Dining at Mount Vernon
Food was an important part of daily life on a large estate like Mount Vernon, and it had to serve a number of different audiences and their needs.
A fortified wine produced on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the eastern Atlantic, in the eighteenth century madeira was common in Britain and particularly popular in the American colonies. George Washington had an affinity for this particular type of wine.
The first order for Madeira in George Washington's correspondence dates to the spring of 1759, when he asked his London agent, Robert Cary & Company to "Order from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old Wine, and let it be Securd from Pilferers."1 A pipe held approximately 126 gallons of wine.2 About a year later, Washington transported a pipe of wine to Mount Vernon from Alexandria, "wch. Captn. McKee brought from Madeira," along with "a chest of Lemons and some other trifles."3
Three years later, in the spring of 1763, Washington notified Cary & Company that he would be writing directly to the island firm of John and James Searles for a pipe of Madeira wine, and that they, in turn, would be contacting Cary for payment.4 In his letter to the Searles, Washington specifically asked for "a rich oily Wine," and asked that, "if the present vintage shoud not be good, to have it of the last, or in short of any other which you can recommend."5
Washington's orders for madeira continued throughout his lifetime. He purchased a second pipe from John Searles in 1764, even though he admitted that he still had not yet tapped into the first one. Two years later, Washington switched suppliers and requested similar or larger quantities from the firm of Scott, Pringle, Cheape & Company. By 1768, Washington had not gotten around to drinking the 1766 order, but still asked that an additional 150 gallons be sent.6 In the last orders prior to the American Revolution, Washington sent flour from Mount Vernon directly to Madeira instead of having his English agent pay the island firms, and received wine and other products from the islands in exchange.7
Significant amounts of madeira continued to be purchased for the Washington household both after the war and during the presidency. Two pipes of Madeira were received for the presidential household in Philadelphia in August of 1793 and paid for in January of the following year. Another two pipes of the same wine arrived in May of 1794 and an equal amount again in July and November of the same year.8
When Washington made a trip to tour western lands in the fall of 1784, he carried along in his "equipage Trunk and the Canteens" three types of alcoholic beverages, two of which were Portuguese wines-madeira and port.9 During the last year of Washington's life, an English visitor at Mount Vernon recorded that both port and madeira were served during the fruit and nut course at dinner. A Polish nobleman noted that when there were houseguests at Mount Vernon, Washington "loves to chat after dinner with a glass of Madeira in his hand."10 Washington's step-granddaughter Nelly later recalled that, "After dinner" Washington "drank 3 glasses of madeira."11
1. George Washington, "Invoice to Robert Cary & Company, 1 May 1759" The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 6, ed. W.W. Abbott (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 318.
4. "George Washington to Robert Cary & Company, 26 April 1763" The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 7, eds. W.W. Abbott and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 204.
5. "George Washington to John and James Searle, 30 April 1763" The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 7, 208.
6. "George Washington to Scott, Pringle, Cheap, & Company, 23 February 1768" The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 8, 68-9.
7. "George Washington to Thomas Newton, Jr., 10 July 1773" The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 3 ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1931), 143.
8. "Tobias Lear & Bartholomew Dandridge, 18 January 1794, Washington's Household Account Book, 1793-1797," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 30, Nos. 2 and 3 (1906): 159-186, 309-331; Ibid., 27 May 1794, 24 July 1794, 4 November 1794: 182, 312, 323.
10. Joshua Brookes, "A Dinner at Mount Vernon: From the Unpublished Journal of Joshua Brookes." ed. R.W.G. Vail, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly 31, No. 2 (April 1947): 76; Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree; Travels Through America in 1797-1799, 1805, ed. Metchie J.E. Budka (Elizabeth, New Jersey: Grassman Publishing Company, 1965), 103.