Historic photograph of the "courting couch," before its decline

Historic photograph of the Lincoln “courting couch,” before its decline (all images courtesy Springfield Art Association)

There are plenty of artifacts of Abraham Lincoln, from his fine pocket watch acquired while he was a successful Illinois lawyer to the presidential top hat he’s believed to have worn for that infamous 1865 evening at Ford’s Theater. What there aren’t much of are those objects related to Lincoln’s early life, particularly the first sparks of his relationship with Mary Todd. But there is this: the very couch on which the future “Great Emancipator” wooed his wife.

The couch prior to the start of its restoration

Unfortunately, the 1830s horsehair sofa has fallen into shambling shape over its nearly 180 years of existence. The Springfield Art Association in Springfield, Illinois, which holds the “courting couch” is currently running a Kickstarter to support its restoration.

“Basically, its significance is it’s the only real object with solid provenance that connects us to Lincoln and Mary’s courtships,” Erika Holst, curator of collections at Edwards Place, told Hyperallergic over the phone.

As Holst explained, the couch — now in the 19th century Edwards Place historic home owned and maintained by the Springfield Art Association — was formerly in the parlor of Ninian Edwards, a relation of the historic home Edwards and husband to Mary’s sister Elizabeth. Ninian’s home was since torn down in 1917, but the 1830s Empire-style sofa survived.

It isn’t the carefully divided sort of courting sofa favored by the later Victorians, where two seats were posed away from each other in an S-curve or there was a burdensome armrest lump between the two lovers, but its wide form does seem like it would be a comfortable distance for a man courting a lady in her married sister’s home. It’s probably fair to say that in the antebellum period, some sort of furniture, be it porch swing or broad sofa, would be designated for prospective suitors to meet their love interests, possibly with chaperoning parents wedged between the couple.

A daguerreotype of Abraham and Mary Lincoln a few years after their 1842 marriage

Lincoln and Mary had actually already broken up once, so Holst said that “this time when they were courting was dynamic.” Lincoln might not have seemed like such a catch, he had basically no money or family prominence, just his bright ambition. 25 years later, Elizabeth would recall: “Mr L. and Mary saw each other in that parlor there. I have happened in the room where they were sitting often and often and Mary led the conversation — Lincoln would listen and gaze on her as if drawn by some superior power, irresistibly so: he listened — never scarcely said a word.”

They would finally be married in that very parlor, guests seated on the “courting couch,” rain falling outside, on a Friday evening in November of 1842. Now the castors are loose, the upholstery ripped, the mahogany veneer grimed, and the sofa is in the restorative care of the Conservation Center in Chicago. They’ve even already made an unexpected discovery: the original horsehair upholstery was still intact beneath later replacement fabric. As the Kickstarter text exclaims: “This is the very fabric that Abraham and Mary Lincoln once leaned up against!” (Although of all the furry beasts, horses don’t really seem to have the softest hair on which to recline.)

Uncovering the original upholstery in the restoration

An unveiling for the restored sofa is planned for February 11, although the estimated cost exceeded the budgeted expectation, which is why they’ve turned to Kickstarter. As Holst said: “There’s a ton of stuff associated with Lincoln the president, and especially after he’s assassinated everyone wants a pice of him, but in that early time period when he wasn’t much of anyone, there isn’t much of anything.” Except, of course, this horsehair couch.

The Springfield Art Association’s Restore the Lincoln “Courting Couch” Kickstarter is accepting funds through January 20. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...