Elizabeth Bryant Johnston, c. 1890-1900, Historical Society of Washington DC number CHS 15485.10Elizabeth Bryant Johnston wrote, prepared, and owned the earliest Visitors’ Guide to Mount Vernon (1876).1 Johnston created new editions of the guidebook according to Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) Guide Book Committee requests, and arranged for its printing and publication for twenty-two years.

The Vice Regents of the MLVA invited Johnston to stay at Mount Vernon in 1876 while she compiled her guidebook.2 Johnston wrote and published the first edition before she had a contract with the MVLA. In 1877 she wrote to the Council and requested a written contract with the association.3 The contract, signed by Acting Regent Margaret J. M. Sweat on June 15, 1878, gave the MVLA exclusive rights to sell Johnston’s “Mount Vernon Guide-book” on the steamboat and at Mount Vernon for a percentage of the sales. It also allowed her to insert a list of the Vice-Regents in the book.4

Other Mount Vernon guidebooks did exist. Alex J. Wedderburn’s Mount Vernon Guide (1877) was not endorsed by the MVLA.5 It was; however, sold on the Arrow, a boat that carried visitors to Mount Vernon under contract with the MVLA until 1878.6 The MVLA may have decided to enter into a contract with Johnston in order to capitalize on demand and establish control over content.

Elizabeth Bryant Johnston’s Washington connections may have played a role in her initial contact with the MVLA in the 1870s. She lived with her brother Saunders Johnston, a lawyer; his wife Sarah Johnston, who occasionally represented Elizabeth Johnston at the MVLA Council; a boarder named Guy S. Lurty; and a black servant named Sallie Howard at 1320 Florida Avenue NW.7 Her other brother, Anderson Daniphan Johnston, was head bookkeeper in the Treasury Department. He was married to Frances Anoinette Benjamin, a Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Their daughter Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer of Washington’s political elite, would photograph Mount Vernon for the MVLA in the late 1930s.8

The MVLA appears not to have been receptive to Johnston’s periodic suggestions. Johnston sent an article she wrote on the Yorktown Centennial to the MVLA in 1881, as a potential addition to the forthcoming edition of the guidebook.9 The MVLA replied that it would be “inappropriate.”10 In 1893, Johnston expressed concern that guidebook sales had decreased because more guests travelled by train and other books sold on the steamboat created competition. She wondered whether she could sell the book on the railroad. The Vice Regents refused to ask the Electric Railroad Company for any favors, but informed Johnston that her contract would not prevent her from approaching the company herself.11 The MVLA did not address Johnston’s wish to make the guidebook more visible at Mount Vernon.

The MVLA often renewed Johnston’s contract for a shorter time than she requested, and tension is evident in the last four years of their relationship.12 In 1894 Johnston tried to sell her remaining stock of guidebooks, the plates of text and illustrations, and the copyright to the MVLA for $1000.00. She suggested that production and sale of the guidebook could be better managed if it were owned by the MVLA. The MVLA declined because it would be “an unsafe investment and an unadvisable one for the Association.”13 On May 20, 1895, Johnston asked the MVLA to renew her contract until June 1900 and proposed that the MVLA continue to receive twelve percent of the profit.14 The Vice Regents delayed a decision until 1896,15 when it renewed the contract for just two years with the word “exclusive” omitted.16 On May 11, 1898, Johnston again asked the MVLA to renew her contract through June 1900.17 The MVLA sent her the following message: “The contract with Miss Johnston expires in June, 1898, and the Committee has decided not to renew it.”18 It is unclear what prompted the decision, but the subsequent official guidebook was Superintendent Harrison H. Dodge’s work.

Beyond her relationship with Mount Vernon, Johnston was an accomplished journalist, art critic, and historian. Her historicalTitle pages of Original Portraits of Washington (1881), and George Washington Day By Day (1895) works included Original Portraits of Washington (1881) and George Washington, Day by Day (1895). Her time at Mount Vernon in 1876 is said to have inspired her to write Original Portraits of Washington.19

Possibly her role as the guidebook author gave her credibility as a Washington historian. In 1902 the League for Social Service recognized Johnston as an expert on portraits of Washington, writing that "Miss Johnston’s knowledge and history of the painters to whom Washington absolutely sat for his likeness is now acknowledged authority by historians, litterateurs, and artists and is historically correct. She has written about all that can be said upon the subject."20 

Johnston with the Houdon Bust of Washington, c. 1902. (Photograph from Social Service: A Social and Industrial Betterment Review (Washington, D.C.: League for Social Service, 1902), 7.George Washington, Day by Day, which Johnston dedicated “To the children of my country, the army which Washington said could never be conquered,” was used in public school curricula.21 In 1894 Johnston helped found the Columbia Historical Society (now the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.) and remained on its board until her death.22 Johnston also served as Historian General of the National Society and the Mary Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and worked as the Associate Editor of the American Monthly Magazine, published by the DAR.23 As she compiled the earliest editions of the Mount Vernon guidebook, she also compiled Volumes II-VI of the DAR Lineage Book.24

 

Katherine Fusick 

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

 

Notes:

1. Alice M. Longfellow, L.H. Pickens, and Mary Polk Yeatman Webb, “Report of the Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May 1898 (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1898), 67.

2. Minnie F. Mickley, “Tribute to Miss Elizabeth Bryant Johnston,” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 11 (Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1908), 404.

3. Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union (Bridgeport, CT: Farmer Office Steam Presses, 1877), 7.

4. Minutes of the Council, 1877, 7; Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1878 (Bridgeport, CT: Farmer Office Steam Presses, 1878), 19.

5. Alex J. Wedderburn, Mount Vernon Guide, Third Edition Revised (Baltimore, MD: The Office of “Our Fireside,” 1877).

6. Wedderburn, Mount Vernon Guide; Minutes of the Council, 1877, 7; Minutes of the Council, 1878, 10.

7. Year: 1900; Census Place: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: 160; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0052; FHL microfilm: 1240160.

8. Harriet C. Towner, “Annual Report of the Regent, 1938,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia on May Twelfth to Twentieth Nineteen Thirty-Eight (Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1938), 8.

9. “Evening Session,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May, 1881 (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co., 1901), 27.

10. “Evening Session,” Minutes of the Council, 1881, 27.

11. “Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May, 1893 (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1893), 50-51.

12. Mrs. Halsted, Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Laughton, Mrs. Pickens, and Mrs. Townsend, “Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, May 20, 1885 (Portland: Stephen Berry, Printer, 1885), 35.

13. Alice M. Longfellow and Jennie Meeker Ward, “Report of the Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, June, 1894 (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1894), 49-50.

14. Alice M. Longfellow and Jennie Meeker Ward, Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, May, 1895 (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1895), 50.

15. Ibid.

16. Jennie Meeker Ward, Justine V.R. Townsend, “Report of the Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, May, 1896 (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1896), 28-29.

17. Alice M. Longfellow, et al., “Report of the Guide Book Committee,” Minutes of the Council, 1898, 67.

18. Ibid.

19. Columbia Historical Society, “In Memoriam—Miss Elizabeth Bryant Johnston,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 11 (Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1908), 403.

20. Social Service: A Social and Industrial Betterment Review (Washington, D.C.: League for Social Service, 1902), 7.

21. Elroy M. Avery, ed., The American Monthly Magazine, Volume 30 (Washington, D.C.: National Society, D.A.R., 1906), 348; Mickley, 408.

22. J. Eakin Gadsby, “Tribute to Miss Elizabeth Bryant Johnston,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 11, (Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1908), 409.

23. Elroy M. Avery, ed., The American Monthly Magazine, Volume 30, 1906, 348.

24. Elizabeth Bryant Johnston, Lineage Book, Volumes II-VI (Washington, D.C.: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1896-1898).

 

For Further Reading:

Olsen, Victoria. “Victorian Womanhood, in All Its Guises.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010.

Johnston, Elizabeth Bryant. “The Seal of the Columbia Historical Society.” In Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 6. Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1903. 214-221. 

Mickley, Minnie F. “Tribute to Miss Elizabeth Bryant Johnston.” In Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 11. Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1908. 404-406. 

Gadsby, Mrs. J. Eakin. “Tribute to Miss Elizabeth Bryant Johnston.” In Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 11, Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1908. 407-409.

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