Arthur's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, served as White House hostess for her widowed brother. Arthur did not move into the White House immediately. He allowed the widowed Lucretia Garfield a reasonable time to leave, but even then, the home was not up to his standards. He initially took up residence at the home of Senator John P. Jones, while White House was being renovated according to his instructions. This included the addition of an elaborate fifty-foot glass screen made by Louis Comfort Tiffany, which remained in a White House corridor until it was dismantled in 1902.
Arthur's 10 year old daughter Ellen, known as "Nellie", did not like the White House when she moved in to the home in 1881. She said it was “too big and lonesome.” She had been named Ellen Herndon Arthur (Ellen Herndon was her mother's maiden name) and she was born on November 21, 1871 in New York City. He older brother Chester, Jr., was born on July 25, 1864.
The transition from New York to Washington, D.C. was said to be difficult for Nellie. She remained in New York when her father became President, celebrating her tenth birthday in New York City. She took a train to Washington on New Year’s Eve in order to participate in the traditional White House New Year's Day reception. Ten days later she hosted a dinner party at the White House for some of her friends, and a few days later she returned to New York. Reporters were aware that Nellie Arthur was unhappy in the White House, but her father was very protective of his children and sought to shelter her from the press reports.
Nellie returned to the White House in April, 1882 and would often participate in public events. Her room was on the north side of the White House, and was described as “neatly fitted up, but very simple in its appointments.” When she made public appearances, reporters wrote about how she looked and what she wore. One report described her as having “large brown eyes and short brown hair, and that she is as chubby as a cherub.”
Nellie had a friend named Miss Botts, who would play with Nellie. The two were often accompanied by a spaniel dog named Franco. She also spent a good deal of time caring for the horses in the White House Stables. She had learned to ride on her mother’s horse. In the summer of 1882, it was reported that Nellie was “quite full of childish excitement,” because her father had purchased some new horses.
In the fall of 1882, Nellie went to school in Washington, D.C. In her first Christmas season at the White House, she stayed with her father in the Soldiers’ Home several miles north of the White House. According to one observer who saw the child on Christmas Eve, “she now has a fresh, bright color in her cheeks and her brown eyes sparkle with childish enjoyment of the Christmas season.” The next day, having opened her presents, the report said that she “trudged around all day with her arms full of dolls, for she has a large and very interesting family of dolls, the eldest of which has a big cradle that stands by her own little bed.”
In April 1883 Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson visited the White House and performed on a piano in the Green Room. While she was playing, Nellie entered the room and the singer stopped her performance and asked Nellie if she would like to request a song. Nellie said she wanted to hear “Please Give Me a Penny.” Nilsson obliged the request. The singer then held her arms out and asked Nellie, “Don’t you think that is worth a penny?”
In the summer of 1883, she traveled along the east coast, visiting a number of seaside resorts. She was transported by U.S. Navy vessels. The press did not have the same concerns that they might today about use of government resources. They reported on the travels of “Princess Nellie” as they called her.
In the autumn of 1883, Nellie Arthur formed a Christmas Club. It was composed of seventy-five children as members and herself as president. Each member contributed funding to put up a huge Christmas tree, that was hung with expensive ornaments. It was unveiled at a charity ball for underprivileged children in Washington, D.C. Nellie received praise for her management of the club. One newspaper report noted: “Miss Arthur makes a model little president, filling the chair with dignity and rare good judgment, and signing her name, Ellen H. Arthur, with as much dignity as her paternal scrawls his signature to official documents at the great White House.” The Christmas Club soon became a major undertaking. On December 28, 1883 the club hosted events at four different locations in Washington, D.C., providing entertainment for over 2,000 children who were sick, impoverished or homeless. President Arthur attended the event at the National Rifles Armory. Nellie wore a white lace sash, and sang with a girls’ choir. She also waited on tables, and handed out gifts. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star reported: “Her unaffected manners and interest in all that was being done illustrated the spirit which animated the entire club.”
Nellie Arthur was reported to be fond of animals. She had a Skye Terrier named Toddie and it was said that the dog obeyed only Nellie and no one else, not even the president. When President Arthur tried to pet Toddie, the dog bit him. Nellie also had a calico Indian pony that an Arapahoe Indian chief gave to the president in the summer of 1883. He entrusted it to Nellie.
1884 was Nellie's her last full year in the White House. In June of that year she ascended the nearly-finished Washington Monument and placed a stone at its top. She was reported to be a favorite of the White House staff, who described her as someone who treated everyone with politeness and respect.
On one occasion, Nellie and her father were on a carriage ride. Their carriage nearly struck a physically disabled African-American girl. The girl was not injured, but was badly frightened. President Arthur gave he girl a $5 bill, while Nellie leapt out of the carriage and stayed with the girl for some time. The next day, Nellie sent the child a bouquet and a bundle of toys. She later she stopped by to visit the girl’s home on occasion, doing so without any publicity. She continued to send the girl toys even after her father was no longer president.
Nellie Arthur celebrated her thirteenth birthday with six friends at the Soldiers’ Home on November 21, 1884. She once again presided over the Christmas Club in December of 1884, he last Christmas in the White House. The Baltimore Sun wrote that she would “have to leave the White House just at an age when she would be most likely to enjoy and appreciate her situation, and having been a rather more sensible child than the average girl would be in her position, her school friends are sorry to lose her.” On President Arthur’s final day in the White House, March 4, 1885, Nellie left with Toddie in her arms. As she was leaving, she held the dog over her head and said “Say good-by to everybody, Toddie.” The dog gave several barks of farewell.
Nellie left her doll house at the White House, where it stayed until 1896 near the East Entrance, without any occupants. She graduated from Williams College and became engaged to a man named Charles Pinkerton, who proposed to her while the two were climbing Pike’s Peak. The couple had their honeymoon nearby after marrying in 1903. Ellen Herndon "Nellie" Arthur died in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1915.