Sunday, July 3, 2016

White House Weddings: Jessie Woodrow Wilson

When Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen entered the White House in 1913, two of their three daughters were secretly engaged--secret from the press, that is. The Wilson family was known to appreciate their privacy, and they waited several months to announce their daughters' engagements.

Jessie Woodrow Wilson, the middle daughter, was the first to wed, to Francis B. Sayre on November 25, 1913.
Jessie Woodrow Wilson [and Francis B. Sayre]  (LOC) by The Library of Congress, via Flickr:
Jessie Woodrow Wilson and Francis B. Sayre, Sr.
Jessie was already an accomplished young woman. She'd graduated from Groucher College in Maryland and spent three years working in a settlement home, where upper- and middle-class volunteers lived alongside low-income families, providing education and daycare as part of a social reformation movement.

Jessie's intended, 28-year old Frances Sayres, was a district attorney (his father helped build the Lehigh Valley Railroad and organized the Bethlehem Iron Works). 
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The invitation
Indeed, the wedding was anticipated to be quiet and intimate, in keeping with the Wilson family's personalities. In advance of the event, the New York Times determined few, if any, celebrities would be in attendance and judged that the cake would be small and "not elaborate." 

However, photographs do not necessarily reveal an informal affair--at least not to modern eyes, where "informal" can mean barefoot on a beach. The number of guests was considered small, as well, topping out at 400. Following the 1906 White House wedding of Alice Roosevelt, however, the first Wilson wedding was judged by a different measure.

The Blue Room was decorated with chrysanthemums and touches of mauve, the bride's favorite color. Scarlet-coated members of the Marine Band offered musical accompaniment to the 4:30 pm ceremony. Bridesmaids wore satin gowns in varying hues of pink over silver petticoats, as well as crowns. When Presidential Offspring Marry. Jessie Wilson and Frances Bowes Sayre, November 1913. Jessie, a college graduate with an interest in social work, generally avoided the public eye, and so her wedding was as a fairly quiet one by White House standards, with a private ceremony and no news releases. The bridesmaids wore various shades of pink satin over silver petticoats. The New York Times noted that "few society guests [will be] at [the] Wilson wedding" and that the wedding cake wo…:
I'd love to know more about these crowns. Photo found here
Sister Margaret served as maid of honor. Seven of Jessie's sorority sisters were invited to the Blue Room ceremony, which was replete with the scarlet-coated Marine Band and a white carpeted-aisle. One of Jessie's sorority sisters reported later that "it was the nicest, most informal and happiest wedding we had ever attended."*

The dress was of ivory satin, trimmed in antique lace. A Maryland newspaper reports the dress was made in New York, and then described the bride's lingerie for her honeymoon as "dainty."

President Wilson's daughter Jessie Wilson Sayer on her wedding day November 25, 1913.:
The blushing bride
A group photo reveals bride, groom, attendants, and the bride's parents.
Jessie Woodrow Wilson, the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, married Francis Bowes Sayre at the White House on November 15, 1913.
The wedding party
Gifts were not displayed, but included a diamond lavalliere (pendant) from the House of Representatives.

It's unclear whether the party dined on more than cake, but the cake was reported in the news as a masterpiece. A contemporary account describes it as topped by orchids, but the below photograph shows it without the cake topper.

The wedding cake. Is it me, or does it look lopsided?
Apparently, the cake cost $500 and weighed 135 pounds. Pieces were distributed in white boxes so guests could bring nibbles home and place them under their pillows to dream of their future spouses.

After their honeymoon in Europe, the Sayres moved to Massachusetts where Francis served as the assistant to the president of Williams College. When it came time for their first child to be born in 1915, however, Jessie delivered her son at the White House. 

President Wilson's daughter, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, with her husband Francis Bowes Sayre, and their son, Frances B. Sayre Jr.  That little baby, born in the White House, would grow up to march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.:
The Sayres with little Francis Jr.
Two more children followed. Francis Jr. became a pastor and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery.

A social activist, Jessie worked on behalf of the YWCA, The League of Women Voters, and the Democratic Party, among other causes. Later, they spent time in Siam (Thailand) where Francis was a legal adviser to the Royal Court.

Sadly, Jessie died in 1933 from complications after surgery. She was 45. Francis lived almost thirty years, never remarrying.


BIO: Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others. A pastor’s wife and mom of two, she loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. Susanne is the author of nine new and upcoming historical romances; her latest, For a Song, is in the EPCA and PW Bestselling The Cowboy's Bride Collection from Barbour. You can visit her on her website,



  1. Small, intimate wedding? Amazing. Thanks for sharing. I loved reading this.

    1. It's certainly a large wedding by my standards! I wonder why that sorority sister said it was an informal wedding. In any case, the bride was lovely!

      So glad you could come by!

  2. Lovely history, thanks, Suzanne. The bride's gown is lovely, but I have to say the bridesmaids certainly don't get a fashion award--I suppose at the time they were the height of fashion, though. Not our most elegant period of costume! :)

    1. The wedding gown was charming, IMO, but I'm with you on the bridesmaids' ensembles. Maybe if we saw them in color, there'd be something I missed... but I still am not a fan of the crowns. They look a little like the Statue of Liberty.

  3. I enjoyed reading your article. The bridesmaids attire did not appeal, and I wondered how a cake that size fed that many people. Thanks for a nice glimpse into history.

    1. I wondered that, too, Gay. I wonder if the cake's diameter was much bigger than it appears, or if they had more than one cake. Maybe they cut it into squares, rather than slices. It doesn't add up, does it?

      Those poor bridesmaids. I also wonder what was in their bouquets. I'm sure they were lovely, but to me, they look like shrubs. It's hard to tell if they're flowers!

  4. A great series, Susanne! It's so surprising that Francis Jr. died just a few years ago. History is amazing!

    1. Thanks, Piper! I'm so glad you're enjoying it. It's so interesting to see how weddings have changed throughout history and what different families valued. This wedding sounds pretty amazing, to me!

      That IS amazing about Francis Jr. What a legacy!

  5. Thanks, Susie. I really liked this post and learning about Jessie Woodrow Wilson. You've done a fantastic job with the images. And yes, those crowns would make a good post, too. :)

    1. Thanks, Anita Mae! I loved all the photos, too. And the crowns, oh! The crowns! Was it a fad, popular in the day? This bears investigation!

  6. There is a humbling feeling you receive as you go to venues like this. A sweeping era of romance was born here, and it's clear why. One of the most beautiful New York wedding venues I have visited anywhere in God's beautiful World and I have been nearly everywhere imaginable!