The Frances Folsom Cleveland Collection, housed in the Wells College Archives, contains many different articles and objects relating to Frances Folsom Cleveland (Preston). The Collection covers her years as a student at Wells College, her years at the White House as the wife of President of the United States Grover Cleveland, and her years as Mrs. Thomas Preston.
Biographical Info: Early Years
Frances was born in Buffalo, NY on July 21, 1864, the first daughter of Emma Harmon and Oscar Folsom. She was christened “Frankie” in honor of Judge Frank Macumber, her father’s college friend. Her family always called her Frankie although the world would know her as Frances. Disliking the name “Frankie,” she used the name “Frank,” a name that would be used by friends and would appear in the official list of students during her undergraduate years at Wells.
Oscar Folsom, Frankie’s father, was a lawyer in Buffalo, NY. One of his friends and later a partner in a law practice was Stephen Grover Cleveland, who is reported to have presented a baby carriage to the Folsom family for “Frankie.”
When Frankie was eleven years old, her father was killed in a carriage accident when he was returning from a meeting of the Lawyer’s Club in Buffalo. Since Mr. Folsom left no will, S. Grover Cleveland was appointed administrator of the estate. He would become the semi-official (without legal obligation) guardian of Frankie and would take care of Frankie and her mother as if they were his own family.
Prior to attending Wells College, Frank attended Madame Becker’s French Kindergarten, Miss Bissell’s School for Young Ladies, and Buffalo Central High School.
Biographical Information: Wells Years 1882-1885
Wells College consisted of three buildings when Frank entered in 1882: Old Main (opened in 1868), Morgan Hall (opened in 1879) located to the right of Main, and Pettibone House purchased by Henry Wells in 1869 and deeded to the college as a president’s house. Old Main was built of brick and stone, and the tower was 86 feet tall. The main floor had 14 rooms including a reception room, a drawing room, library offices, and classrooms. Stories above had enough rooms for 80 students, most with a lake view. The dining room and kitchen were in the basement. The statue of Minerva, a gift from Charles Wells, Henry’s son, stood in the alcove at the entrance. The sycamore tree was in the front of the building.
A Wells College Record Book shows that Frank Folsom was enrolled as a sophomore midway through 1882. According to a news clipping dated November 8, 1982, Miss Folsom was a faithful and painstaking student with a decided literary taste. She never missed a lesson while at Wells and was always prepared for recitations, generally throwing considerable originality and life into class discussions. Her grades were generally in the 90s with English Composition and English Literature as her strong points. Her lowest grade was a recitation grade of 49 in Geometry.
During the time that Frank was at Wells, she received hampers, almost weekly, of roses and other flowers from the Executive Mansion in Albany, while Mr. Cleveland was Governor of New York State. When he became President of the United States, he continued to send flowers to Frank. She was not allowed to attend Cleveland’s inauguration because the date did not fall within the college’s spring recess and the rules did not allow absences during the term. Later that spring, Frank and her mother did visit the White House and it is believed that was when she and the President became secretly engaged.
Frank graduated in June 1885, with the name Frank Folsom on the commencement program. President Cleveland did not attend the commencement activities but did send hampers of flowers and ivy; ivy that Frank and her classmates planted next to Morgan Hall. “The tradition of planting ivy appeared in 1877. Graduates delivered formal speeches at commencement exercises, but the Class Day was the occasion for funny speeches as well as the traditional planting of the ivy.” (Jane Marsh Dieckmann, Wells College: A History)
Frances returned to Wells for commencement exercises in June 1887. It was at her suggestion that the graduating class wore black gowns and mortar boards. Diplomas were handed out by the First Lady. At the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees, Frances and Dean Helen Fairchild Smith were elected as Trustees of Wells College. It was the first time women were named to the Board of Trustees.
On June 2, 1886, President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room of the White House. He was the first and only president to be married in the White House. President Cleveland supervised every detail of the wedding, from the floral decorations and music, to the wedding supper. The invitations were hand-written by the President and sent to family, cabinet members, and a few friends.
Due to Mrs. Cleveland’s popularity, but without her permission, her “endorsement” and image appeared on an array of products including perfumes, liver pills, sewing machines, and women’s garments. The problem became so widespread that a bill was introduced in Congress to prohibit using the image of any real woman without her express written permission. The bill failed and the only legal recourse for the Clevelands was to plead with businesses to cease and desist. Mostly, this didn’t work and marketing using the First Lady’s image continued.
1897-1899: Aurora Window
Frances returned to Aurora and Wells College for commencement and to unveil her class’s gift to the college – the stained glass window “Aurora.” It was designed by John LaFarge, a sculptor and painter from New York City. According to a note added to Miriam Smalls’ History by Professor Jean Davis, LaFarge used a photograph of Frances for Aurora’s face. (Dieckmann, Wells College: A History)
The Cleveland Family
Ruth was born in 1891 in New York City. The Baby Ruth candy bar was named after her. Ruth died in 1904 in Princeton at the age of 12 from diphtheria. Her death devastated the Clevelands. In September of 1893, after their return to the White House, Frances had a daughter, Esther, becoming the first First Lady to give birth in the White House. Marion was born in 1895 while Frances was still First Lady but not in the White House. Richard was born in 1897 and Francis followed in 1903. Both boys were born in Princeton. On November 6, 1888, President Cleveland was voted out of office and the family moved to New York City. He won again in 1892, the only president thus far to serve two non-consecutive terms. After his second term ended, the family moved to Princeton, NJ. He passed away in 1908. His death left Frances deeply saddened and she wore mourning dress for four years.
Cleveland Library: 1911
Cleveland Library was built in 1911 and named in honor of Frances Folsom Cleveland. She attended the dedication during the Commencement of 1911. Today, the Cleveland Hall of Languages houses the fields of Modern Languages and International Studies.
Cleveland/Preston Wedding: 1913
After the death of her husband and while still in Princeton, Frances met Thomas Preston. She moved back to Aurora, NY accompanied by Thomas, whom she married (in Princeton) on February 10, 1913. Another first for Frances – the first First Lady to marry for a second time. Thomas Preston was a professor of Archaeology and Art History at Wells from 1911-1913. He also served as President of Wells College from February 1912 to April 14, 1912.
Death of the Former First Lady: 1947
Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston died in her sleep on October 29th at the age of 83 while visiting her son Richard in Baltimore, Maryland. She was buried in Princeton next to her first husband, Grover Cleveland, and their daughter Ruth. Thomas Preston passed away in 1955.
Cleveland Portrait Dedication: 1993
On November 15, 1993, the portrait of Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston, painted by Fred Folsom III, was presented to the college by the artist’s father, Frederick Folsom, Jr. The Folsoms are distant relatives of Frances. The portrait hangs in the lobby of Cleveland Hall.