Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
The diamond lavaliere presented to Jessie Wilson by the House of Representatives on the occasion of her wedding.
In the early 20th century, it was common practice for the president's cabinet, world leaders, diplomats, and Members of Congress to present often lavish gifts to the daughter of the president on the occasion of her marriage.
When Jessie Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, became engaged to Francis Bowes Sayre in 1913, Washington was aflutter with excitement. Washington society had not had such an occasion to anticipate since the marriage of Alice Roosevelt to Nicholas Longworth set extravagant expectations for what a Washington wedding could be.
A committee of Representatives, chaired by Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri and including Congressmen James Mann, Robert Page, Thomas Hardwick, H. Robert Fowler, and Walter Chandler, collected $5 donations from other Members to purchase an appropriate gift. They considered the standard silver chest, other jewels, or a plate, before deciding on a lavaliere with just over six carats of diamonds, said to cost about $2,000 (almost $45,000 today).
The press reported on the necklace extensively—all the major newspapers carried descriptions of the necklace and other gifts the couple received. The New York Times described it in minute detail:
"The necklace is composed of slender links incrusted in small diamonds with a large stone between the mountings. In all thirty stones enter into the making of the necklace alone. The necklace was inclosed [sic] in a jewel case of solid silver in the form of a miniature trunk, which contains three large and five small compartments all lined in orchid pink velvet. Accompanying this were two keys, one of silver, the second a special order of Representative Mann, who practically selected the gift, was of gold marked with the bride's monogram, and a setting of small diamonds."
Nonetheless, not everyone was thrilled with the gift, including, perhaps, Jessie Wilson, who was said to have more modest taste. Representative Finly Gray of Indiana was more vocal about his objections to the gift. On the Floor of the House, Gray refused to donate to the collection, instead saying he would send a check to the committee to be used for the purchase of Christmas gifts for needy children. Gray felt the gift represented a desire for people to seek the favor of those in power. "I think it is a misconception of the office and the relationship of the people to their high officers. I think further that this movement is of exceedingly bad taste. I think it is indiscreet and an unwarranted assumption for the members of this House to tender to this lady a trinket which they may see fit to purchase." After introducing a resolution, Gray's remarks were unceremoniously cut off by Mr. Mann, and he was chastised for his inability to understand "the expression which finds itself in the heart of every other member of this House."
Sources: New York Times, November 21, 1913; New York Tribune, October 31, 1913; Doug Wead, All the Presidents' Children (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003).