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. ●