How Former Slave Elizabeth Keckley Befriended the Lincolns

An excerpt from the memoir of a woman who bought her own freedom and became a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln.

elizabeth keckley, former slave and dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln

Born into slavery in February 1818, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was the daughter of her owner, Armistead Burwell, and his house slave, Agnes. Elizabeth Keckley began working as a nursemaid when she was four years old, and endured years of beatings and rape, the latter of which resulted in a pregnancy. However, one part of her childhood would eventually save her: from her mother, Elizabeth Keckley had learned how to sew.  

Not only did Keckley’s sewing skills eventually allow her to purchase her freedom—her patrons loaned her the money to buy herself and her son—they also enabled her to start her own dressmaking business and become the seamstress and friend of then-First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. 

Elizabeth Keckley’s story is jaw-dropping—and you can read it in her own words in her autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

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The book was published to great controversy in 1868—many people were uncomfortable with the intimate details Elizabeth Keckley provided about the Lincoln family and their private life in the White House. However, the book is also a stunning account of what life was like for a black woman in nineteenth century America, and offers “A remarkable vantage point on the Civil War” (Chicago Sun-Times).

Below, an excerpt from “Chapter V: My Introduction to Mrs. Lincoln.”

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Behind the Scenes

By Elizabeth Keckley

EVER SINCE ARRIVING IN WASHINGTON I had a great desire to work for the ladies of the White House, and to accomplish this end I was ready to make almost any sacrifice consistent with propriety. Work came in slowly, and I was beginning to feel very much embarrassed, for I did not know how I was to meet the bills staring me in the face. It is true, the bills were small, but then they were formidable to me, who had little or nothing to pay them with. 

While in this situation I called at the Ringolds, where I met Mrs. Captain Lee. Mrs. L. was in a state bordering on excitement, as the great event of the season, the dinner-party given in honor of the Prince of Wales, was soon to come off, and she must have a dress suitable for the occasion. The silk had been purchased, but a dress-maker had not yet been found. Miss Ringold recommended me, and I received the order to make the dress. 

When I called on Mrs. Lee the next day, her husband was in the room, and handing me a roll of bank bills, amounting to one hundred dollars, he requested me to purchase the trimmings, and to spare no expense in making a selection. With the money in my pocket I went out in the street, entered the store of Harper & Mitchell, and asked to look at their laces. Mr. Harper waited on me himself, and was polite and kind. 

When I asked permission to carry the laces to Mrs. Lee, in order to learn whether she could approve my selection or not, he gave a ready assent. When I reminded him that I was a stranger, and that the goods were valuable, he remarked that he was not afraid to trust me—that he believed my face was the index to an honest heart. 

It was pleasant to be spoken to thus, and I shall never forget the kind words of Mr. Harper. I often recall them, for they are associated with the dawn of a brighter period in my dark life. 

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I purchased the trimmings, and Mr. Harper allowed me a commission of twenty-five dollars on the purchase. The dress was done in time, and it gave complete satisfaction. Mrs. Lee attracted great attention at the dinner-party, and her elegant dress proved a good card for me. I received numerous orders, and was relieved from all pecuniary embarrassments. 

One of my patrons was Mrs. Gen. McClean, a daughter of Gen. Sumner. One day when I was very busy, Mrs. McC. drove up to my apartments, came in where I was engaged with my needle, and in her emphatic way said:

“Lizzie, I am invited to dine at Willard’s on next Sunday, and positively I have not a dress fit to wear on the occasion. I have just purchased material, and you must commence work on it right away.”

“But Mrs. McClean,” I replied, “I have more work now promised than I can do. It is impossible for me to make a dress for you to wear on Sunday next.”

“Pshaw! Nothing is impossible. I must have the dress made by Sunday;” and she spoke with some impatience.

“I am sorry,” I began, but she interrupted me.

“Now don’t say no again. I tell you that you must make the dress. I have often heard you say that you would like to work for the ladies of the White House. Well, I have it in my power to obtain you this privilege. I know Mrs. Lincoln well, and you shall make a dress for her provided you finish mine in time to wear at dinner on Sunday.”

The inducement was the best that could have been offered. I would undertake the dress if I should have to sit up all night—every night, to make my pledge good. I sent out and employed assistants, and, after much worry and trouble, the dress was completed to the satisfaction of Mrs. McClean. 

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It appears that Mrs. Lincoln had upset a cup of coffee on the dress she designed wearing on the evening of the reception after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, which rendered it necessary that she should have a new one for the occasion. On asking Mrs. McClean who her dress-maker was, that lady promptly informed her, “Lizzie Keckley.”

“Lizzie Keckley? The name is familiar to me. She used to work for some of my lady friends in St. Louis, and they spoke well of her. Can you recommend her to me?”

“With confidence. Shall I send her to you?”

“If you please. I shall feel under many obligations for your kindness.”

The next Sunday Mrs. McClean sent me a message to call at her house at four o’clock P.M., that day. As she did not state why I was to call, I determined to wait till Monday morning. Monday morning came, and nine o’clock found me at Mrs. McC.’s house. 

The streets of the capital were thronged with people, for this was Inauguration day. A new President, a man of the people from the broad prairies of the West, was to accept the solemn oath of office, was to assume the responsibilities attached to the high position of Chief Magistrate of the United States. Never was such deep interest felt in the inauguration proceedings as was felt today; for threats of assassination had been made, and every breeze from the South came heavily laden with the rumors of war. 

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elizabeth keckley

Around Willard’s hotel swayed an excited crowd, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I worked my way to the house on the opposite side of the street, occupied by the McCleans. Mrs. McClean was out, but presently an aide on General McClean’s staff called, and informed me that I was wanted at Willard’s. I crossed the street, and on entering the hotel was met by Mrs. McClean, who greeted me:

“Lizzie, why did you not come yesterday, as I requested? Mrs. Lincoln wanted to see you, but I fear that now you are too late.”

“I am sorry, Mrs. McClean. You did not say what you wanted with me yesterday, so I judged that this morning would do as well.”

“You should have come yesterday,” she insisted. “Go up to Mrs. Lincoln’s room”—giving me the number—“she may find use for you yet.”

With a nervous step I passed on, and knocked at Mrs. Lincoln’s door. A cheery voice bade me come in, and a lady, inclined to stoutness, about forty years of age, stood before me. “You are Lizzie Keckley, I believe.”

I bowed assent.

“The dress-maker that Mrs. McClean recommended?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Very well; I have not time to talk to you now, but would like to have you call at the White House, at eight o’clock to-morrow morning, where I shall then be.”

I bowed myself out of the room, and returned to my apartments. The day passed slowly, for I could not help but speculate in relation to the appointed interview for the morrow. My long-cherished hope was about to be realized, and I could not rest.

Tuesday morning, at eight o’clock, I crossed the threshold of the White House for the first time. I was shown into a waiting-room, and informed that Mrs. Lincoln was at breakfast. In the waiting-room I found no less than three mantua-makers waiting for an interview with the wife of the new President. 

It seems that Mrs. Lincoln had told several of her lady friends that she had urgent need for a dress-maker, and that each of these friends had sent her mantua-maker to the White House. Hope fell at once. With so many rivals for the position sought after, I regarded my chances for success as extremely doubtful. 

I was the last one summoned to Mrs. Lincoln’s presence. All the others had a hearing, and were dismissed. I went up-stairs timidly, and entering the room with nervous step, discovered the wife of the President standing by a window, looking out, and engaged in lively conversation with a lady, Mrs. Grimsly, as I afterwards learned. Mrs. L. came forward, and greeted me warmly.

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“You have come at last. Mrs. Keckley, who have you worked for in the city?”

“Among others, Mrs. Senator Davis has been one of my best patrons,” was my reply.

“Mrs. Davis! So you have worked for her, have you? Of course you gave satisfaction; so far, good. Can you do my work?”

“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln. Will you have much work for me to do?”

“That, Mrs. Keckley, will depend altogether upon your prices. I trust that your terms are reasonable. I cannot afford to be extravagant. We are just from the West, and are poor. If you do not charge too much, I shall be able to give you all my work.”

“I do not think there will be any difficulty about charges, Mrs. Lincoln; my terms are reasonable.”

“Well, if you will work cheap, you shall have plenty to do. I can’t afford to pay big prices, so I frankly tell you so in the beginning.”

The terms were satisfactorily arranged, and I measured Mrs. Lincoln, took the dress with me, a bright rose-colored moiré-antique, and returned the next day to fit it on her. A number of ladies were in the room, all making preparations for the levee to come off on Friday night. 

These ladies, I learned, were relatives of Mrs. L.’s,—Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. Kellogg, her own sisters, and Elizabeth Edwards and Julia Baker, her nieces. Mrs. Lincoln this morning was dressed in a cashmere wrapper, quilted down the front; and she wore a simple head-dress. The other ladies wore morning robes.

I was hard at work on the dress, when I was informed that the levee had been postponed from Friday night till Tuesday night. This, of course, gave me more time to complete my task. Mrs. Lincoln sent for me, and suggested some alteration in style, which was made. She also requested that I make a waist of blue watered silk for Mrs. Grimsly, as work on the dress would not require all my time.

Tuesday evening came, and I had taken the last stitches on the dress. I folded it and carried it to the White House, with the waist for Mrs. Grimsly. When I went up-stairs, I found the ladies in a terrible state of excitement. Mrs. Lincoln was protesting that she could not go down, for the reason that she had nothing to wear.

“Mrs. Keckley, you have disappointed me—deceived me. Why do you bring my dress at this late hour?”

“Because I have just finished it, and I thought I should be in time.”

“But you are not in time, Mrs. Keckley; you have bitterly disappointed me. I have no time now to dress, and, what is more, I will not dress, and go down-stairs.”

“I am sorry if I have disappointed you, Mrs. Lincoln, for I intended to be in time. Will you let me dress you? I can have you ready in a few minutes.”

“No, I won’t be dressed. I will stay in my room. Mr. Lincoln can go down with the other ladies.”

“But there is plenty of time for you to dress, Mary,” joined in Mrs. Grimsly and Mrs. Edwards. 

“Let Mrs. Keckley assist you, and she will soon have you ready.”

Thus urged, she consented. I dressed her hair, and arranged the dress on her. It fitted nicely, and she was pleased. Mr. Lincoln came in, threw himself on the sofa, laughed with Willie and little Tad, and then commenced pulling on his gloves, quoting poetry all the while.

mary todd lincoln, who was dressed by Elizabeth Keckley
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  • Mary Todd Lincoln

“You seem to be in a poetical mood to-night,” said his wife.

“Yes, mother, these are poetical times,” was his pleasant reply. “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.” And then he proceeded to compliment the other ladies.

Mrs. Lincoln looked elegant in her rose-colored moiré-antique. She wore a pearl necklace, pearl ear-rings, pearl bracelets, and red roses in her hair. Mrs. Baker was dressed in lemon-colored silk; Mrs. Kellogg in a drab silk, ashes of rose; Mrs. Edwards in a brown and black silk; Miss Edwards in crimson, and Mrs. Grimsly in blue watered silk. 

Just before starting downstairs, Mrs. Lincoln’s lace handkerchief was the object of search. It had been displaced by Tad, who was mischievous, and hard to restrain. The handkerchief found, all became serene. Mrs. Lincoln took the President’s arm, and with smiling face led the train below. 

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I was surprised at her grace and composure. I had heard so much, in current and malicious report, of her low life, of her ignorance and vulgarity, that I expected to see her embarrassed on this occasion. Report, I soon saw, was wrong. 

No queen, accustomed to the usages of royalty all her life, could have comported herself with more calmness and dignity than did the wife of the President. She was confident and self-possessed, and confidence always gives grace.

This levee was a brilliant one, and the only one of the season. I became the regular modiste of Mrs. Lincoln. I made fifteen or sixteen dresses for her during the spring and early part of the summer, when she left Washington; spending the hot weather at Saratoga, Long Branch, and other places. 

In the mean time I was employed by Mrs. Senator Douglas, one of the loveliest ladies that I ever met, Mrs. Secretary Wells, Mrs. Secretary Stanton, and others. Mrs. Douglas always dressed in deep mourning, with excellent taste, and several of the leading ladies of Washington society were extremely jealous of her superior attractions.

Want to keep reading? Download Elizabeth Keckley's memoir today.

Buy Behind the Scenes at Amazon

Behind the Scenes

By Elizabeth Keckley

“Invaluable . . . Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir of her life as a White House dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln . . . [is a] curious gem.” —The New York Times Book Review

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Published on 28 Feb 2020