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Piecing together history of White House -- via its china

WASHINGTON -- The shimmering candlelight reflected in the porcelain, the silver, the cut-glass decanters, did nothing to disguise the fact that this was the most infamous midnight supper ever served at the president's house.

For when the 40 clamorous British officers and guests had eaten their commandeered meal, Adm. Sir George Cockburn pushed back his plate, rose in his spurred boots, toasted England's prince regent and ordered the White House be burned.Before deserting the White House at the approach of enemy forces, first lady Dolley Madison had ordered dinner be prepared in anticipation of an American victory. The British found the table set and wine in decanters ready on the mahogany sideboard.

"The British officers attacked the table, making a party of the occasion, while the sailors prepared the place for burning," writes William Seale, in "The President's House."

By dawn on the morning of Aug. 25, 1814, the mansion was a smoking ruin. Its sandstone walls were cracked, soot-stained and broken, its timbers charred, its contents -- including china used by Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson -- burned to powder.

Last week, 185 years later, candlelight again gleamed on White House china, glass and silver. But no one suggested the evening be concluded with a fire.

The American plates ordered by President Wilson in 1918 greeted guests at a state dinner honoring the president of Hungary, their broad gold and cobalt-blue double borders framing the presidential eagle in gold.

Diners were served on the American china ordered in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the inner border of gold roses and plumes incorporating elements from the Roosevelt coat of arms. The Wilson and Roosevelt services were filled out this decade by purchases of reproductions ordered by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The stories of the Wilson and Roosevelt plates, and the long and distinguished history of dining at the White House, are incorporated in a newly revised, reissued and lavishly illustrated book, "Official White House China, 1789 to The Present," published by The Barra Foundation and Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Written by the late Margaret Brown Klapthor, former curator of the First Ladies Hall at the Smithsonian Institution, it was revised and updated by Betty Monkman, curator of the White House.

White House china also is a star this summer and fall at an exhibition at the Woodrow Wilson House here. It includes selections from the presidential china collection of Seth Charles Momjian and throws a wider net, including family china from presidential families, yachts and airplanes.

The Momjian collection includes a plate from a family service used by President Monroe between 1817 and 1825. Monroe was the first president to live in the White House after it was rebuilt, and he was largely responsible for refurnishing it in the best French taste. English china just wouldn't do in a house so recently burned by English troops.

For most of the 19th century, older White House china was routinely given away or auctioned off.

As new services were purchased, national themes were increasingly used.

One of the most flamboyant services was introduced by first lady Lucy Hayes in the late 1870s. It featured bold designs with native American animals, fish and plants, including a large, curled-edge platter with a strutting wild turkey.

Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith, also a collector, stopped the selling or giving away of White House china, ordering damaged pieces to be shattered and thrown in the Potomac River.

In 1918, first lady Edith Wilson and the president ordered the first American-made state service.

White House china was purchased with government money through the 1960s. Since then, the cost has been borne by private donations, including the "Nancy Reagan red" state china with its gold-hatched red border.

The Reagan china drew criticism for extravagance, even though no public money was used to buy it.

First lady Mary Lincoln also was scolded in the press for ordering new, purple-bordered china at the opening of the Civil War.

There is one intriguing note.

One of the British officers present at Cockburn's notorious dinner was Lt. Beauchamp Urquhart, who helped himself to President Madison's dress sword. He later told a London journal that "one of the soldiers tied up the plates and knives and forks in the tablecloth, and brought them away."

If so, Monkman, the White House curator, says there is no evidence they still exist.