Electrifying The White House


The Benjamin Harrisons Arrive

The presidential election of 1888 was hotly contested. Democrat incumbemt Grover Cleveland was running for a second term against Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. It would be another one of those peculiar elections where the one who received the most popular votes (Cleveland) did not win the most electoral votes (Harrison).

Grandson of a President and waver of the “bloody shirt” reminder of the Civil War, Ben Harrison was not the most popular candidate to come down the pike. In fact, between Harrison and Cleveland, it was said that the former had no friends, the latter only enemies.

Nevertheless, Benjamin Harrison became the new President.

Caroline Harrison Inspects the White House

Of all the First Ladies to occupy the White House, Caroline Scott Harrison takes first prize as housekeeper par excellence. She cooked, sewed, gardened, canned, designed and ran a house to a perfection that could easily win a Martha Stewart competition. She also was a water colorist, and gave classes in china painting in their Indianapolis home.

True to form, she bustled into the White House and gave it a thorough white-glove inspection from top to bottom. She was dismayed by her findings. There were rats, termites, rot, assorted bugs, and a kitchen that had not been updated in forty years. And, there were exactly five guest bedrooms and only one bathroom – insufficient for the large extended family the Harrisons brought with them. It would definitely not do for Carrie.

Thomas Edison Inspects

First Lady Harrison found her husband a willing advocate for the major renovations she wanted to undertake. President Harrison was surprised to learn that gas lamps were still the only means of light – and here it was nearly a decade since Thomas A. Edison had invented the incandescent bulb!

Knowing nothing about electrification, the Harrisons went straight to the source. They invited the great inventor to make a feasibility study. Mr. Edison was happy to oblige, and came to the White House with a small team of electricians and engineers. It took two days, but they made a thorough examination, and concluded that it would be impossible.

Edison declared that the place was a firetrap that could go up like a tinderbox.

That announcement laid the groundwork for Mrs. Harrison’s new plan: a new White House. After all, the old place was nearly a hundred years old. Times had changed.

Plans For A New White House

Old kitchen, insufficient private rooms, inadequate office space, no bathroom accommodations, outdated everything – and no hope for the modern conveniences of nearly everyone. It was, according to Mrs. Harrison, high time to upgrade.

Congress considered the proposal for a new White House, and solicited drawings and bids from several well-known architectural firms. They formed a committee – with Mrs. Harrison assigned a place. She had hoped to build a palace in the tradition of their European counterparts – part a working residence, and part a museum. Opulent and elaborate designs were received – and indeed, are still housed in the National Archives.

Then Congress decided otherwise. They believed that the “house” of Jefferson and Lincoln should be maintained, not razed. They authorized funds to make the necessary repairs, the first of which would be electrification for Edison’s light bulbs. It would take a full two years before those improvements were completely installed. But in September, 1891, the Washington Post had a front page article reporting that the East Room was darkened, and the electric lights were turned on.

The Harrisons Are Afraid of the Light

The words “electricity” and “firetrap” and “tinderbox” were fearful words to people who were naïve in the ways of modern inventions. The First Family begged Edison to assign a special electrician to the White House to oversee any problems that might arise. The inventor was happy to oblige, which was how Irwin (Ike) Hoover was first brought to the White House, where he would spend the next forty-plus years.

Thomas Edison had earned his great reputation, which included thorough dedication to the quality of his products. The wiring process had been completed without major incident. The electrician assigned to its upkeep had little to do, and eventually additional responsibilities would be given to him.

But first and foremost, Ike Hoover was in charge of turning the lights on and off. If the President or his associates or family was going to enter a room, Hoover was summoned to turn the lights on. The reverse was true if the room was to be vacated. Neither Benjamin nor Caroline Harrison would go near that switch, for fear of electric shock or worse – an incident that could spark a fire.

It is said that when Ike Hoover went out of town, the First Family would leave the lights burning all night.

The Harrisons did not have a long time to enjoy their newest technology. Carrie developed tuberculosis, and died before their term was up. And Benjamin Harrison, in mourning, only made a half-hearted attempt at re-election. He would lose to none other than Grover Cleveland, the man he had nosed out of the White House four years earlier.