Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a knowledgeable and entertaining conversationalist. His wide-ranging interests in science, literature, and world events were reflected in books and other items in his home. Mary Lincoln also had a variety of interests in French culture, literature and fine sewing. The Lincoln boys just like to play with the neighborhood children. Overall, the Lincolns were well-known and popular hosts as well as guests due to their various activities.
The Lincolns enjoyed reading and learning about many different topics, including geography and astronomy. These interests were supported by a set of wooden globes showing a map of the earth on one (shown) and a map of the stars on the other.
Abraham and Mary read vociferously on many topics including classic literature of Shakespeare, biographies, science, or favorite women's magazines like Godey's. They housed their books in this secretary/bookcase which had a hidden flip-top desk under the glass doors.
The Lincolns did not play cards as they were considered a form of gambling, but based on archeological finds in the backyard, they did play chess and possibly checkers. The pieces could have been stored in this table. The top spins 90 degrees and flips open to make a square top. Underneath is a storage area for game pieces.
Mary Lincoln was known for sewing most of her boys' clothes and Mr. Lincoln's shirts. She also made some of her every day clothes and her undergarments. That meant that there was always a pile of material on this sewing table.
Mary Lincoln's fluency in French was somewhat unusual for a lady in the midwest at the time. She wouldn't have been able to resist showing off that skill a little by having something similar to these candlesticks in her front parlor. They feature a scene from a popular French novel, "Paul et Virginie" about a wealthy girl and a cabin boy who were shipwrecked in the South Pacific and fell in love despite the difference in their societal class.
The Lincoln boys were pretty spoiled by their parents. Mr. Lincoln, wanting them to have things that he could not have even dreamed of as a child, purchased this dual-viewing "Sweetheart" stereoscope to see photographs in 3-D (an early version of the ViewMaster). This one cost Mr. Lincoln about $20 in about 1856, a goodly sum, and would have made the Lincoln boys the envy of the neighborhood.
Henry Clay played matchmaker of sorts for Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. Abraham Lincoln was a strong admirer of the Kentucky statesman and the Todds were family friends of the Clays. When Lincoln was invited to a party hosted by Mary's sister and brother-in-law while she was visiting, he made a point of meeting the vivacious Miss Todd to talk about...Henry Clay? They must have found other topics to discuss.
The Lincolns neighborhood was a new "subdivision" full of young families with children. They enjoyed playing with marbles, dolls, hoops and sticks and other small toys, based on what has been found in archeological excavations around the yards. Many of these marbles are from those excavations.
Mary Lincoln enjoyed reading biographies and was delighted to receive this book on the Queens of England starting with Matilda in 1066 and ending with Victoria, with whom Mary felt a certain kinship after both were widowed in the 1860s. They corresponded while Mary was First Lady and when Mary was later presented at court in London, the two were able to meet in person.
Abraham Lincoln enjoyed reading and occasionally writing poetry. In February 1846, he sent some poetry to a fellow Whig politician and newspaper publisher, Andrew Johnston. Johnston replied in this March 10, 1846 letter asking if the poem was Lincoln's. It was not but Lincoln later sent him a couple of original poems that were published in Johnston's newspaper in 1847. This mouse-nibbled letter was found in the kitchen wall when the house was restored in 1987. The pieces are too large to have been pulled into the wall by a mouse, but as the letter arrived shortly after second son Eddie Lincoln was born, could a mischievious and bored older brother have helped himself to something from Dad's desk and stuck in the wall to get attention??? For more on the correspondence between Johnston and Lincoln visit The Papers of Abraham Lincoln website
With three growing boys and a husband who didn't worry about being rough on his clothes, Mary Lincoln had a lot of sewing to do at all times. But occasionally she was able to slip in a bit of fine sewing to make a gift like this night cap she fashioned for a favorite hired girl, Margaret, who was leaving to get married. One of Margaret's grandchildren returned the nightcap to the Lincoln Home.
When Lincoln was a young man, he helped pilot a flatboat down the Sangamon River, to the Illinois and on down the Mississippi to New Orleans. He knew first-hand what a problem these boats had running aground on the many sandbars in the Mississippi. So he created a system of bellows and pulleys that could help lift a boat off a sandbar and get it floating again...except that the system was so heavy, it caused the flatboats to run aground more than those without the system. Nonetheless, Lincoln was able to obtain a patent on his system based on drawings and a model sent to the U.S. Patent Office in 1849 (this is a reproduction--the original model is at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History). He is the only U.S. President to hold a patent.
One of Abraham Lincoln's favorite authors was William Shakespeare. He often quoted favorite lines to friends and saw several Shakespearean plays while in Washington. He commented in a letter to a theater critic: "I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be, or not to be.”
Mr. Lincoln's skill as a storyteller often helped him lift his spirits during the dark years of the war. He continued to be very interested in the latest technology, testing weapons, observing balloon flights, and spending hours each day in the telegraph office. Mrs. Lincoln didn't often have a chance to be the vivacious hostess so she instead turned her outgoing personality to visiting the sick and wounded, writing letters home for those who couldn't, and reading aloud to while away the long and painful hours. The family added numerous books, including a set of Shakespeare's works, to the White House library. Mary Lincoln, although she considerably outspent her budget, also updated the decor of the White House, of which the ornate bedroom set is still in the "Lincoln Bedroom" to this day.
Susan Haake, Curator, Lincoln Home National Historic Site