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Harriet Lane: Unmarried First Lady of the United States

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.

Portrait of Harriet Lane on display in Coast Guard Museum at Coast Guard Academy

Portrait of Harriet Lane on display in Coast Guard Museum at Coast Guard Academy

16th First Lady and the President's Niece

You probably didn't know it is possible to be the First Lady of the United States and not be married to the president. While most First Ladies in history have been wives of presidents, there are a few exceptions. Harriet Lane, the niece to President James Buchanan, served as First Lady from 1857 to 1861 during the presidency of her uncle. Buchanan, a confirmed bachelor, was the only president that never married.

Harriet's mother died when she was only 8 years old; her father passed away when she was just 11. Buchanan then became the legal guardian for both Harriet and her sister.

He arranged for an excellent education for Harriet as well as extensive travels abroad, where she met Queen Victoria and was introduced to London society. The beautiful and cheerful little girl from Pennsylvania grew up to be admired by many people around the world.

Official White House China Pattern of First Lady Harriet Lane

Official White House China Pattern of First Lady Harriet Lane

A Trendsetter in Her Time

Harriet, whose nickname was "Hal," was quite a beauty with gold hair. When she became First Lady, women copied her hair and sense of style.

According to the National First Ladies Library, the mark of distinction in Harriet Lane's formal gowns was an unusually low neckline, her bosom line veiled by a strip of lace known as a "bertha," and some fashion historians have credited her with popularizing this stylist change which increased among the gowns worn by the elite class of women in the pre-Civil War era.

First Lady Lane used her position to improve living conditions for the Native Americans living on reservations. She became known to the Chippewa Nation as the "Great Mother of the Indians." She also brought culture to the White House by featuring musicians and artists at presidential functions.

Harriet Lane's Wedding Gown

Harriet Lane's Wedding Gown

First Lady Harriet Lane in 1878

First Lady Harriet Lane in 1878

Life After the White House

After her uncle's term in office, she returned to his estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She had many suitors but no desire to marry any of them. That changed when she was 35 years old and met and married Henry Johnston, a banker from Baltimore. They had two sons together.

Sadly, over the course of a few years, she suffered tremendous heartache through the deaths of those close to her. First, her beloved uncle died shortly after her marriage. Later, she lost her husband and became a widow when she was only in her 50s. Then, both of her sons died as teenagers from rheumatic fever.

She donated a large sum of money to build a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Today, it is known as the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinic and serves many children worldwide. She continued to be a great benefactress after her death in 1903 at age 73, with the construction of a school building on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. She also established a fund to provide for the education of the choirboys in service at the Cathedral, hence, the founding of well known St. Alban's School.

Her Legacy

Her role as First Lady began after her uncle succeeded President Franklin Pierce. Mrs. Pierce had been a very shy and sad First Lady who was in ill health. She had lost her three sons while they were still children. Her last son was killed just a few days before her husband's inauguration in a terrible train accident. Mrs. Pierce witnessed her son being decapitated, and she never recovered from the loss. She was in a period of mourning throughout most of President Pierce's term.

Americans were ready to escape the sadness that had been entrenched in the White House for four years. With her youthfulness and beauty, Harriet Lane became extremely popular not only in the United States but worldwide. In her honor, flowers, perfumes, and poems were named after her. Even though Harriet was only in her twenties, she had the poise and charm to host lavish weekly White House dinners and receptions. She quickly became known as "The Democratic Queen" by the Washington press corps.

Harriet grew to be even more beautiful as she aged. Many people of her time period likened her to the vivacious Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison. Little did they know, 100 years later, another First Lady would bring the same social graces, charm, sense of style, and elegance to the White House. Like Harriet, she would have the same love for the arts and dedication to social causes. She would also be treated as royalty living in Camelot. Her name would be Jacqueline Kennedy.

© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on June 27, 2020:

It was very interesting to learn about Harriet Lane for the first time, and the good that she did for invalid children. She used her sadness to make this a better world for those who couldn't care for themselves. It's nice to know of women who can be a source of inspiration for others.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on December 28, 2012:

Catgypsy thanks for your comments. I hadn't heard of it either and just happened to run across while researching something else. That's the way it works out sometimes.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on December 28, 2012:

Very good point Jim! Wish I would have thought of that to put in the hub. You are so clever!!

Jim Miller from Wichita Falls, Texas on December 28, 2012:

Nicely written account of a remarkable young lady. That good woman behind every good man isn't always a wife!

catgypsy from the South on December 18, 2012:

Very interesting! I have never heard of this before...great hub.