Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln

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by Lynda Jones
     
 

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Few events can stir up a scandal more than an autobiography of a First Lady’s confidante. In 1868, a controversial tell-all called Behind the Scenes introduced readers to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Mrs. Keckley was a former slave who had been Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend during the White House years, and in the aftermath of President

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Overview

Few events can stir up a scandal more than an autobiography of a First Lady’s confidante. In 1868, a controversial tell-all called Behind the Scenes introduced readers to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Mrs. Keckley was a former slave who had been Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend during the White House years, and in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. The book exposed Mary’s marriage and her erratic behavior, along with confidential opinions of many in high society. The airing of the Lincoln's "dirty laundry" meant humiliation for Mary and her family, and Elizabeth’s reputation was destroyed. This outcome would have been unimaginable in 1867, when Mary declared in a letter, "I consider you my best living friend." How could such a bond have developed between a woman born into slavery and the First Lady of the United States? Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker answers this question by chronicling the extraordinary lives of these women.

Readers will be fascinated by a tale of friendship and fate. The pair seem like polar opposites: Lizzie is calm, dignified, with a steely inner strength; Mrs. Lincoln is fragile, unstable and flighty. Yet both share a burning resolve to get what they want. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker examines the strains on such a unique friendship, as it’s debated and parodied in newspapers. Lizzie must frequently leave her work to attend to the demands of Mrs. Lincoln. She offers constant support and companionship, particularly after the assassination of the President. In return, the dressmaker enjoys all the prestige and the popularity of those close to power.

Readers witness Elizabeth Keckley in her many roles: from fashion designer to abolitionist to caretaker. They follow her through the Civil War, the evils of slavery, and the many challenges faced alongside the First Lady. Handsome duotone illustrations include daguerreotypes, photos, paintings, and illustrations of the Lincoln's, Mrs. Keckley, and her masters. The book’s elegant design emphasizes period fashion and the art of dressmaking.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker tells the remarkable story of a forgotten figure whose influence ran deep and offers a revealing insight into an extraordinary relationship at the very heart of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Amanda MacGregor
When Mary Todd Lincoln hired former slave Elizabeth Keckley to design and produce gowns for her, the women entered into more than just a mere business arrangement. The two formed a close friendship, despite their very different lives, and found support in one another. Jones tells each woman's story alternately, comparing and contrasting their upbringings and struggles—Lincoln's as part of a wealthy and prominent family in Kentucky and Keckley's as a child born into slavery. During Lincoln and Keckley's friendship, Keckley became her closest confidant and steadfastly took care of her friend as Lincoln's life fell apart. Despite Keckley's loyalty to Lincoln, an 1868 autobiography written by Keckley caused public upheaval, bringing about an end to the women's relationship. While their friendship is fascinating, it is Keckley's own inspirational story that makes this book worth reading. A talented seamstress who had the fortune of knowing some influential people, Keckley was able to raise enough money to buy her own freedom from slavery. She started a group to assist former slaves adjusting to their new lives and taught some of the women how to sew and provide for themselves. Black-and-white photographs of Lincoln, Keckley, and many of Keckley's sophisticated and fashionable dresses are included, as is a bibliography, sources for quotes, and an index. This title is an interesting, unusual way for students reluctant to learn about history to approach the Civil War era. Reviewer: Amanda MacGregor
School Library Journal

Gr 5-8

Opening with the initial meeting between the First Lady and the former slave who became her dressmaker, Jones then presents alternating chapters about the women's lives. Period quotes, and daguerreotypes, photos, paintings, and publications from the era appear throughout. Similar both in subject and title to Becky Rutberg's Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker (Walker, 1995), this book is sparer, but it references Rutberg's work, both as a source and with very similar language and quotes. The earlier title presents a broader story in a more engaging manner. This is a worthwhile subject for women's history, American history, and for providing insight into the Lincolns. However, Rutberg's book remains the better of the two.-Janet S. Thompson, Chicago Public Library

Kirkus Reviews
Using period photographs and illustrations to expand the interest level, this account provides brief, strongly contrasting biographies of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. Lincoln, often maligned, grew up in a family of wealth and privilege. She arrived at adulthood with few coping skills to deal with the tragedies she faced-the loss of three of her beloved children in their youth and the assassination of Abraham, her primary source of emotional support. Keckley needed strength from early childhood, growing up as a slave and oftentimes physically abused. A talented seamstress, she not only supported her owner's family at one point with profits from her sewing, eventually she purchased her freedom. In Washington, she became Lincoln's seamstress-and one of her few friends. Lincoln's life has been well documented; it was a stroke of genius to contrast it with the less well-known story of this talented former slave. Including many anecdotes that provide insight into the pair and featuring impeccable research, this volume is an excellent, fascinating addition to literature on the Civil War era. (author's note, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10 & up)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781426303777
Publisher:
National Geographic Society
Publication date:
01/13/2009
Pages:
80
Sales rank:
308,414
Product dimensions:
7.70(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile:
960L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 Years

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