My Favorite History Books for Kids

For most of the last year and a half, I worked in elementary schools. First as a substitute teacher and then as a teacher’s assistant/aide/paraprofessional. In that time, as you would expect, I read a lot of children’s books. Here are some of my favorite history books for kids! (Full disclosure, this post contains affiliate links!)

the case for loving

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial  Marriage by Selina Alko
This wonderful book is about the Lovings, an interracial couple whose marriage caused them to be arrested in their home state of Virginia. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court (the case of Loving v. Virginia) and won. The illustrations are beautiful and it’s a great way to talk about the Civil Rights Movement beyond MLK and Rosa Parks.

When Pigcasso Met Mootisse by Nina Landen
As you probably guessed from the title, this is about Picasso and Matisse. Except Picasso is a pig named Pigcasso and Matisse is a bull named Mootisse. They’re rival artists who feud and make a mess that turns into a masterpiece. It’s one of my favorite kids’ books because it is an intro to Picasso and Matisse but it also teaches kids how to problem solve. It’s a really fun, really cute book.

Katie and the SunflowersKatie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew
Another art history book! This one is about Katie, who visits the art museum with her grandma. When grandma falls asleep in the museum (yikes), Katie steps into paintings by Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Cezanne. Adventure ensues and kids get an introductory lesson in the post-impressionist masters. If you like this one, there are quite a few other stories about Katie and famous works of art!

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson
This was actually the first ebook I ever purchased and read! It is about Leon Leyson, who was ten years old when WWII began. He and his family survived the Holocaust because they were fortunate enough to work in Oskar Schindler’s factory. In fact, Leon was one of the youngest people on Schindler’s List. It’s great for older elementary aged children and middle schoolers who want to learn more about the Holocaust.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker BradleyThe War that Saved my Life
I actually have not read this book but a class that I worked with did a unit on it and it was very popular! It is about a little girl who has never been let outside because her mother is embarrassed by the girl’s disability. When WWII breaks out, however, the girl’s brother is sent out of London and the girl sneaks out to go with him. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and watched 4th graders choose to read ahead during free time. I’ll repeat that: 4th graders chose to read ahead!

Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo
This is another one that I have not personally read but was very popular in classroom libraries. If it got put on the shelf, it wasn’t there long. It is a collection of nine stories of child survivors of the Holocaust. Another great option for older elementary schoolers or middle schoolers who want to learn more about children during the Holocaust.

The ‘I Survived’ Series
This is a historical fiction series that takes kids into war and disaster and if you have kids, you’re probably already familiar with this series! From the Revolutionary War to the 9/11 attacks, there are a lot of books in this series. Normally I’d steer clear of a series of so many books but the kids I worked with loved them. A teacher even recommended that I use them when I was leading a reading group for 2nd graders who were advanced readers.

The ‘Who Was’ series and the ‘What Was’ series
Like the ‘I Survived’ series, there are tons of books in both of these series. The ‘Who Was’ series covers everyone from Andy Warhol to Gandhi, and everyone in between. The ‘What Was’ series is the same premise, but with events and sites. They’re pretty short books but still very informative. If you’re looking to introduce your child to a certain person, place, or thing, these are a great place to start!

Getting to Know Georgia O'KeefeThe ‘Getting to Know’ Series
This series is all about artists. No matter which artist your kiddo is into or which artist you’d like to teach them about, chances are good that there is a book about them in this series. These books are relatively short and can be read in one sitting but they’re pretty detailed and have really fun illustrations.



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Best History Books for Kids

The Gibson Girl

When you think of feminine ideals, what comes to mind? Venus? Twiggy? Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass curves? How about the Gibson Girl?

After the fussy bustles of the Victorian era, but before the flapper, there was the Gibson Girl. In the Edwardian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was it.


Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson.

In the late 19th century, Charles Dana Gibson was an art school dropout determined to make it in the art world. He was clearly talented but his drawings left a lot to be desired and editors were, by and large, not interested. He worked to improve, though, and in 1886, sold a drawing to a new magazine called Life. It was just the encouragement he needed. He continued to accept small commissions and a few years later, sold another drawing to Life.

Two drawings in one magazine made him feel almost professional. So almost professional that he set up a studio in New York City where he studied other artists and continued to hone his craft. At the same time, the way that magazines were being produced changed. Magazine printing moved from wood engraving to photomechanical engraving. Where most pen and ink drawings had details too small for engravers to capture on wood, that wasn’t the case with this new technology. Gibson’s new-found style was perfectly suited to photomechanical engraving.

Gibson Man by Charles Dana Gibson

The Gibson Man. Image via Gary W. Clark.

People loved Gibson’s style. The boldness of his pen strokes, his social commentary, and, most of all, these certain figures that became known as the “Gibson Girl” and “Gibson Man.”

In a 1910 New York Times interview, Gibson told the story of how the Gibson Girl was born. He told the interviewer, “The first time the name was used was in a story which The Century gave me to illustrate. It dealt with a certain type of girl, and in the manuscript, when it came to me, this type was called, I think, the ‘Goodrich Girl.’ I noticed that the word was written over an erasure in the manuscript wherever it occurred, but that did not impress me. Later, when — that ‘Gibson’ took the place of ‘Goodrich’ on the printed page — I saw what had been really done, I blushed. I have been blushing ever since. Let’s drop the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I don’t want to feel uncomfortable tonight.”

The Gibson Man was, like the figure above, ruggedly handsome and well-dressed. He was modeled after Gibson’s friend, war correspondent and adventurer, Richard Harding Davis. The Gibson Girl was delicately beautiful and was reportedly modeled after Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson, and sister, Josephine Gibson Knowlton.

Both figures were unmistakably Caucasian.

The Gibson Girl was more than an idealized version of feminity. The Gibson Girl, along with the Gibson Man, was a model of what the newly-forming middle class could strive to be. They were both attractive, happy, and youthful…and they made it all seem so attainable. Her look was natural, although she did wear corsets to give her a slim waist and voluptuous bust and hips. Her hair was often carefully piled on top of her head with tendrils framing the delicate features of her face giving her an ethereal look. It didn’t take long for women to begin copying her hairstyle and dress. Life began to imitate art.

The Gibson Girl was the “New Woman”

This woman participated in physical activities like tennis, golf, and bicycling. Gibson and other illustrators of the time promoted the idea that it was fashionable and, more importantly, socially acceptable for women to participate in physical activities. (Of course, they were often doing these activities in full skirts, long sleeves, and hats but we’re making progress here and that’s all I can ask for.)

Gibson Girls playing football

Sometimes Gibson even drew women playing football. “The Coming Game”, 1895. Image via Gary W. Clark.

The Gibson Girl was also interested in the arts. She played instruments, sang, and was often an artist herself. In several drawings, you can see a Gibson Girl sketching or painting.

She even served on juries! In the early 1900s, women very rarely served on juries, and even then, it was only if the defendant was female (rarer still). But in Gibson’s drawings, women and men served in almost equal numbers and in one drawing, seen below, the jury was all women.

This was the time of the suffragette and the fight for women’s rights. Drawings like the all-female jury sent a clear message. In the United States, jury duty and voting are inextricably linked (in some jurisdictions, registering to vote puts your name in the jury duty pool but, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be registered to vote to be selected for jury duty.)

She’s starting to sound a bit like Barbie, is she not?

Gibson Girls The Weaker Sex by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Weaker Sex II”, 1903. Image via Library of Congress.

The Gibson Girl was more assertive with men. She was self-assured and was not going being controlled by potential suitors. The use of the hatpin above wasn’t something Gibson made up, although he does present it in a striking way, making the man look like an insect the women are going to pin to a specimen board. No, sometimes women literally used hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

Gibson Girl The Jury Disagrees by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Jury Disagrees”, 1904. Image via Library of Congress.

While the Gibson Girl was usually seen in middle class to upper-middle class settings, she could be seen in high-society from time to time, like in the image above. Gibson loved to create satirical images, especially involving high-society. “The jury”, this time a group of upper-class women, stick their noses up at her while the men smile on. Although she’s not being wholly welcomed into their world, she seemingly handles it with grace. The Gibson Girl could navigate any social situation with ease.

She appeared in songs, clothing lines, and even wallpaper designs (a version of which you can now purchase on Amazon because of course.) Other artists tried to create their own icons of feminity but none came close to the Gibson Girl. Gibson’s image of a beautiful young woman paired with his subtle social and political commentary was a hit. But Gibson said the Gibson Girl didn’t exist. In that 1910 interview with the New York Times, he said, “There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.” He saw the Gibson Girl in young (white) American women.

The confident, stylish, do-it-all woman of the pre-war era paved the way for the next feminine ideal: the flapper. Of course, Gibson applied his signature style to the new “It Girl.”

Flappers by Charles Dana Gibson

Charles Dana Gibson, “Duplicates.” Image via The Red List.

Charles Gibson Struggles with Life and the Gibson Girl Fades Away

In 1920, Gibson partnered with a few other artists to purchase Life Magazine. He held the majority of the shares until 1932 when, struggling to keep the magazine afloat due to competitors, he sold it. He retired that same year and took up oil painting, a medium he dabbled in decades before. Despite being one of the most admired and imitated illustrators of this period known as the Golden Age of Illustration, it didn’t take long for him and his once-beloved Gibson Girl to fall out of public consciousness. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later.

His Gibson Girl was the 20th century’s first feminine ideal. She was a new woman ushering in a new century, carving a path for women who would come after her.

All of this from an illustration. Art is a powerful thing.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator
The Gibson Girl’s America at the Library of Congress
Lessons from the Gibson Girl by Gary W. Clark
Charles Dana Gibson at Illustration Art Solutions
Charles Dana Gibson on The Red List
Charles Dana Gibson at the National Museum of American Illustration
The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, Edmund Vincent Gillon
Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 by Martha H. Patterson


Can You Pass the Acid Test?

1964. It’s the middle of what is looked back on as being, arguably, America’s most turbulent decade (at least the most turbulent right behind the 1860s).The Civil Rights Movement is underway, the war in Vietnam is escalating, and, with that, the anti-war movement is growing. The strict social mores of the 1950s are falling away but the counterculture of the late 60s has not yet arrived.

It’s kind of a weird time. But things can always get weirder.

Enter: Ken Kesey.

Ken Kesey

Well actually, by 1964, Kesey was already a well-known author, having published the wildly successful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. The book was inspired by Kesey’s time working in the mental health ward of a Menlo Park, CA hospital, where he witnessed patients being treated with LSD. Kesey volunteered for MKUltra, the CIA experiment in which subjects took hallucinogens like LSD and mescaline, and then began using LSD, which wasn’t illegal in the US until late 1966, recreationally.

Ken Kesey's Magic Bus

Further bus. Photo via CNN.

Sometime in 1964, Kesey purchased a 1939 International Harvester school bus. He and The Merry Pranksters, a group of like-minded creatives and early hippies, including writer Neal Cassady, painted the bus in Day-Glo colors, named it “Furthur”, and took it on an acid-fueled cross-country trip. (It’s worth noting that they picked up Allen Ginsberg in New York.) That’s the most abbreviated version of that story ever told and to be honest, it feels wrong to shorten it so much. The trip was immortalized in one of my favorite books, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and footage shot on the trip was finally turned into a documentary a few years ago. Both are fascinating and I highly recommend checking them out!

After completing their journey and returning to California, Kesey and his wife bought a home in La Honda, California, outside of San Francisco. Nestled in the mountains of northern California, Kesey painted the trees in the woods outside his home in Day-Glo colors and hid speakers around the forest. The Keseys began throwing parties where guests would take acid, sometimes unknowingly (not cool!), and wander through the woods, trying to survive the night as music emanated from the speakers. It was a wild ride.

While this sounds like an absolute nightmare to me, and some attendees would have agreed, the parties became popular. Even unexpected guests like the Hells Angels, whom Kesey met via Hunter S. Thompson, made appearances. Eventually, they became so popular that Kesey wanted a bigger venue. His home wasn’t cutting it anymore.

Before we go on, I want to make it clear that while Kesey undoubtedly turned quite a few people on to acid, he didn’t introduce it to California by any stretch of the imagination. It had been popular in fringe groups in the Bay Area since the early 60s and manufacturers like Owsley Stanley helped bring it more mainstream. (But not totally mainstream, it was still on the periphery of society.)

Cut to Thanksgiving 1965. Really, the day after Thanksgiving. The date of the first official Acid Test.

It was held in a ranch house called The Spread, home of Merry Prankster Ken Babbs. The event was “semi-public” and launched weekly Acid Tests as well as the career of a band called The Warlocks.

The Warlocks, later known as The Grateful Dead

The Warlocks, November 1965. Photo via

They later changed their name to The Grateful Dead. You may have heard of them.

Since the Test was held at Babbs’ house and the crowd was small, it was pretty similar to the parties Kesey had been having. The Pranksters were great at throwing parties, but not so great at marketing and event planning. They didn’t hire an event hall in time and their advertising was lackluster. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe wrote, “About all the advertising they could do was confined to the day of the Test itself. Norman Hartweg had painted a sign on some cardboard and tacked it onto some boards Babbs had used as cue signs in the movie and put it up in the Hip Pocket Bookstore. Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?”

Acid Test Flyer

Flyer advertising the first Acid Test at Babbs’. Photo via Postertrip.

At the Test, movies were projected onto the walls of Babbs’ house (where Day-Glo “decorations” were painted) and the Pranksters provided the LSD and the music, although Jerry Garcia and members of what would become the Dead were there. Eight hours in, Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were debating about the war in Vietnam. And it was magical.

But it wasn’t what they envisioned.

The second Test would take place the following week on December 4, 1965. They were a bit more organized and Kesey managed to secure a venue in San Jose: the home of a “boho figure” known as “Big Nig.” (I know, I know.) They even advertised! Some flyers were drawn up with “CAN YOU PASS THE ACID TEST?” on them and tacked to trees and light poles outside of the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The Rolling Stones were playing there that night. The idea was that after the concert, people would come to the Acid Test and bring some of the energy from the concert with them.

The night was chaotic and electric. One of Jerry Garcia’s biographers, Sandy Try, went so far as to call it a “watershed moment” for the counterculture. Tom Wolfe wrote,

“They come piling into Big Nig’s, and suddenly acid and the worldcraze were everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing not rock dances, not the frug and the –what? –swim, mother, but dancing ecstacy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace’s own stroked-out inner-courtiers–yes!”

According to Paul Perry, author of On the Bus, 300-400 people were crammed into Big Nig’s house that night.

The Grateful Dead, who had changed their name by this time, blew six fuses in the house, undoubtedly adding to the atmosphere. (Big Nig asked for “rent” to pay for the blown fuses.) The Dead liked playing the Acid Tests because they didn’t have a setlist and they didn’t have to play “beer drinker music” (jazz). As Tom Wolfe put it, “For Kesey–they could just play.” Jerry Garcia would later say, “When we fell in with the acid tests we a started having the most fun we had ever had.”

The next week, on December 11, 1965, they did it again, just up the coast in Muir Beach, California. The Tests were held on Mondays because, according to Wavy Gravy, Monday was everyone’s day off.

I love that because it’s the same reason you or I would have to get together with friends and have a few drinks or veg out. But unlike the cost of a drink today, people could pay around $1 to get stoned and hear The Grateful Dead. (And when you or I get together with friends, it’s certainly not a watershed moment.)

Acid Test Poster

Handbill advertising the third Acid Test in Muir Beach. The designs on the acid test posters and handbills were at the forefront of counterculture design. Photo via Postertrip.

The Muir Beach Test was special because that night Owsley Stanley, known as the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”, was in attendance. He spent most of the night pushing a chair across the linoleum floor, making a horrible screeching sound. Despite distributing LSD up and down the California coast, no one in attendance had ever seen him take it before.

In that lodge on Muir Beach, where around 300 heads gathered, footage of the Pranksters’ bus trip was being projected while a strobe light flashed and people danced to…sounds. Carolyn Garcia, a Prankster with the nickname “Mountain Girl” who would go on to marry Jerry Garcia, said it…

“was a strange night. The poor band couldn’t get anything going…The lighting was bad in there and the band would go up and play for about 5 minutes and then they’d sit down; That was all they could do. “C’mon guys. Why aren’t you playing?”… ‘I don’t know. Why do we have to play?’  It was pretty funny. So then the Pranksters would play, and that was perfectly dreadful.”

Still, everyone had a great time…except Kesey. He thought things were getting too weird. Too many people. Too many bad vibes. The Acid Tests were done, he said.

Of course, they weren’t.

They continued through 1966 and spread south to Los Angeles and north to Oregon and Canada. There were also two three-day festivals, known as Trips Festivals, celebrating all things psychedelia. Of course, festivities included an Acid Test. The first of these festivals, held in January 1966, took place at Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco and is credited with bringing The Grateful Dead to the masses. Kesey had recently been busted for pot and had a warrant out for his arrest so he couldn’t just show up to the festival. In order to disguise himself, he dressed in a space suit, complete with helmet. He sat in the balcony and addressed the crowd over the PA system. The cops knew it was him but no one could find him.

A true Prankster.

And it was in 1966 that the phrase “electric kool-aid” came into existence. At the Watts Acid Test, Wavy Gravy…well, let him tell you. In a 2004 interview, he said,

“Although [Wolfe] did maintain that I put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts — and I still have mothers hit me over the head with umbrellas for that one — I didn’t. In fact, I spent a good part of the evening saying the Kool-Aid on the right is for the children and the Kool-Aid on the left is the electric Kool-Aid. Get it? Nudge, nudge. My big falling out with the Pranksters is that I didn’t think people should take LSD unless they knew they were taking it.”

Electric Kool Aid

You can see a bucket of “electric kool-aid” in the center. Kesey liked the effect dry ice gave and began adding it as early as 1960. Photo via High Times.

If this was an audio format, I’d insert a record scratch right here because on October 6, 1966, LSD became illegal in California. It was time to graduate from the Acid Tests.

The graduation was planned for Halloween night. Word got out that Kesey was planning one last Acid Test and on October 20, he was arrested. He told reporters, “taking acid is not the thing that’s happening anymore.” Never fear, Kesey got out on bail and the graduation went on as scheduled. Around 200 people showed up, along with numerous reporters and TV crews. In a strangely sad turn of events, The Grateful Dead had already committed to another gig and couldn’t be there. The Anonymous Artists of America played instead. There was a commencement ceremony where Neal Cassady handed out diplomas to veterans of the Tests. In his address, he stated, “It [is] time to move on; this doesn’t mean to stop taking acid, but to do something besides get stoned and go to rock ‘n’ roll dances.”

In the late 60s, Kesey and his family moved to Oregon, where he remained for the rest of his life. He continued to write, mostly articles and short stories. He allegedly hated the movie iteration of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He had a stroke in 1998 and died due to complications from surgery in 2001. He was 66.

In February 1968, Neal Cassady attended a wedding in Mexico. Sometime after the reception, he went for a walk alone. He was found in a coma near railroad tracks the next morning. He was taken to the hospital but died four days later. He was less than a week from his 42nd birthday. To this day, his cause of death is unknown.

The Grateful Dead went on to…well, become The Grateful Dead. They’re one of the biggest American bands of all time. Unfortunately, Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. He was 53. His former wife, Carolyn Garcia AKA Mountain Girl, is 71 years old. She has written books on marijuana cultivation and, as the San Francisco Gate put it in 1997, “She never got off the bus.”

Speaking of the bus, Furthur went to Oregon with Kesey, where it fell into disrepair. In 1990, Kesey had another Furthur made, this time from a 1947 International Harvester. In 2014, Further 2, restored by his family, toured the country to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Further’s cross country trip.

Ken Kesey and the Furthur bus

Ken Kesey and the original Furthur. July 17, 2001. Photo via The Oregonian.

Ken Kesey was the cultural link between the 1950s and 1960s. His Acid Tests, although a simple enough concept, changed the burgeoning counterculture in San Francisco. Some might say he was instrumental in creating it. 

And, of course, those acid-fueled parties brought us The Grateful Dead. What a long, strange trip it’s been…

Sources not linked in post

The Acid Test Chronicles (containing excerpts from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On the Bus, and Captain Trips.)
Acid Tests Turn 50: Wavy Gravy, Merry Prankster Ken Babbs Look Back by Jesse Jarnow
From Eternity to Here by Charles Perry
The Psychedelic 60s from University of Virginia Library
Unforgettable photos of psychedelia and debauchery from the golden age of LSD by Thomas Page

US History Books You Probably Haven’t Read Yet (But Should)

I think it’s no secret that I favor modern history…that’s the whole premise of this blog! If you’re into the 20th century, check out these books! This post contains affiliate links but I wholeheartedly recommend the books in this post.

Best US History Books

 Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age by Martin Torgoff
I came across this book years ago (actually, probably about a decade ago!) via a documentary series VH1 and The Sundance Channel produced called “The Drug Years.” It chronicled drug use in American history and its impact on our history. Martin Torgoff was a frequent commentator on the series and it was so fascinating to me, I ordered a copy of his book. It did not disappoint. If you’re at all interested in the ways that drugs have impacted our society, this book is for you.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
It turns out that the summer of 1927 was kind of a big one for America. Lucky Lindy made his historic flight across the Atlantic, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Babe Ruth beat his own home run record, and President Coolidge tried to busy himself during the Roaring 20s. It’s a lot but it’s all very interesting and Bill Bryson is such a good writer that he had me, emphatically not a baseball fan, excitedly reading about the Yankees’ 1927 season.

1969: The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick
Like One Summer: America, this book takes a look at 1969 as a whole. It’s the year we reached the moon and the year the counterculture reached its zenith with Woodstock and died with the Manson murders. 1969 also saw the Chappaquiddick incident, Richard Nixon becoming president, and the truth about the My Lai massacre coming to light. There is a lot to unpack but it’s all fascinating and important.

An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine by Howard Markel
This is not strictly US history, as you probably guessed by Freud’s name in the title. But William Halsted was one of the founders of Johns Hopkins and instrumental in bringing sanitary surgical procedures to the US. If you’ve ever had surgery and not died of infection, you should thank Halsted. Like Freud, he experimented with cocaine’s medical usage, specifically its use as an anesthetic. Unfortunately, this led to a serious addiction. An Anatomy of Addiction chronicles the theories and experiments both men put forth and conducted, as well as their careers as a whole. It’s a fascinating and, at times, horrifying, look at 19th-century medical practice.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins
Ok, maybe you have read this since it was in my “What I Read in August” post. If not, what are you waiting for? As I said in my previous post, it’s eye-opening and should make every woman thankful for the strides that have been made. (I must have eye-rolled a hundred times while reading this book, though. Women have heard every excuse in the book while being denied equal rights.)

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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part Two

For part one, click here!

When we left Lizzie, she had just purchased her freedom for the second time. Since the money had been given to her by many of her clients in St. Louis, she considered it a loan and immediately got to work to pay it back. Of course, she quickly made the money to pay back the St. Louis ladies.

Something else was bothering her, though. Her husband, James. He was still not a companion or helpmate, but a burden. She later wrote, “He was rapidly debasing himself, and although I was willing to work for him, I was not willing to share his degradation.” She asked for a separation and was granted one. One more way in which she was free!

Ms. Keckley Goes to Washington

In 1860, she left St. Louis, headed for Baltimore where she attempted to teach other young black women how to cut and fit dresses. This was unsuccessful, though, and after six weeks, she was left with just enough money for fare to Washington DC. Once she arrived in DC, she began working for $2.50 a day.

In the winter of 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis, and his wife, Varina, arrived in DC. Varina was in need of a modiste, or dressmaker, and Lizzie, already working for one of Varina’s friends, came highly recommended and got the job.

I think that bears repeating: Lizzie Keckley, a former enslaved person, became dressmaker to the future First Lady of the Confederacy. If you think that’s a weird twist of fate, just hold on.

Elizabeth Keckley 1861

Lizzie, circa 1861. Photo via WUNC.

Varina kept her busy making clothing for herself and the Davis children. Then she decided that she wanted to give Jefferson a dressing gown for Christmas and who else would make it but Lizzie Keckley? Lizzie finished it on Christmas Eve and it was given to Jefferson on Christmas morning. She wrote, “As the clock struck twelve I finished the gown, little dreaming of the future that was before it. It was worn, I have not the shadow of a doubt, by Mr. Davis during the stormy years that he was the President of the Confederate States.”

As war approached, Varina put forth the idea that Lizzie should come south with them and continue to be her dressmaker. And Lizzie seriously considered it! She and Varina trusted each other and had built a relationship. When the Davises left DC, Lizzie “half promised” to join them in the South if she changed her mind. She didn’t. But she did come across a statue of Jefferson Davis in Chicago after the war’s end. He was wearing a dress that he was purported to have been captured in. Lizzie recognized the dress immediately as one she had made for Varina! He was wearing a coat when he was captured, not a dress, but Lizzie swore the statue was wearing one of her creations.

I just can’t get over all of that.

Lizzie K. Meets Mary T. (Lincoln)

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincon in on of her inauguration gowns, purportedly made by Lizzie. Photo via Library of Congress.

Since she had arrived in DC, Lizzie decided that she would do anything to work in the White House. Since she already made a name for herself in St. Louis and Washington, her name made it through the grapevine to Mary Lincoln, the new First Lady. Mary was in a bit of a bind. She spilled coffee on the gown she planned on wearing to the reception after Lincoln’s inauguration. Mrs. McClean, one of Lizzie’s clients, recommended her to Mary and after assuring Mary that her prices were reasonable, Lizzie had the job. She made it to the White House!

She made many dresses for Mary and the two became close friends. Their working relationship and friendship were not secret and on at least one occasion, Lizzie had to rebuff requests to use her influence with Mrs. Lincoln for someone else’s personal gain. Lizzie was extremely loyal and wouldn’t dream of betraying Mary’s trust.

In 1861, tragedy struck. Her son, George, was killed in the Battle of Lexington. Being biracial, he was able to pass as white and enlist in the Union Army. Lizzie does not write of this in her book.

Willie Lincoln Death

Photo via Library of Congress.

In early 1862, twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, President and Mrs. Lincoln’s third son, contracted typhoid fever. He passed away in February of the same year. Lizzie watched President Lincoln’s grief consume him and make him a “weak, passive child.” Lizzie wrote that Mary’s grief was inconsolable. She sobbed, went into convulsions, and was so consumed by her grief that she was unable to attend Willie’s funeral. So close was Lizzie to the family that she prepared Willie’s body for burial, washing and dressing the little boy.

Later in 1862, freed slaves began pouring into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. Freedom was more difficult than many anticipated, though. They had nothing. Noticing this, Lizzie founded the Contraband Relief Association (freed slaves were called ‘contraband’ at the time) to raise funds and collect clothing for freedmen. That same year, Lizzie accompanied Mary on a trip to New York. Lizzie saw this as a wonderful opportunity to gain support for her relief association. She appealed to prominent black citizens to donate, garnering plenty of interest in her association. When Mary went to Boston to visit her son Robert at college, Lizzie came with her and Mary called on the city’s philanthropists to donate. President and Mrs. Lincoln were frequent donators themselves.

Paranoia Consumes Mary and Tragedy Strikes (Again)

Mary Lincoln dress

Another of Mary’s dresses thought to have been made by Lizzie. Photo via Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

By 1863, Mary was becoming increasingly paranoid about assassins. Mary Lincoln often, unfairly, I think, gets painted as mentally unwell so it would be easy to chalk those concerns up to that. But Lincoln regularly received letters threatening his life. He disregarded them but they fed Mary’s anxieties as well as the anxieties of Lincoln’s friends. Sometimes friends of the couple stayed at the White House if it was thought that the President was in real danger (this was pre-Secret Service protection.)

During the 1864 election, Mary often talked to Lizzie about her worries over whether or not her husband would be reelected. Mary was very afraid that he would not be. But once he was reelected, she seemed to wish he wouldn’t have been. She could see the toll the presidency was taking on him. Nevertheless, Lizzie dressed Mary for the inauguration and the following festivities and Washington celebrated four more years of President Lincoln.

Of course, Lincoln would not serve four more years.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. Lizzie was asleep and recalled being woken up at around 11 PM by friend and neighbor, Miss Brown. Miss Brown told Lizzie that the Cabinet had been assassinated and Mr. Lincoln was shot, although not fatally. She quickly got dressed and went to the White House, where she was told that President Lincoln had not been brought there and that no one would be allowed in. She went back home but couldn’t sleep. She wanted to go to Mary but still didn’t know where the President had been taken. Around 11:00 the following morning, Mary sent a carriage for her. Upon arriving at the White House, Mary asked why she didn’t come to her the previous night. She specifically asked for Lizzie and three messengers were sent to find her. They all misremembered Lizzie’s address so Mary was without her best friend on what was perhaps the most horrific night of her life.

But they were together now and Lizzie, along with Robert and Tad Lincoln, tried to comfort Mary.

But sometimes comfort just won’t come.

Lizzie helped Mary pack up and prepare to leave the White House. Mary planned on moving to Chicago and was under the impression that Lizzie would move with her. Lizzie did go to Chicago for a short time but soon returned to Washington and her dressmaking business.

I wish Lizzie’s story ended here. But it doesn’t.

Even the Best Laid Plans of Mice & Men Often Go Awry

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary Lincoln had a shopping habit. The kind of habit where she’d buy three hundred pairs of gloves at a time. Because she was the First Lady, shops gave her items on credit. As you can imagine, she racked up debt. A lot of it. When President Lincoln was assassinated and she was no longer First Lady, those shops came after the money she owed them. She didn’t have it, not even close. In 1867, it all came to a head and she wrote Lizzie telling her of her financial troubles. She hatched a plan to sell some of her wardrobe, much of which had never been worn, as a means of generating income. Lizzie agreed to help her and the two met in New York to begin selling Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. Mary was very embarrassed about needing to do this and it was to be a secretive operation.

This plan was foiled when the dealer she partnered with recognized her immediately. She ended up holding a public auction and exhibition of her clothing, which was a total failure. Not only did she not make any money from it, but it became a PR disaster. The extent of her spending was exposed and she was accused of being a spendthrift and even of desecrating President Lincoln’s name. Her name was run through the mud and Lizzie’s was too, by proxy. This became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.”

That’s when Lizzie decided to write her book, Behind the Scenes. She felt that her story of escaping slavery was similar to that of Frederick Douglass and wanted to share it. She also thought that by writing her life story, she could shed some light on Mary’s situation and clear the air (and their names).

Unfortunately, that is basically the opposite of what happened.

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary felt that Lizzie’s book only added to the gossip and felt betrayed that her best friend would put personal details out there. Lizzie was vilified by the press for exposing so much about the First Family. After the book’s publication, Mary cut all ties with Lizzie and the two never spoke again.

Lizzie’s business declined to the point of nonexistence and she never made a cent from her book. She supported herself by teaching young women to sew and eventually got a position teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When her health began to decline, she moved to The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she helped establish during her years as president of the Contraband Relief Association. She died in 1907 at the age of 88.

She still had a picture of Mary Lincoln on her dresser.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Mary & Lizzie. Illustration by Jody Hewgill.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (.99 Kindle version here!)
A Strong Thread in a Torn Union by John Williams
Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War by Elizabeth Young
The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Emily Spivack
30 Years a Slave, 4 Years in the White House, WUNC North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank Stasio
The History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley