line by Lenox, that are for sale.  While with us, you can browse our 12,000 square-foot showroom, take a tour of our facility, and leave with an armload of Lenox “Jefferson”, “Buchanan”, “Monroe”, “McKinley” and many others with which to impress your family and friends.  Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week; free tours are available from 10:00am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40.  We look forward to seeing you soon!

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