Aubrey Miles (left) and Jennifer Capps arrange some artifacts for the new exhibit, “Life in the White House,” at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

January 26, 2024

The letters written by President Benjamin Harrison and his family are more than 100 years old, but the stories about their daily lives are not so different from the texts and social media posts that families and friends trade today.

Aubrey Miles, a graduate student in the museum studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has read through many of the family letters in the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s collection and found they converse about ordinary everyday activities like inviting each other for dinner or sharing a funny anecdote.

 “A lot of it reminds me of just calling my mom and talking to her every day,” Miles said. “It’s a lot of conversations we still have with our parents. So it’s finding that nice connection to the past and what we’re doing in the present.”

The presidential site has dug into its collection and pulled out the letters, diaries, photos, memorabilia and personal effects from the time the Harrison family resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from 1889 to 1893. They have been curated into a new exhibit, “Life in the White House,” which opens Jan. 26 and explores how President Harrison, his wife, Caroline, and their two adult children’s families, which included three grandchildren, tried to maintain an ordinary family life while they all lived in the “people’s house.”

Central to the exhibit are the letters. The handwritten missives provide glimpses into the family’s daily routine, which often included official duties like receiving visitors and hosting receptions, mixed with the ordinary tasks like buying furniture, picking out fabric for a new dress or celebrating a birthday.

Two recent additions to the collection at the presidential site, in the Old Northside Historic Neighborhood of Indianapolis, offer more insight into the Harrison family’s private life. The descendants of Josephine Kneip, the Harrisons’ seamstress, gave the presidential site access to her diaries, which fill more than 100 pages in English and German with details about living in the White House and being a companion to the first family.

Also, in the fall of 2022, the descendants of Mary Harrison McKee, Benjamin Harrison’s daughter, donated about 700 letters. This brings the total collection of personal family letters at the presidential site to upwards of 2,000, according to Jennifer Capps, vice president of curatorship and exhibition at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.

The letters and diaries kept by Kneip and Caroline Harrison are not thick with colorful details, Capps said, but, broadly, they paint a portrait of how the Harrisons lived in the public eye. She put together the exhibit because she wanted to show the Harrisons were a family, just like any other.

“They enjoyed spending time together … and they had to balance that with the public duties of the White House,” Capps said. “(The exhibit is) going to focus on how they balanced maintaining their family life and doing those things that they enjoyed doing together with their public duties such as … having the public Easter egg roll down the White House lawn.”

Work from home – ‘an evil combination’

Benjamin Harrison won the 1888 presidential election and moved his family to the White House when his term began in 1889.

The Harrisons were crammed into the second floor and shared the space with the president’s office. Theodore Roosevelt made the upstairs a truly private residence, when he built in 1902 what is now known as the West Wing and relocated the president’s workspace there.

Harrison did not like the work-from-home aspect of his new life, seeming to chaff against the demands of the presidency always being so physically close to his family.

“It is an office and a home and an office combined – an evil combination,” Harrison said of the White House. “There is no break in the day – no change of atmosphere.”

The new exhibit showcases an array of artifacts from the Harrison family’s four years on Pennsylvania Avenue. Items from the Harrisons’ public and private lives demonstrate that they had full schedules with many enjoyable moments.

Music programs and place cards for such dignitaries as Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley and Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of Abraham Lincoln, highlight Caroline Harrison bringing Hoosier Hospitality to D.C. Also on display is the green gown the first lady wore at the inaugural parade and the plans she presented to Congress to build separate wings onto the White House for offices and an art gallery.

From the Harrisons’ life upstairs at the White House, there are party favors crafted with bows and bells to celebrate a birthday and granddaughter Mary Lodge Harrison’s baptismal certificate signed by all of the president’s Cabinet members.

The exhibit also draws from the observations of White House staff. Irwin “Ike” Hoover, who arrived during the Harrison administration to help wire the “people’s house” for electricity, countered the public perception that Benjamin Harrison was stoic and aloof. Hoover wrote that Harrison was actually a warm person and the family was kind as well, often stopping to chat whenever they saw the electrician.

Capps and Miles pointed out that the Harrisons were not unique. The struggles they had in maintaining a quiet life for their family are similar to what modern-day presidents have experienced.

“As things change, they stay the same,” Capps said.

Writing to the grandchildren

Interestingly, the family letters in the presidential site’s collection stick to the personal and do not mention the issues, public opinions or politics that dominated the news of the day. Indeed, Col. William Crook, member of the White House staff, told the story of finding Caroline Harrison dismayed after reading a newspaper, asking him why the reporters had to include stories about the grandchildren in their articles.

The Harrisons’ short notes to their grandchildren are included in the letters from the McKee family collection. At the time, the McKee children – Benjamin Harrison, nicknamed “Baby McKee,” and Mary Lodge – were toddlers and when they would leave the White House for trips with their parents, grandma and grandpa Harrison would keep them abreast of the latest happenings.

Capps said her favorite letter was the one Caroline Harrison wrote to tell Baby McKee and Mary Lodge that a man with ferrets had come to the White House while they were away. Caroline Harrison wrote the letter to her grandson because he was a few years older, but she kept reminding him to “tell your sister” about the ferrets coming to help chase away the rats who were unwelcome guests in the White House.

 “(They’re) just really cute conversations that she’s having in these letters with the grandchildren,” Capps said.

Benjamin Harrison continued the correspondence with his grandchildren, after he returned alone to Indianapolis following the death of Caroline and his loss in the 1892 presidential election. In one letter written after the McKee grandchildren had left for their home in Connecticut following a visit Indiana, the former president told the youngsters that the bicycle they had left propped in the hallway was lonely.

The Harrisons’ tales about ferrets, travels outside of Washington, D.C., and other day-to-day activities give a rare peek into a presidential family’s private life. That glimpse shows they were a typical family, eating dinner together, celebrating holidays, shopping at local merchants, and trying to prevent the grandchildren from getting too much underfoot.

“What I want people to take away from this is that they were a family first and foremost,” Miles said of the new exhibit. “They spent their family time together. They weren’t just these public facing figures.”

If you go

The “Life in the White House” exhibit is on display from now through Dec. 30, 2024, at the Benjamin Harrison President Site, 1230 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis. Visitors can tour the exhibit and the presidential site with the purchase of a general admission ticket.

For more information about the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and to purchase tickets, visit

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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