State dinner to honor Prince Heinrich of Germany held in 1902.
Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.
The tradition of holding elaborate dinners honoring high-ranking American officials began in the early 19th century, but it was not until President Ulysses S. Grant that these dinners were held to honor leaders visiting from afar, as a means of extending hospitality and improving diplomacy. In Grant’s case, the first state dinner in 1874 was held in honor of the visit of King David Kalākaua, of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
By the time Theodore Roosevelt became president, improved travel and a widening, rapidly changing world meant that these dinners held increasing importance. While the Roosevelts would not begin renovating the White House until later in 1902, they hosted their first foreign dignitary in February of that year, only a few months into his presidency. German Emperor Wilhelm II sent his brother, Prince Heinrich, as his representative. Roosevelt, although looking forward to the visit, was annoyed at all of the diplomatic etiquette that must be observed during the visit, saying in a letter prior to the visit that he would much prefer to "see the Prince in my own way."
Prince Heinrich of Germany, left, and President Theodore Roosevelt, right,
upon the prince's visit to the United States in 1902.
Image from the Library of Congress.
Prince Heinrich arrived in New York on Sunday, February 23, with members of the German navy. The next morning the group moved on to Washington, D.C., for the state dinner being held in the prince's honor in the East Room of the White House that evening. The room was elaborately decorated in red, white, and blue lights, as well as vines, ferns, palms, and pink azaleas (seen in the drawing below from Harper's Weekly). The men-only dinner featured a ten-course menu including oysters on the half-shell, consommé, roast duck, beef filet, capon, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and ice cream with melted cherries. A veritable "who’s who" of American politicians and leaders attended, and it was the talk of the papers the following day. The event, even if just an act of hospitality, helped improve the public image of both countries in the other’s eyes.
Harper's Weekly drawing titled "Germany breaks bread with the United States."
Image from the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.
The state dinner in Prince Heinrich’s honor was but one stop on a long trip for the prince, though. The morning after the dinner, the prince, the Roosevelts, and many of the dinner's attendees returned to New York to attend the opera and the festivities for the launching of the Kaiser's new imperial yacht. Wilhelm II competed at international yachting regattas with a series of racing yachts that were always named Meteor. The Emperor had requested that the third Meteor, built in the United States by the Townsend-Downey Company, be christened by Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, during his brother's visit to the United States.
Prince Henry of Prussia, President and Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, and Alice Roosevelt at the christening of the Meteor. Inset photo, enlarged below: For her efforts, Prince Heinrich gave Alice Roosevelt a diamond bracelet with a miniature photograph of William II. Image from the Library of Congress.
During the ceremony, held at Shooters Island, Alice successfully broke the bottle of champagne on Meteor’s bow and cut the last rope mooring the yacht. Her success was not only a boon to German-American relations but made the eighteen-year-old budding socialite a global sensation. A flurry of articles about the events proved that not everyone was entirely happy, though. George A. Kessler & Company, American agents of Moët & Chandon, advertised that their champagne was used to christen the Meteor, which went against the German Emperor's instructions to use Schaumwein Rheingold champagne.
Other than the champagne gaffe, the events were largely seen as a positive move forward for the two countries. Following the christening of the yacht, the prince took a tour through many American cities of industry, including Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago, and beyond, meeting with notable German-American leaders along the way. While he was hosted at countless events during his stay, the prince concluded that the state dinner was the highlight of his trip. Images of the prince (and of Alice) were well documented in ephemera created to mark the events. The postcard below is just one example.
Postcard commemorating the imperial yacht christening and Prince Heinrich's visit.
Image from the Fritz R. Gordner Collection.