Mourning Lincoln in the Nation’s Capital

While citizens across the country mourned after Lincoln’s assassination, the president’s funeral procession made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 19, 1865.

Image Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.
Historic image of Ford's Theatre shown from F Street.

Today, Pennsylvania Avenue hosts presidential inaugural parades every four years and is mostly lined with large office buildings. But in 1865, Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with small stores and even homes. Covering the news of the procession the next day, The Washington Evening Star described local reactions and storefront decorations along the avenue, including those of Philp & Solomons; Hudson Taylor; L.F. Clark; and Messrs. Sweetser & Co. The descriptions —the “general sorrow exhibited by various mourning devices” in storefronts along Pennsylvania Avenue—provide a poignant window into Washington City’s response to Lincoln’s death.

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., is dedicated to collecting, interpreting and sharing the stories of local Washington, including the experiences of Washingtonians during the Civil War era. To seek insights into Washingtonians’ experiences in the wake of Lincoln’s death, let’s dig into the Historical Society’s online catalog.

Philp & Solomons and Hudson Taylor were both important businesses in the bookselling and printing world of Washington. The cover of Boyd’s Washington and Georgetown Directory of 1865, an annual directory of businesses and residents of Washington and Georgetown, is emblazoned with advertisements for local businesses. At the top, you will find an advertisement reading, “Philp & Solomons, Metropolitan Book Store, 332 Penn. Ave. bet. 9th & 10th Streets, Washington, D.C.” Today the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI, is on the site. In the same block was “Hudson Taylor, Bookseller & Stationer, 334 Pa. Ave., Wash.” Neighbors on Pennsylvania Avenue, these two companies also grace the title page of the directory.

Historic image of Ford's Theatre in 1865, shown draped in honor of President Lincoln's death. 

In addition to books, Philp & Solomons sold other paper goods. Covered with patriotic emblems, naval achievements and American flags, decorated envelopes were sold as souvenirs and were very popular throughout the Civil War. (For further reading, check out Josephine Cobb, “Decorated Envelopes in the Civil War,” The Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. no. 63/65, (1963/1965): 230-239.) Philp & Solomons also sold engravings of famous Washington buildings for visitors wanting to remember their time in the nation’s capital. One such engraving in the holdings of the Historical Society comes from the Kiplinger Washington Collection. Printed in 1865, it depicts the White House, the Treasury Building, the U.S. Patent Office, the Soldier’s Home and the Temple of Art, which is today the Renwick Gallery.

Philp & Solomons was elaborately decorated for the funeral. A banner above the store said, “Treason has done its worst”—indicating that the business owners felt not only Booth but the Confederacy generally was responsible for the president’s death. The store also included a photo of Lincoln with his son Tad, as well as copious quantities of mourning ribbon.

Lincoln's funeral tassels and pressed flowers in a display case at the Center for Education and Leadership
The Aftermath Exhibits feature items from Abraham Lincoln's funeral in 1865. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

Under the category, “Sutler Supplies,” Messrs. Sweetser & Co. sat at 397 Pennsylvania Ave, where today you’ll find the National Gallery of Art. A sutler was an early term for wartime contractor, and Messrs. Sweetser & Co.’s sutler supplies store sold provisions for armies stationed in quarters, in the field or in camp—a necessity in wartime Washington. As the seat of the Union government, Washington was defended on all sides throughout the Civil War in fear of a Confederate invasion. Union soldiers could purchase provisions at Messrs. Sweetser & Co. while off duty in the city. In addition to the usual mourning cloth, the owners of Messrs. Sweetser & Co. displayed a passage that showed their thoughts about recent events: A Great Man has Fallen. A Noble Man is Dead. The Nation Mourns.

The final establishment described in the Evening Star article, L.F. Clark’s, was not formally listed in the business section of the directory; only Clark’s home address could be found under the alphabetical listing of residents. Residing at 248 Pennsylvania Avenue, Lemuel F. Clark was a paper hanger—a professional wallpaper installer—at the time of Lincoln’s funeral procession. L.F. Clark showed a portrait of Lincoln “with a roll of papers in his hand inscribed ‘Emancipation Proclamation,’” showing that the late president was already revered, in particular, for his role in freeing enslaved people. In this small article, we gain some sense of the merchants on Pennsylvania Avenue, their customers and other locals affected by Lincoln’s untimely death. These examples serve as a reminder that Washington mourned as a community, just like other communities across the United States.

For further information on visiting the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and researching among the collections in the Kiplinger Research Library, please visit www.DChistory.org.

Brianne Roth is a recent graduate of the Public History M.A. program at American University, served as both a volunteer and special collections intern at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and worked at Ford’s Theatre.