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From the Archives: State Dinners at the White House

See a gallery of past White House state visit images from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Ed. note: See a gallery of images from this week's official France State Visit and dinner

King David Kalakaua of Hawaii was the first head of state to be honored with a White House State Dinner on December 12, 1874 by President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.  In the years that have followed, State Dinners have come to signify the utmost respect for visiting heads of state.  Each State Dinner is an historic event with the power to cement friendships with allies and foster cooperation with warming relations.

Months of meticulous planning go into a State Dinner and thorough research is conducted to celebrate the guest of honor’s country, culture, and favored preferences.  Hallmarks of American culture are also chosen, often by the First Lady.  Together, these considerations are translated into details both large and small, including invitations, menus, guest lists, and entertainment.  The results can be a form of diplomatic dialogue between the host and guest cultures. 

In 1976, First Lady Betty Ford chose a theme of “light” for the State Dinner honoring French President Giscard d’Estaing.  It was inspired by France’s Bicentennial gift to the United States, a sound and light show staged at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.  Centerpieces were designed for each table using items from the early American lighting collection on loan from the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. These included a variety of period lanterns, candelabra, and candlesticks made of tin, pewter, brass, and wrought iron.

The accompanying floral arrangements featured anemones, the favorite flower of Mrs. Giscard d’Estaing.   Tablecloth designs featured reproductions of an original French textile dating from around 1775 from the Textile Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  At the exchange of state gifts following the arrival ceremony, President Giscard d’Estaing presented an antique 18th-century printing press which was set up to print copies of the Declaration of Independence.

When planning what dishes to make, the White House took into account that the French had indicated that they would serve lobster and duckling at the reciprocal dinner at their embassy the following evening. Mrs. Ford approved a menu of Columbia River Salmon, Sauce Verte, Filet of Beef, Artichokes Saint Germain, Mushroooms Provencale, Bibb Lettuce Salad, Brie Cheese, Basket Grand Marnier, Petits Fours, and Demitasse.

Although State Dinners are watched closely for the glamour and protocol on display, the evenings also serve the serious diplomatic function of solidifying strong international alliances.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt invited England's King George VI for a visit to the United States, the significance of the invitation did not go unnoticed. No reigning British Monarch had ever set foot on American soil, not even in colonial times. 

FDR's invitation to the King signified the dawn of a new era in American and British cooperation.  With Europe poised on the brink of war, FDR realized the necessity of fostering closer ties between the two democracies.  FDR believed so strongly in the need for cooperation that he pursued this change in foreign policy at the risk of losing domestic support from the very strong isolationist and anti-British segments of the electorate.  FDR planned every minute detail of the visit to ensure the King's success in winning over the sympathy and support of the American people.

At the State Dinner held on June 8, 1939, a concert of American music was chosen for the entertainment including spirituals, cowboy ballads, and folk songs.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had invited African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in a program that included “Ava Maria” for the royal audience. 

Ultimately, President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s hospitality paid off as King George VI's visit to the United States became a key component in developing a stronger political and social alliance between the U.S. and Great Britain.  In President Roosevelt’s toast to the King he expressed a wish that still captures the spirit of the State Dinner tradition, saying, “May this kind of understanding between our countries grow ever closer, and may our friendship prosper.”

We’ve put together a gallery of White House state visit images from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration.  We also have a Tumblr blog on the State Dinners hosted by President and Mrs. Ford where you can explore invitations, menus, state gifts, photos and more here: .

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