Possible Lincoln courting couch, chair on display

Monday, August 14, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- An abundant supply of bachelors in 19th century Springfield motivated Elizabeth Todd Edwards to invite her unmarried sisters, including the future bride of Abraham Lincoln, for frequent visits to the Edwards home on Aristocracy Hill.

Before she married Ninian Wirt Edwards and moved to Springfield, Elizabeth had lived with her family in Lexington, Ky.

"Now, in Lexington, Kentucky, there were many more eligible young women than young men, and (in) Springfield, it was the exact reverse," said Thomas Schwartz, interim executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. "So it was a strategy on Elizabeth's part to find proper husbands for her (three) sisters. And indeed, every one married a Springfieldian."

Mary Todd met Lincoln at a dance in the Edwards home. They courted and eventually married there in 1842.

A couch and chair that once adorned the Edwards home is on public display at the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site at Sixth and Adams streets.

The recently restored furniture will be on display through Labor Day at the Lincoln-Herndon offices and will be exhibited later at other historic sites, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.

Schwartz said that while no evidence proves Lincoln and his future wife ever sat in the furniture, they almost certainly did.

"I think if we were betting people, it'd be a good bet," he said. "It's something that we assume and something that, just understanding how people behave and the purpose of these furnishings, it's a likely bet."

The couch, more than 7 feet long, and the matching chair, almost 4 feet tall, have rosewood frames and are covered in black horsehair fabric. The wooden legs include ornate carvings.

The well-built, "high-end" furniture was "very expensive in its day," said Malcolm Brown, exhibits curator of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Brown spent more than a year repairing and restoring the furniture.

The chair was in relatively good condition when he first saw it, but the sofa needed a lot of work.

"It looked OK from the top side," he said. "But once you flipped it over, or once you grabbed an arm and moved an arm, you realized that it was very fragile."

Brown performed most of the restoration work from the underside of the couch.

"The large part of my project was not to disturb the horsehair, not to remove it at all, because it's so expensive and it's in great condition, and once you take it off, you can't put it back on like it was," he said.

Springfield physician Gershom Greening donated the couch and chair to the state in late 2004. He had bought them, along with a Mary Todd Lincoln shawl, from Anna Pitzer in 1968. She had bought the items 50 years earlier, when the Edwards home was demolished to clear the way for what is now the Michael J. Howlett Building on Edwards Street.

Schwartz said the furnishings reflect the wealth and social prominence of the Edwardses. Ninian Wirt Edwards, a member of the legislature, invited fellow lawmakers to his home, and Elizabeth Todd Edwards hosted balls and tea parties as she played matchmaker for her sisters.

"The Edwards home was really this magnet, kind of this incubator for relationships for all of the Todd girls," he said.

Elizabeth did not select specific men to court her sisters, Schwartz said.

"Rather, what she did is she would have a party," he said. "All of the likely candidates, the choices, would show up, and she would leave it to her sisters to see if any of them were suitable for eternal bliss."

"We're very happy to have this (furniture) because it shows the importance of the Edwards family and the connection to the Lincoln story," Schwartz said. "It's really through Elizabeth Todd Edwards that Mary would even come to meet her future husband."

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