Bio: Abigail Fillmore (née Powers; March 13, 1798 – March 30, 1853), wife of Millard Fillmore, was an American scholar who was the First Lady of the United States from 1850 to 1853 and the Second Lady of the United States from 1849 to 1850.
Contrary to contemporary perceptions, Abigail Fillmore as First Lady was viewed as a bona fide public figure. In fact, she received her first mention in the public press just nine days after President Taylor's death with the unusual distinction of being referred to by her first name. As theCortland County Expressreported on 18 July 1850, in regard to the new President's wife, "In 1826 he married Abagail [sic] - the daughter of the Rev. Lemuel Powers. She no doubt will hereafter preside at the White House."
Newspapers and journals gave heavy coverage to the regal green coach with silver and mother-of-pearl mountings and blue silk interiors that was presented to the First Lady as a gift from the citizens of Albany. When the novelist Helen deKroyft of New Orleans visited Abigail Fillmore she asked for her aid in finding an eye specialist to help reverse her increasing state of blindness. The First Lady arranged for her to be seen by specialist Joseph Turnbull who had great success in treating eye ailments. A year later, deKroyft publicized the First Lady's help by permitting her letter of gratitude to be reprinted in a December 1852 issue of theDaily Deltaof New Orleans. Abigail Fillmore received a large number of public requests for her intercessions, such as minor patronage or entrance into West Point. As many notes of appreciation to her attest, she was attentive to those citizens who needed her genuine help. In one instance, she helped the fledgling career of a young dressmaker who wrote for her patronage by urging her services to other women in Washington. She even persuaded the President to break his firm opposition to nepotism by obtaining a postmaster position for her brother David Powers.
Receiving greater press coverage than her more socially-active and recent predecessor Sarah Polk, Abigail Fillmore may have become part of the larger nation's awareness because technology had so rapidly advanced in four years that the general public were able to see what she looked like in person. A full-length photograph of the First Lady was mass-produced on small, hard paper cards known as carte de visites, analogous to contemporary tourist postcards. They were made available for sale in 1853 at the Washington, D.C. studio that made the original photograph.
Highly conscious of her public appearances, she hired a maid who also fancily dressed her hair, and a seamstress whose work made Abigail Fillmore the first First Lady to wear clothing created with the aid of the relatively new invention of the sewing machine. Another factor in the public's growing consciousness of the First Lady role was the reported presence of Abigail Fillmore with the President at public and official ceremonies, such as his receiving a delegation of Sioux Indian leaders, following a treaty-signing, an event at which she was the only woman present. Such public exposure ran counter to the era's prevailing idealization of a wife as a purely private person whose domain was strictly domestic. "I think if I were a lady, and my husband should become president," her nephew wrote Abigail Fillmore, "I should run away."
Upon leaving the White House and her mother's death, Abbie Fillmore assumed responsibility for her father's household at their Buffalo home on Franklin Street. She became his companion at the few public events he attended in Buffalo, but her most famous appearance was during the "Grand Excursion" of June 1854. Organized to publicize newly created transportation links between railway and steam boat travel, she was among several hundred prominent citizens in business, academia, politics, the clergy and the arts to go from Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois by rail, then to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory and back by steamboat. Along the way were tours of lead mines and endless speeches with former President Fillmore as the lead figure. Covered by large eastern newspapers, the event especially celebrated the natural beauty of the upper-Midwest. The scenic wonder was captured in June 7 accounts from Trempealeau, Wisconsin where Abbie Fillmore made a dramatic and swift climb to a bluff on horseback, the very image of a healthy and adventurous American girl. Only seven weeks later, while visiting her grandfather in East Aurora, Abbie Fillmore contracted cholera and died in one day. The loneliness caused by her death was cited as a reason Fillmore returned to politics and remarried.