Topic: Martha Washington

Chintz and Revolution

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 6, 2017

A chintz appliqued quilt, as made by Mary Malvina Cook Taft (ca. 1835–40). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many Colonial Virginians considered unfair British economic practices to be an infringement of their natural rights. The economic grievances of the Virginia planter class eventually became a key motivator for rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson complained in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginians were at the mercy of “the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us.”1 Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”2

One might think that Jefferson was exaggerating for the sake of argument, but Martha Washington’s financial papers support his description of Virginia economics. For the brief time (July 1757 to January 1759) that Martha Dandridge Custis managed her deceased first husband’s estate, she conducted business with several British merchants. Her papers illustrate how England profited at the expense of Virginia tobacco planters.

The first thing to understand is that Martha (like most Virginia planters) did not sell tobacco to British merchants, she consigned it. Her London representatives, Robert Cary & Co. and John Hanbury & Co., did not buy her tobacco up front. Instead, they sold it for her at market price, deducted expenses and their own commission, and sent her an account of her profits (if any). Consignment placed more risk on the planter than on the merchant. Apart from deciding which merchant to work with, planters had no control over the price and sale of their tobacco. Martha insisted that her representatives “endeavor to sell them for a good price,” but that was all she could do.3

Understandably, Virginia planters were often worried about what occurred overseas. A frequent complaint was that they would ship a certain weight of tobacco, only for the landwaiters in England to record a dramatically lesser weight. Some loss, from drying, etc., was to be expected, but when one planter’s shipment of tobacco lost 30,893 pounds on the Atlantic crossing, he suspected he was being scammed.4  

Martha, like other tobacco farmers, was responsible for paying the taxes and expenses on her tobacco shipments. In a May 1758 account of sales from John Hanbury & Co., she paid for two Subsidy taxes, Freight, Country Duties, Primage, Entry, Cooperage in and out, Cartage, Brokerage, Shipping Charges, Debenture, Porterage, Wharfage, Lighterage, Postage of Letters, Watching, and, finally, Hanbury’s Commission. After a sale of £386.7.6, Martha earned only £115.3.10 in net proceeds.5 As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the consignment system “resulted in careless and wasteful management on the part of the merchant in England, high commissions and freight rates, and chronic overbuying on the part of the colonist.”6

English merchants also supplied goods to the planters they represented, whom they often referred to as their “Friends.” This was another area in which English profit took precedence over colonial choice. It was illegal for any good to be imported to the colonies “but what shall have been shipped in England, and in English built Shipping, and whereof the Master, and three-fourths of the Mariners are English…”7 In 1758, Martha Custis placed a large order for clothing, sewing supplies, and fabrics, among other items, to Robert Cary & Company. One of her orders, for “Chince” gowns, “Best Indeen [Indian] made,” would actually have been illegal to purchase in England at that time, as Parliament had banned Indian c imports in 1721 in order to protect the English fabric trade.8 Merchants, however, could still sell chintz to the colonies, as long as it shipped from English ports and English merchants received commission.

It is no surprise that an empire would financially exploit its colonies. But for white American colonists used to a degree of privilege as British subjects, their treatment rankled. Virginia tobacco planters lived in apparent luxury, but most were swimming in debt. As one Virginia resident reported to his brother in 1754, “money is so scarce it is a rare thing to see a dollar.”9 If white colonists were truly English, why did they not receive the same financial protections as their countrymen overseas? Many revolutionaries referred to their treatment by Great Britain as “slavery,” which, while a dramatic overstatement, served to rile up revolutionary sentiment in white Virginians determined to keep a distinction between themselves and the 40% of the population that was enslaved. Few historians might turn to the financial documents of Lady Washington to study the causes of the American Revolution, and yet, within her invoices for lace and citron, insights are there to be discovered.

 

Notes

  1. Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1826), 17.
  2. “Additional Queries, with Jefferson’s Answers, [ca. January–February 1786],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0001-0003.
  3. Martha Washington to John Hanbury and Co., 20 Dec. 1757, ViHi.
  4. The Report, with the Appendix, from the committee of the House of Commons Appointed to enquire into the Frauds and Abuses in the Customs, to the Prejudice of Trade, and the Diminution of Revenue (London, [1733]), 7.
  5. June 1758 “Accompt of Sales,” John Hanbury to Martha Custis, ViHi.
  6. Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (New York, 1918), 35.
  7. “An Abridgement of Several Acts and Clauses of Acts of Parliament…” (London, [1739]), 28.
  8. Journals of the House of Commons, v. 19 (London, 1803), 493.
  9. George Hume to Jonathan Hume, Aug. 22, 1754, in “Letters of Hume Family,” The William and Mary Quarterly 8 (1899): 89.

Friends in Grief: Martha Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
July 5, 2017

Mourning embroidery, 1827. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Martha Washington knew loss.

As Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), she lost her first child, a son, in 1754, only four years into her marriage. Daniel Parke Custis, her husband, died in 1757, leaving her a widow with a large estate to settle. That same year, their second child, a daughter, died. Martha married George Washington in 1759, but no new children would be born to them. Her remaining two children by Custis, barely adults, would predecease her in 1773 and 1781. The deaths of her parents and several Dandridge siblings were intermittent.

One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.

Bereavement was nothing new to Elizabeth. Between 1771 and 1775, her only children—two sons, both Samuels in honor of their father—died within a year of birth or less, cutting short the longed-for experience of motherhood. If she could find any comfort at all, it was in the hope of their heavenly reunion and the thought that her sons would never experience the suffering of this world, as she herself had. Elizabeth wrote of her firstborn, whose lock of hair she kept near,

From all the Chequer’d Ills below

Sammy secure shall sleep;

His little Heart no Pain shall know,

His Eyes no more shall weep.1

Nonetheless, the boys’ loss echoes throughout her correspondence, perhaps reflected in the depressions that plagued her over the years. To Ann Randolph Fitzhugh in 1783, she lamented,

Ah my dear Friend there are no Roses without Thorns. You wish me to be again a Mother, you know not what you wish. Indeed I am no longer what you once knew me Those fine Spirits, that I used to flatter myself wou’d never be broken, have at length yeilded to the too severe Trials that have assailed me. My Mind, habituated to Mortification & Disappointment, is become weaker, &, unfortunately, my Sensibilities stronger. A thousand Circumstances that formerly were Sources of Pleasure to me have now lost their Charm. Time does not lessen real Griefs. In some Instances it augments them by removing to a greater distance the Objects on which our Happiness depends. I fear I am doomed never to be happy in this World . . .

Elizabeth begged Mrs. Fitzhugh and her family to come visit her in Philadelphia. The Powel House, though the center of frequent entertaining, still felt empty: “I will most chearfully assign you my Chamber & the adjoining Nursery formerly the Habbitation of my beloved Angels.”2

Not only death occasioned the separation of loved ones, but also distance. Her favorite sister, Mary Willing Byrd, had removed from Philadelphia with her husband, Colonel William Byrd, to a James River plantation in Virginia. The sisters’ reunions were seldom, but when they did see each other, it seemed to elicit more pain than joy. On visiting Mary, now a widow, in Virginia in late 1787, Elizabeth and her husband Samuel took the opportunity to stay with their friends at Mount Vernon. On her return to Philadelphia, Elizabeth had to apologize to Martha for being such poor company:

I should have been happy to have prolonged our Visit had I not been sensible that the Depression of Spirits, under wh[ich] I then was, render’d me a totally unfit Companion for the chearfull & happy. My recent Separation from my favorite Sister, & her Family, with the probability of never seeing her again, & the Reflection of having left her encircled with Difficulties almost too great for a Man to cope with, unconnected & unprotected by any Friend, able or willing, to serve her, almost broke my Heart.3

Family sickness was another emotional battle. George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington (1758–1793), was ill with tuberculosis. Martha was a relation not only through her marriage to George but also through her own niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett (1767–1796), who had married George Augustine in 1785. By 1792, Elizabeth Powel wrote to Martha and George with concern, enclosing an article about a possible medicinal treatment for the invalid nephew. She then went on to reflect on the freedom of Heaven:

But what is this Life that we should be so over studious to prolong the Respiration of that Breath which may with so much Ease be all breathed out at once as by so many successive Millions of Moments? For surely there are more exquisite Pains than Pleasures in Life, and it seems to me that it would be a greater Happiness at once to be freed forever from the former than by such an irksome Composition to protract the Enjoyment of the latter. We must all die, and, I believe there is no Terror in Death but what is created by the Magic of Opinion, nor probably any greater Pain than attended our Birth. As I suppose at our Dissolution every Particle of which we are compounded returns to its proper original Element and that which is divine in us returns to that which is divine in the Universe.4

George Augustine held out for another year, passing away at the beginning of February 1793. On Feb. 21, George and Martha wrote Elizabeth from Philadelphia that they were unable to attend her party that evening because of the “late event which has happened in [our] family.”5 The sadness of that event would only be compounded when, three years later, Martha’s dear niece Fanny died, as well.

Elizabeth’s own life was about to be turned upside-down. As yellow fever snuck into Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, she was resigned to loss though unaware of how personal a toll it would take. “Death has robbed me of many Friends,” she wrote to her confidant, George Washington, at the beginning of September, who on leaving the city had invited her to join him and Martha to Mount Vernon, an escape from the contagion. Samuel Powel did not believe flight necessary, and she would not leave him behind. In only three weeks, however, it was Elizabeth who would be left behind: the epidemic claimed her husband in a bitter blow. Their silver wedding anniversary was less than a year away.6

Perhaps the greatest loss that bound Martha and Elizabeth together was the death of “the General” on Dec. 14, 1799. Ten days after the “late melancholy Event,” Elizabeth assured his grieving widow that “tho’ the Season is far advanced, and the Roads bad, I would most certainly pay a Visit to your House of Mourning, could I afford to you the smallest consolation under this seemingly hard dispensation of Pro[v]idence; but I too well know that no Consolation can be effected by human Agency.” She concluded her letter soberly, “I have lost a much valued Friend.”7 Here the documentary record ends. It is unknown whether the women’s correspondence continued up until Martha’s death in 1802. Elizabeth, in turn, would go on to outlive her by another three decades, dying at the ripe age of eighty-six.

 

Notes

1. Quoted in David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830),” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new ser., 96.4 (2006): 24.

2. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Ann Randolph Fitzhugh, Dec. 24, 1783, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

3. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Nov. 30, 1787, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

4. “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 January, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0248. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 9:419–20.

5. “George and Martha Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 21 February 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0142. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 12:198.

6. See “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0041. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 14:54–55.

7. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Dec. 24, 1799, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

The Washingtons at Winterthur

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
May 5, 2017

George Washington and “Columbia” amidst Azaleas. Postcard. 1960s. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

As people flock to the historic Delaware estate to view woodland azaleas at the peak of their bloom and the subtler Virginia bluebells tucked away in carpets of white trillium, a recent visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library gave this Washington editor a chance to ponder the collection’s flamboyant treasures and hidden gems in tribute to America’s original First Family.

Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969) had a passion not only for beautiful gardens but also for American decorative and fine arts that resulted in a world-class collection of 90,000 objects, many of which pay homage to George Washington and the Washington family. The collection offers a remarkable window into the 19th-century American culture of memory that made George Washington a national icon in households across the country.1 It also preserves rare items from the life and times of the man himself—and the woman who promoted his legacy.

Perhaps most notable in the collection are the John Trumbull portrait of Washington at Verplanck’s Point, New York, 1782, painted in 1790, and 60 pieces of the “Cincinnati” china service purchased by the Washingtons in 1786 that dwarf even the collection at Mount Vernon.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Portrait, Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull, 1790, New York, NY, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, 1964.2201.

Washington sat at least 14 times for the Verplanck portrait, which Trumbull “intended to present to Mrs. Washington.”2 Martha would hang the painting—one of her favorite likenesses of her husband—in the New Room at Mount Vernon and bequeath it to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, from whom it passed through the generations. Eventually, it was purchased by du Pont, who gave it to the museum in 1964.3

The Chinese export porcelain featuring the arms of the Society of the Cincinnati is displayed in Winterthur’s “China Hall” and was originally used by George and Martha at the presidential seats in New York and Philadelphia as well as at Mount Vernon. Part of a 302-piece dinner, breakfast, and tea set, Winterthur’s collection came to the museum in 1928, when du Pont bought it from Martha’s descendant, Mary Custis Lee.4

From object to provenance, the presence of Martha Washington at Winterthur is not to be overshadowed by that of her husband. “I was also much interested to hear about your Martha Washington sewing table,” H. F. du Pont wrote to his dealer Joe Kindig, Jr.5 Behind the scenes, Winterthur’s state-of-the-art conservation department once had the particular challenge of restoring an important Custis estate document from the ravages of mold (following its burial during the Civil War).6

A mourning brooch containing hair from George and Martha Washington is probably one of the most intriguing pieces in the Winterthur collection. Housing braided locks of blonde and salt-and-pepper hair cut by Martha for Elisabeth Stoughton Wolcott in 1797, the piece of jewelry is a tiny casket displaying, quite literally, the couple’s interwovenness.7

A pair of statues in the garden, however—”stove figures” dating to the mid-19th century, to be exact—leaves this editor questioning. The figure of George Washington is clearly identifiable, but the female form to his right is more mysterious. It has been suggested that she is most likely the symbolic figure of Columbia, but—no doubt from the direct pairing—she also has been attributed to Martha Washington.

The confusion lends its subject a delightful charm. Although the image of Martha Washington is hardly as iconic as her husband’s, it is this project’s hope that, with the forthcoming publication of The Papers of Martha Washington, the nation’s first First Lady will assume her rightful place.

Stereocard. May 1938. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

With special thanks to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware, and to their Assistant Curator of Education, Garden Programs, Erica K. Anderson, the author’s twin sister.

 

Notes

1. Du Pont and Winterthur are featured in Michael G. Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991).

2. GW’s diary entry for 8 July 1790.

3. Linda Eaton, “Washington, Warhol, and Winterthur: Unexpected Provenance in the Museum Collection,” Sept. 4, 2013.

4. Hilary Seitz, “Presidential Porcelain from Washington to Winterthur,” Jan. 7, 2015.

5. Jay E. Cantor, Winterthur (New York, 1985; new enl. ed., 1997), 150–51.

6. Lois Olcott Price, “Travels through Conservation,” Nov. 20, 2015.

7. Hilary Seitz, “Unveiling the Secrets and Treasures of the Museum,” May 19, 2014.

Faith and Family: Martha Washington’s Bibles

by Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
November 17, 2016

“Thank god we are all tolerable well,” Martha Washington wrote in missive after missive. She worried in nearly every letter—was anyone ill? How were her friends doing? When were they going to come and visit?

Martha persistently asked about her loved ones because she kept losing them, one by one. Her son, Jacky, wrote to her after his little sister died: “I am confident she enjoys that Bliss prepar’d only for the Good & virtuous, let these considerations, My dear Mother have their due weight with you…”1 Martha heard variations on this sentiment her entire life. She heard it when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died; when each of her children passed away; and the times when she lost her parents and siblings. Hundreds of mourners wrote her after she watched George go to the grave.

No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion.2

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Lettuce Enjoy the Lettis Tart

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
September 27, 2016

During my search for documents and letters relating to Martha Washington, I’ve stumbled upon numerous interesting articles. One of the most attention-grabbing pieces was a short recipe for “lettis tart.” The article was published in 1906, under the “Domestic Science in Household” column in the Omaha World Herald. The recipe itself came from Martha’s cookbook, which safely resides at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

“To Make a Lettis Tart,” Omaha World Herald, June 24, 1906, 8, Link to source.

“To Make a Lettis Tart,” Omaha World Herald, June 24, 1906, 8, Link to source. Image courtesy of Newsbank.

To begin, I had to wonder – what exactly is “lettis”? I assumed it simply was “lettuce” misspelled, but when I googled “lettis” to confirm my hunch, I found a blog post about a modern attempt at the recipe. I was not surprised to find that it was written by a former intern at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.1 The post broke the recipe down to an understandable guide for a modern cook—a significant improvement from the short instruction in the 1906 article. It also identified “lettis” as iceberg lettuce. Though a little research suggests that iceberg didn’t exist in Martha’s time, the post was all I had to go on, and by this time  curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I added the ingredients to my grocery list. I was excited to try the recipe, but my enthusiasm quickly wavered when I remembered an important truth.

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Martha Washington, Dr. Frankenstein, and the Empty Tomb

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
August 10, 2016

It was a dark and snowy night, and George Washington’s stiff body lay frozen in Mount Vernon’s drawing room.

Three desperate doctors had tried and failed to save him. They blistered his legs, prescribed emetics,1 applied poultices to his swollen throat, and bled him almost dry.2 Martha Washington watched, unweeping yet frightened by the amount of blood pouring from her beloved husband of more than 40 years.

The night had worn on.

Martha, sitting at the foot of her partner’s bed, saw George’s quiet become quieter. “Is he gone?” she asked. George’s secretary (and Martha’s friend) Tobias Lear couldn’t speak. He held up his hand in assent. Martha said simply, “‘Tis well. All is now over I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!”3

She was wrong.

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My Summer with Martha

By Katie Herring, Former Undergraduate Intern
July 29, 2016

Former undergraduate intern Katie Herring.

Former Undergraduate Intern Katie Herring.

Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.

I was unbelievably excited to come to Charlottesville, not for the city itself, of course, but to work. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was looking forward to hiking and going to wineries, but that’s a story for another blog post. I couldn’t wait to start working with the Papers. The musical Hamilton had just gotten popular, and the first time I heard “Right Hand Man” only increased my excitement. I got chills when George Washington’s character was introduced in Hamilton. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The entire musical amplified my enthusiasm for the Revolutionary Era. This internship really couldn’t have come at a better time for me—or in pop culture.

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Get Dressed or Get Embarrassed

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
June 29, 2016

After a difficult spring semester, I returned home from the University of Virginia to visit my family, exchanging the stirring smell of coffee from Alderman Library for the welcoming aroma of authentic Vietnamese food. Being home is always a welcome, much-needed break. My productivity level plummets, and my motivation to look presentable disappears. I constantly find myself wearing pajama pants and T-shirts, and I usually think my fashion choices are fine. Being home is a break from the necessity to appear “put-together”…or so I thought.

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Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Impressions of Martha Washington: A Visit to New Kent County

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
May 12, 2016

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Historical marker for New Kent County, Virginia.

Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.

I yearn to know more about her younger life, about her relationship with her first husband, about her family, about her home, about what her favorite dresses were, even.1 Who was this girl, Patsy Dandridge, before she became the wealthy Martha Custis, before she was thrown into the spotlight as Martha Washington? Alas, I’m forced to settle for getting only glimpses of her, when I can get them.

So I was excited to visit New Kent County, Virginia, with our Martha team. I wanted to walk the land she grew up on, to see her Pamunkey River, and to wander about the foundations of her family homes.

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The Battle for Martha Washington’s Will

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
March 1, 2016

For the past few months, I’ve been searching for Martha Washington documents that have been printed or referred to in newspapers. So far as I have seen, only once in the years between her life and the present day has there been a press furor over Martha. The key players included a Civil War brigadier general, finance giant J. P. Morgan, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the state of Virginia, and the United States Supreme Court. The time frame: the Civil War and World War I.

The object of contention? Martha’s will.

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