Lincoln’s Yard Sale

Into the grind of sourcing a book some sun must shine once in a while. As I rechecked an endnote from Harold Holzer’s Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, I also checked those little sticky tabs that mark the edges of almost every book I own and, behold! The sun! Sometimes a first read uncovers something that piques one’s interest but is not necessarily related to the specific topic under research.

Gathering early in the morning for the Lincoln Yard Sale?

I laughed out loud when I reread page 289: “Apparently eager to recoup his relocation expenses and avoid storage costs, Lincoln also authorized his era’s equivalent of a yard sale. . .” A YARD SALE?? Abraham Lincoln?? Well, he crowd-surfed his way to the nomination, so why not a yard sale?


Parlor and Chamber Sets, Carpets, Sofas, Chairs, Wardrobes, Bureaus,

Bedsteads, Stoves, China, Queensware, Glass, etc. etc., at the

residence on the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets.

is offered at private sale without reserve.

For particulars apply on the premises at once.[1]


Even without a more specific address, everyone seemed to know just where to find the yard sale. Local druggist Samuel Melvin bought a several items–six chairs, a spring mattress, a wardrobe, a whatnot, a stand, nine and a half yards of stair carpet, and four comforters–all for the price of $82.25. That is almost $400 in today’s currency, and that is a lot of money to bring to a yard sale. I am guessing Sam had a wagon.

a whatnot

Lincoln himself wrote out and signed the itemized receipts for every sale, recording the exact cost of each piece. You could get carpet for fifty cents a yard–probably stair carpeting, as I cannot imagine cutting a rug into yardage. Holzer indicates that the neighbors were gossipy over the whole thing.[2] They probably didn’t like the crowds either, but at least there were free autographs.

The Lincolns held their successful sale day sometime during the first part of February 1861. I will guess on or about February 9, based on a perusal of Earl Miers’ Lincoln Day by Day. Their well-worn furnishings, so carefully picked out by Mary Lincoln when new, went to a variety of folks. No one could predict Mrs. Lincoln’s obsession with interior decorating that got her into so much trouble, but that was in the future. For now, people trundled their newly bought old housewares along the streets of Springfield to their own homes. I am sure that some were secretly gloating over the great deals found at Eighth and Jackson, while others were disappointed in the condition, perhaps, of the whatnot. Anyone who has been to a yard sale knows how it goes, and there was probably little change to now from the 1860s.

A little over four years later, these purchases would greatly increase in value, and many were returned gratis when the Lincoln House became a museum in 1887. Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln’s eldest son, donated the house to the state of Illinois with the stipulation that the house be “kept up,” and that no money should be charged for public admittance. The Springfield house and Lincoln’s Tomb were designated National Historic Landmarks in 1960, then were taken over by the National Park Service in 1871.

The Lincoln Home today

There is much about Abraham Lincoln that makes him accessible as both a human and a historic person. That he had a yard sale yet is another example of his extraordinary ordinariness.

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[1] Daily Illinois State Journal, January 30, 1861, quoted in Thomas J. Dyba and George L. Painter, Seventeen Years at Eight and Jackson: The Lincoln Family in Their Springfield Home (Lisle, Ill.: Illinois Benedictine College, 1985), 63.

[2] Harold Holzer, Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008), 289.

2 Responses to Lincoln’s Yard Sale

  1. Interesting story, and a hoot. Any president-elect who holds a yard sale truly is “a man of the people.” The stuff would fetch a good price today on Antiques Road Show!

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