The Regents, Vice Regents and managerial staff of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) authorized significant physical and ideological alterations to the guidebooks during the mid-twentieth century. The most significant of these included an increased use of color photography, an emphasis on historical accuracy, and a minor expansion to the interpretation of slavery.
Charles Cecil Wall was the primary author of the guidebooks from at least 1936 to 1976. He came to Mount Vernon in 1929 to take the position of Assistant Superintendent after having recently graduated from college in business. He had no professional training in history.1 Wall became Resident Superintendent in 1937 after the death of his predecessor, Harrison Dodge.2 It is clear that Wall was working on the text before the death of Dodge, as indicated in a 1936 letter from Vermont Vice Regent Mrs. Caroline H. Clement Brown, in which she referred to Wall as “entirely the creator.”3 Wall was never credited in the books and he seemed to have disfavored the inclusion of his name.4 Wall also played liaison between the MVLA (the Council and its Committee on Handbook and Post Cards) and the various contributors to the guidebooks (such as publishers, editors, photographers, etc.).5
During Wall’s tenure as Superintendent the book went through four major revisions (1937, 1947, 1958, and 1965). The MVLA trusted Wall with the text though he did at times consult with outside sources to check for historical accuracy, such as his correspondence with John C. Fitzpatrick from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.6 The most ambitious changes to the books occurred in 1947, when Wall’s added text more than doubled the book’s size. The text of the books remained close to the 1947 version throughout Wall’s departure in 1976, with many minor revisions.
Most correspondence between the MVLA, Wall, and outside contributors concerned images in the book. “The book will, in a sense, be built around the pictures,” Wall wrote to Mrs. Annie Burr Auchincloss Lewis, Vice Regent from Connecticut and Chairman of the Handbook and Post Cards Committee in 1946.7 Wall and the board stressed that photographs must match the visitor’s visual experience exactly. When an object was moved from a room or an element of the exterior altered, the team worked to replace the photograph as soon as possible. Likewise, images should not outshine the real thing; “build[ing] up a false impression by a series of beautiful, though exaggerated pictures… might give [visitors] a letdown when seeing it in reality.”8 Color photography presented opportunities as well as challenges: for example, the changing of seasons could be displayed in a whole new manner.9 At the same time, false coloring in the prints was a constant bother when it did not match exactly.10 In an interesting episode, Wall protested a color cover for the 1947 guidebook: the quality exudes “commercialism,” he thought, while black and white gravure might better reflect the conservative values of the MVLA.11 In the end the book’s cover was printed in color but Wall’s preference may have still had considerable influence: only one page in the 1947 guidebook sported a color image, far less than even the 1937 book.
Beginning in 1937, the inclusion of more primary sources such as quotations and artifact line drawings (first used in 1928) suggested a different kind of historical accuracy. In 1947 Wall increased the use of these and quotations now included dates, sources and authors’ names. In 1965 photographs replaced the line drawings. These additions provided visitors with their own portable historical document. As they moved through the rooms, they could identify objects and read words from letters and diaries of Mount Vernon inhabitants. The book was meant to match the tour sequence, “a ‘guide’ in hand,” but also a souvenir that conformed to the visitor’s spatial memory of the experience.12 A decade later Wall’s stance had changed: use of the guidebooks in the mansion was “paralyz[ing] traffic.”13 Wall suggested eliminating listing room’s original objects to speed tour flow, this practice however continued in the books.
The Mount Vernon guidebooks during Wall’s tenure acknowledged slavery only minimally. Whenever the topic was approached, it occupied but a few sentences and was directly tied to a celebratory discourse of Washington the entrepreneur and benevolent master. Indirect terminology such as “servants,”14 “workers,”15 and “many busy people”16 blurred the line between paid and unpaid workers, as well as ignored the harsh realities of bondage. The 1937 and 1947 books greatly expanded the interpretation of outbuildings.17 This allowed for a wider interpretive scope, beyond the domestic sphere of the mansion. However, these new interpretations applauded the grounds and buildings for their design, particularly for efficiency and sustainability in service, rather than speak about those who had lived and worked inside them.18 Rosy descriptions of these working areas depicted “harmonious units,” or a “small village... self contained as any eighteenth century community,”19 which softened and buried the unusual experience of slavery behind normative and wholesome imagery.
Not until 1965 did the books mention any individual African American. The caption of Edward Savage’s portrait, The Washington Family (used in the books since 1937) claimed the man standing behind Washington was “Billy Lee body servant to the general.”20 The 1972 guidebook included the first primary source that directly related to the daily lives of enslaved people: a photograph of a farm manager's weekly report, listing daily work done by Washington’s “workers.”21 However, the accompanying caption overlooked these individuals, instead promoting Washington as a competent and attentive farm manager, even when absent from the estate. Wall and the board were enacting a pattern of interpretation with the farm manager’s report, like other mentions of slavery in the guidebooks, which simultaneously recognized and concealed enslavement at Mount Vernon.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
1. Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Charles, Wall, 91, Long Director of George Washington’s Home,” New York Times, May 5, 1995; Bart Barnes, “Former Master of Mt. Vernon Charles Cecil Wall Dies at 91,” Washington Post, May 4, 1995; Lydia Brandt, First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2016), 152.
2. “Summary of Recording Secretary’s Report,” The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union Annual Report, 1937 (Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1937) 29.
3. For the earliest mention of Wall’s authorship see: Caroline Brown to Charles C. Wall, Jan 14, 1936, Papers of the MVLA, Superintendent Files, Wall, Charles C., Publications - Handbook (Old) - Editorial, 1935-1940, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington [hereafter Washington Library], Mount Vernon, Virginia.
4. Charles C. Wall to George T. Bailey, Sept. 3, 1954, Papers of the MVLA, Publications-Handbook (New) Photogravure + Color Co., 1948-1949, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Washington Library.
5. The committees on “Handbook and Post Cards” and “Special Publications” combined into one committee renamed the “Publications Committee” in 1948. See: Helen Louise Sargent, “Report of the Committee on Publications – May, 1948,” in Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May Thirteenth to Nineteenth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Eight (Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, 1948) 44-45.
6. Fitzpatrick, like Wall, had no formal training in history. Both men showed a passion for George Washington in their work. For Wall and the MVLA see Mrs. Wilmarth S. Lewis to Charles C. Wall, Jan. 24, 1946, Papers of the MVLA, Committee Files, Publications Committee - Correspondence re: new handbooks, 1946-1947, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library; For Wall and Fitzpatrick see Charles C. Wall to Dr. John Fitzpatrick, March 5, 1937, Papers of the MVLA, Superintendent Files, Wall, Charles C., Publications – Handbook (Old) – Editorial, 1935-1940, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library; For more on Fitzpatrick see William M. Ferraro, "The AHA and the George Washington Bicentennial in 1932", Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, October 2009.
7. Charles C. Wall to Mrs. Wilmarth S. Lewis, Jan. 10, 1946, Papers of the MVLA, Committee Files, Publications Committee - Correspondence re: new handbooks, 1946-1947, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
8. Walter C. Densmore to Mr. Walter Miller, Aug. 28, 1958, Papers of the MVLA, Publications - Handbook, 1947-1964, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
9. Walter H. Miller to Walter C. Densmore, Sept. 17, 1958, Papers of the MVLA, Subject Files, Publications – Handbook, 1947-1964, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
10. Charles C. Wall to Mrs. Wilmarth S. Lewis, Dec. 28, 1946, Papers of the MVLA, Committee Files, Publications Committee - Correspondence re: new handbooks, 1946-1947, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
11. Charles C. Wall to Mrs. Wilmarth S. Lewis, Dec. 2, 1946, Papers of the MVLA, Committee Files, Publications Committee - Correspondence re: new handbooks, 1946-1947, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
12. Charles C. Wall to Mrs. Wilmarth S. Lewis, Jan. 28, 1946, Papers of the MVLA, Committee Files, Publications Committee - Correspondence re: new handbooks, 1946-1947, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
13. Charles C. Wall to Mrs. Morris Williams Bush, Feb. 3, 1958, Papers of the MVLA, Publications - Handbook, 1947-1964, Special Collections and Archives, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Washington Library.
14. Mount Vernon, Virginia: An Illustrated Handbook (Photogravure and Color Company, 1947), 28.
15. Mount Vernon: An Illustrated Handbook (Judd & Detweiler, Inc., 1972), 100-101.
16. Handbook of Mount Vernon (Washington DC: Press of Judd & Detweiler Inc., 1937), 28.
17. This may have been influenced by the work of Morely Jeffers Williams, Mount Vernon’s first full-time preservationist. See Brandt, First in the Homes of His Countrymen, 151, 158.
18. Handbook of Mount Vernon, 33.; Mount Vernon, Virginia: An Illustrated Handbook, 68.
20. Mount Vernon: An Illustrated Handbook (Judd & Detweiler, Inc., 1965), 3. In the 1972 book Lee’s name is omitted, perhaps due to research indicating that this most likely was not Lee.
21. Mount Vernon: An Illustrated Handbook, 1972, 100-101.