Nancy Reagan's controversial new White House china met the press yesterday, an event that drew almost as many reporters and photographers as the arrival earlier in the day of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The first lady, who saw the ivory china with its scarlet and 24-karat gold border for the first time on Tuesday, did not attend the unveiling. But her staff, distributing a chart showing what five previous administrations had paid for china, reported that she had been "very pleased."
Last night, during the traditional toasts at the official dinner in Mubarak's honor -- the first time the new china was used -- the Egyptian president congratulated the first lady on it and called it "very elegant."
Mrs. Reagan ordered 220 place settings of the dinnerware from Lenox China of Pomona, N.J., last summer at a cost of $209,508 after deciding the White House "badly needed" a complete set of china. The Knapp Foundation of St. Michael's, Md., which is devoted to wildlife conservation and cancer research, later donated the money to buy the 4,372-piece set.
Yesterday, at the press debut, only 120 place settings were on white damask-covered round tables in the State Dining Room; the remaining 100 place settings are not scheduled for delivery until later this year.
The china, whose serving and dessert plates feature the presidential seal in gold, was flanked by Morgantown crystal, bought during the Kennedy administration, and Vermeil flatware, dating from the Monroe administration. Bouquets of white tulips, narcissus, hyacinths and freesias set among sterling silver candlesticks centered each table.
Seven pieces of the 19-piece place setting were used last night: the serving plate, salad plate, dinner plate, fish plate, dessert plate, demitasse cup and saucer. But on a table especially set up in the crosshall, each of the additional 12 pieces was displayed and included the soup plate, finger bowl plate, butter plate, teacup and saucer, bouillon cup, cream soup cup and stand, berry bowl, cereal bowl, ramekin and cocktail cup.
Guests last night, who included Robert and Antoinette Vojvoda of the Knapp Foundation, sat down to the new service plates with their raised presidential seals featuring wide scarlet bands overlaid with a gold lattice design.
The evening's menu, served on appropriate plates for each course, included mountain trout farcie, chicken supreme with red peppers and white rice, green beans amandine, Port Salut cheese, watercress and mushroom salad and chocolate mousse with petits fours.
Head White House butler Eugene Allen said it took his staff four hours to wash the new china after it arrived here by truck Monday and Tuesday from New Jersey. He also said most of it would be washed by hand last night although there would be some pieces placed in White House dishwashers.
"We very seldom ever break anything, but once in a while that happens," said Allen.
The White House, however, said breakage through the years had diminished the china reserves to the point where there was not enough of any one service for a state dinner.
Yesterday, the White House gave the following cost comparisons of how the Reagan china stacked up with some of its predecessors:
Franklin Roosevelt -- $9,301.20 when purchased in 1934; $74,108 in 1981 dollars;
Truman -- $28,271.40 in 1951; $96,100 in 1981 dollars;
Johnson -- $80,028.24 in 1967; $195,000 in 1981 dollars.
The new Reagan china, with its 4,372 pieces, averaged $910.49 per place setting, about $7 more than the Roosevelt china of 1,722 pieces, according to research by Mrs. Reagan's staff.
"The more you order, the more economical the piece," explained Sheila Tate, press secretary to the first lady.