Historians likely would dub Frederick Dent the first extended-stay in-law. Dent, father of Julia Grant and father-in-law of Ulysses S. Grant, was a former planter and was for several years "a fixture at the White House," where he was mostly known for "promising people things he couldn't deliver," such as government contracts.
Most historians agree the title for Most Colorful First Mother-in-Law in any century easily could be bestowed upon Madge Gates Wallace.
The mother of Elizabeth "Bess" Wallace Truman and mother-in-law of Harry S. Truman, Wallace is described in David McCullough's 1993 biography, Truman, as "a neat, straight little woman with a rather sweet expression, her hair done up in a knot, who still wore an old-fashioned velvet choker. Among the neighbors, she was perceived as possibly the most perfect lady in town and 'a very, very difficult person.' "
Myra Gutin, a historian at Rider University in New Jersey, is more direct: "She was a nasty son of a gun. She would frequently say, after her son-in-law became president, that it was in large measure because he married Bess."
While Truman was vice president, the family -- Harry, Bess, their daughter, Margaret, and Mrs. Wallace -- all lived in a five-room Washington apartment. (This was before the vice president got his own residence.)
After Truman moved into the White House upon the death of FDR, Wallace took a guest room over the North Portico, but she hated it, McCullough writes. After less than a month, she and the other Truman women packed up, boarded a train and spent the summer -- and most summers thereafter -- in their native Independence, Mo.
Though Truman helped to end World War II, rebuild Europe, contain communism and win a legendary 1948 upset re-election over Thomas Dewey, historians say Wallace never really gave him much credit. In fact, she famously thought Dewey would win.
"She was always talking about 'that nice Tom Dewey,'" Gutin says.
In 1951, after Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, Wallace asked why "Harry had fired that nice man," says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony of the National First Ladies Library.
Wallace may epitomize the sharp-tongued mother-in-law of legend, but Cambridge psychologist Apter says not much research on mothers-in-law has been done in the United States compared with studies of the extended family elsewhere.
"It seems like it's something we like studying in other cultures and not so much in ours," she says.
One thing is crystal-clear: The mother-in-law-as-battle-ax motif goes back millennia. The Roman poet Juvenal makes reference to "the endless din of mothers-in-law."
Apter has been studying the interactions of 49 married couples and their in-laws for 15 years. Her findings: The most difficult relationship is often between the wife and her husband's mother.
How bad can it get? In Italy, for example, a husband's inability to protect his wife from his mother is now grounds for divorce.
Apter thinks Robinson and the Obamas have one huge advantage to getting along in the White House: At 55,000 square feet with 132 rooms, 35 of them bathrooms, the house is very, very big. "That helps, and it's already staffed."
Housework, a big in-law issue, probably won't come up at the White House.