Lincoln’s Springfield House
The Lincoln home for the automobile tourist
It is the lot of a freelancer to do pieces of sundry sorts. My first article that deserved to be called journalism and which appeared in a publication that deserved to be called a newspaper was a travel piece—an introduction to the daytripper of my birthplace, Beardstown, Illinois.
This piece was the first of four about Illinois tourist attractions I did for the monthly of the American Automobile Association. It is a good piece of its kind, but I had more interesting things to say about the home and other Lincoln sites in Springfield in Illinois Times. Those pieces can be found below and on the Abraham Lincoln page.
Historic Springfield offers clues to the many sides of Abraham Lincoln—the uncertain youth who kept store in nearby New Salem, the politician who warned against a ”house divided” in the Old State Capitol, the public speaker who bid his city farewell from a train depot, the prairie lawyer who built a prosperous practice and the martyr who is buried in his tomb. It is his house, more than any of the city’s restored sites, which speaks most eloquently about Lincoln the private man.
Purchased in 1844, two years after his marriage to Mary Todd, the Quaker brown frame house on Eighth Street is the only house the Lincolns ever owned. Today it sits on a partially restored 19th-century residential block, the centerpiece of the National Park Service’s four-block Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
It is the aim of the park service to show visitors not only where Lincoln lived but how. James O’Toole, superintendent of the home site, commented, “People seem surprised to see how common and un-lavish the house is.” The impression of pinched comfort is partly the result of the shortcomings of 19th-century domestic life—big houses were hard to heat—and partly the result of Lincoln’s modest means. The house originally was built as a cottage, and in the early years of their marriage, the Lincolns slept in a sloped-ceiling attic bedroom that was barely six feet high at its center. Lincoln milked his own cow (a barn still stands behind the house) and chopped his own wood, while the patrician Mrs. Lincoln probably cooked over an open fire at the kitchen hearth.
The Eighth Street house is hardly a mansion, but it is a far cry from the log cabin where Lincoln was born. Over 25 years, the house was enlarged twice as Lincoln’s income and family grew. By the time they left for the White House in 1861, it had swelled to nearly a dozen smallish rooms on two floors (including a bedroom suite for Lincoln and his wife whom he affectionately called “Mother”). It also had newfangled wood stoves instead of the original fireplaces and spacious public rooms on the first floor. The decor by Mrs. Lincoln was Victorian down to the last tassle, which might be expected of a mistress whom a contemporary correspondent described as “the true type of the American lady.”
The stovepipe hat that hangs from a hook in the front hall is both an artifact and a prop. “We attempt to make the house look lived in,” says O’Toole. “It’s inconceivable that a house with so many children in it would have had all those toys off the floor at one time.” Three of the Lincoln sons were born in the house, and one died in it.
While touring the house, you not only learn about the president but also about the various family members. The boys may have left a deeper impression on their neighbors than their father, for apparently they were a mischievous bunch. A photo taken in 1850 shows an indulgent Lincoln seated in the front yard while one of the clamoring boys climbed precariously over a fence just installed to spruce up the property.
The house offers evidence to the speculation that Mary Todd was a force behind her husband’s climb to the professional middle class. If it is hard for the visitor to imagine Lincoln as the proper Victorian gentleman at his ease in the parlor, it may be because the real Lincoln wasn’t. The man who relished the rough life on the judicial circuit was not really at home amid the florid wallpapers and bric-a-brac of Eighth Street. That side of Lincoln is more vividly revealed by his restored law offices a few blocks away—remembered by visitors as a jumble of papers and books whose floors were swept so indifferently that corn is said to have sprouted in the corner.
If Lincoln the lawyer is to be found in his offices, however, Lincoln the husband and father still resides on Eighth Street. The house is a testament to Lincoln’s achievement. He was not so proud of his impoverished beginnings that he did not strive to overcome them. To Lincoln, the genius of America was not that its leaders were born into humble circumstances, but that they didn’t have to stay that way. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.