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Donald W. Reynolds Museum's Changing Exhibition Bringing Them Home: 150 Years of Restoring the Washington Collection

Fri, 10/29/2010

 

I.) Introduction

For more than forty years, George and Martha Washington called Mount Vernon home.  Here they raised Mrs. Washington’s children and grandchildren, hosted countless visitors, and ran a successful plantation consisting of a gristmill, distillery, fishery, and five farms.  In the decades after the Washingtons’ deaths, the estate gradually fell into a state of disrepair.  Its fate was uncertain until 1853, when a pioneering group of women from across the nation banded together to rescue it from ruin.  The Regent and Vice Regents of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased Mount Vernon, opened it to the public in 1860, and dedicated themselves to restoring the property to its original 18th-century appearance.

When the Association took possession of George Washington’s estate in 1860, only a handful of the home’s original contents remained. This eclectic group of items included a military canteen, fire bucket, and specimen of fan coral included in the exhibition. In an effort to create the most authentic experience possible of life with the Washingtons, the Ladies then embarked on the second phase of their ambitious preservation enterprise: locating and acquiring additional surviving Washington objects. 

The first objects the Association purchased that belonged to George Washington are a cane and spyglass. Acquired at auction in Baltimore in July 1857, they were procured not as mansion furnishings, but as gifts of appreciation for Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett and Alabama congressman William Lowndes Yancey. These two orators lectured widely on behalf of the Association in the late 1850s, raising over half of the $200,000 needed to buy the estate. The extraordinary efforts of Everett, a Union supporter, and Yancey, a Southern secessionist, underscore the extent to which the Ladies’ cause transcended sectional politics. The cane returned to Mount Vernon from Everett’s granddaughter in 1911, while Yancey willed the spyglass to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, whose widow donated it to the Association in 1899.

The Old Mount Vernon
Eastman Johnson (American, 1824–1906)
Oil on board, 1857
Purchased with funds courtesy of an anonymous donor and the Mount Vernon Licensing Fund, 2009 [2009.015]

Esteemed genre artist Eastman Johnson painted this image following an 1857 visit to the estate.  Completed shortly after the Association’s founding, it documents the state of neglect that characterized Mount Vernon at mid century and attests to the groundswell of interest amongst artists and ordinary Americans alike to preserve it for posterity.

Cane
Charles Mackie (active 1780–1785)
London, England
Iron, gold, copper alloy, 1783 (cap and ferrule); wood, 1911 (staff)
Gift of Mrs. Archibald Hopkins, 1911 [W-578]

Spyglass
Henry Pyefinch (English, ca. 1739–1790)
London, England
Brass, mahogany, glass, ca. 17741783
Gift of Varina Howell Davis, 1899 [W-644]

The cane and this spyglass, which Washington noted “constituted part of my equipage during the late war” in his will, are likely those he bequeathed to his cousin Lawrence Washington of Chotank. They are also the first objects the Association purchased that belonged to George Washington. Acquired at auction in Baltimore in July 1857, they were procured not as mansion furnishings, but as gifts of appreciation for Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett (who received the cane) and Alabama congressman William Lowndes Yancey (who received the spyglass). These two orators lectured widely on behalf of the Association in the late 1850s, raising over half of the $200,000 needed to buy the estate. The extraordinary efforts of Everett, a Union supporter, and Yancey, a Southern secessionist, underscore the extent to which the Ladies’ cause transcended sectional politics.

The walking stick presented to Everett could very well be the “handsome gold headed cane” General Washington was given in 1784. Its cap is engraved with Washington’s coat of arms and family motto on top, while an inscription to Everett surrounds its sides.

Damaged by fire, Everett’s granddaughter presented the cane to the Ladies, who mounted the cap to a new staff, likely fashioned of Mount Vernon wood per her request.

William Yancey – a first cousin of Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder and first Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, willed the three-draw telescope to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose widow donated it to Mount Vernon.

II.) Early Acquisitions

Early visitors to Mount Vernon toured rooms brimming with an eclectic mix of relics, rather than the carefully researched historic interiors seen today. From 1878 until the early 1930s, the Association’s Vice Regents furnished the Mansion’s rooms by state. A historic photograph of the large dining room shows a colonial revival cabinet in this space at the turn of the 20th century. Installed in the exhibition, it features several items on its shelves that came to Mount Vernon from members of the Hearst and Pierpont Morgan families, just two among the scions of America’s Gilded Age elite drawn to the quest for Washington relics.

Vase
China
Porcelain, enamel, gilt, ca. 18201830
Gift of Phoebe A. Hearst, Vice Regent for California, 1893 [W-19/A-B]

Benson J. Lossing’s 1859 publication Mount Vernon and Its Associations documents this covered vase and its mate in the large dining room when John Augustine Washington III, the estate’s last private owner, lived at Mount Vernon. Vice Regent Phoebe Apperson Hearst purchased the pair at auction in 1891 and returned this vessel to the Association soon after.  Her son, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, donated the other vase 40 years later. This generous intergenerational gift represents just one of many ways in which the Hearst family has supported research and collecting at Mount Vernon. 

Display cabinet
United States
Mahogany, yellow pine, glass, 1880-1900
Collection of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association [M -2929]

The Ladies used this colonial revival cabinet to display Washington relics in the mansion at the turn of the 20th century. It can be seen in historic photographs of the large dining room. Several items placed on its shelves for this exhibition are early acquisitions from members of the Hearst and Pierpont Morgan families, just two among the scions of America’s Gilded Age elite drawn to the quest for Washington relics.

III.) Family Ties

Much of the original content of Mount Vernon survives today as the result of family members’ careful stewardship.  Following Mrs. Washington’s death in 1802, many of the Washingtons’ furnishings and personal possessions were passed on to the offspring of her son, John Parke Custis: Martha (Patty), Elizabeth (Eliza), Eleanor (Nelly), and George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis.  The grandchildren also made significant purchases of objects at the Washingtons’ public and private estate sales.

These four very different individuals looked back fondly on their time with the Washingtons, and treasured the original objects entrusted to their care as part of their family history.  They also recognized the importance of these artifacts to the nation.  Our understanding of George and Martha Washington and their lives at Mount Vernon has been greatly aided by the guardianship that the grandchildren and successive generations of descendants have provided for the objects associated with “dear Grandmama” and her illustrious husband.

Martha Washington’s copy of The Good Old Virginia Almanack, for the Year of our Lord, 1802
Richmond, Virginia: Printed by Thomas Nicholson, 1801
Purchased by the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Endowment Fund, 2008 [W-2557]

Generations of Custis women cherished the books they inherited. Texts that descended in the family of Martha Washington’s eldest daughter, Eliza Custis Law, include one of only two almanacs known to have belonged to Mrs. Washington. This almanac from the last year of her life, with its handful of handwritten entries, offers a rare glimpse of her time as a widow. Her notations show, for example, that during the late winter and early spring of that year, she “sewed peases” in the kitchen garden and obtained clothing for the slaves. She died at Mount Vernon on May 22, a month after making her fifth and final entry, dated April 23: “gave Will the shoemaker his too shirts for this summer.” 

Four-bottle wine cooler
England
Fused silver plate on copper, 1790
Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee, IV, 2007 [2007.012.001]

Anticipating large presidential entertainments, George Washington ordered twelve wine coolers—eight two-bottle models for serving Madeira and claret during the meal and “four quadruple coolers” for after-dinner use—from England in October 1789. Two of George Washington’s four “quadruple coolers” now reside at Mount Vernon. The other is displayed in another gallery in Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds museum.

Bottle roller
Joseph Cooke (English, active 1784–1796)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Silver, brass, 1790
Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee, IV [2007.012.002]

Finding his wine coolers too unwieldy to pass around the table, George Washington commissioned four lightweight decanter stands on castors from Philadelphia silversmith Joseph Cooke. Until 2007, none were believed to survive and were known only through an 1859 engraving; but then Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee IV discovered a treasure trove of Washington silver in old family trunks that included the four-bottle wine cooler and this bottle roller. Washington possibly devised the roller’s unusual design by himself or in conversations with Cooke.

The compelling 18th century history and the recent discovery of these two artifacts are rivaled by their Civil War-era narrative. Martha Washington willed “all the silver plate of every kind of which I shall die possessed” to her youngest grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis. From him it passed to his daughter and son-in-law, General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. With the onset of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee encouraged his wife—Martha Washington’s great granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee—to evacuate their home and take the precious Washington silver with her.  Packed into trunks and sent to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington for safekeeping, the silver was buried underground and thus protected from both the pillaging at Arlington House and a massive fire set by Union troops on the VMI campus.

IV.) Piecing the Puzzle

George and Martha Washington’s clothing and personal accessories provide an intimate view of their times and tastes. After the couple’s deaths, fine garments that once adorned their figures were cut up and matching sets of jewelry were separated to be distributed to successive generations.  Divested of their practical function, descendants and other admirers cherished these fragmentary items as intimate tokens of remembrance.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been collecting these small pieces of history since its inception. As this collection grows, we work to piece the puzzle back together, reuniting the adored remnants to tell a more complete story of George and Martha Washington. For this exhibition, eight fragments of a green striped silk dating to around 1765-1770, which descended in the family of Mrs. Robert E. (Mary Custis) Lee, were painstakingly examined to create a reproduction bodice of a gown possibly worn by Martha Washington. During the 1760s and early 1770s, Martha acquired precisely the clothing and personal accessories she wished through orders placed by her husband to their agent in London. “Sacques,” “negligees,” and “nightgowns” of colored silks frequently appear in his invoices. None of these elegant and costly imported gowns have survived, leaving a few precious pieces of fabric as the only evidence for what they looked like.

Compère front of a gown
France or England
Silk, 1765-1770

Purchased by the Alfred A. Taubman Fund and partial gift of an anonymous donor, 2004 [W-2784/B & G]
**on view, February-August 2010; a sleeve fragment will be exhibited August 2010-February 2011

During the 1760s and early 1770s, Martha Washington acquired precisely the clothing and personal accessories she wished through orders placed by her husband to their agent in London. “Sacques,” “negligees,” and “nightgowns” of colored silks frequently appear in the invoices. None of Martha’s elegant and costly imported gowns have survived, leaving a few precious pieces of fabric as the only evidence for what they looked like.

Eight fragments of this green striped silk, which descended in the family of Mrs. Robert E. (Mary Custis) Lee, were painstakingly examined to create the reproduction bodice seen here. The two parts of its compère front originally buttoned, and barely-visible serpentine stitching lines across both pieces indicate they were ornately trimmed. The gown’s straight neckline was probably altered to the more demure curved edge in the 1780s or 1790s.

Buckle
England
Silver, glass, gold, ca. 17501759
Purchased with funds donated by Mrs. William H. Borthwick, Vice Regent for California, and Mr. Borthwick, 2008 [W-2555]

Martha Washington probably acquired this silver buckle during her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. She could have used it to accent a sash around her waist or fasten a shoe. After George and Martha Washington died, fine garments that once adorned their figures were cut up and matching sets of jewelry were separated to be distributed to successive generations. Divested of their practical function, descendants and other admirers cherished fragmentary items such as this as intimate tokens of remembrance.

V.) Auctions and Inquiries

While many original Washington objects have returned home as the result of long standing personal relationships between the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and descendants, items are also obtained through more public forums. Auctions of George and Martha Washington’s household furnishings and personal effects occurred as early as 1802, the year of Mrs. Washington’s death. Today Mount Vernon continues to acquire important Washington artifacts through the forum of auction. 

Mount Vernon’s curatorial and library staffs receive hundreds of inquiries every year concerning prospective Washington and original Mount Vernon objects. In this way, the campaign to bring home Mount Vernon objects is a truly national effort. Some of these queries relate to pieces the association has known about for years. Occasionally they yield thrilling discoveries, like a previously unknown sugar bowl from a coffee and tea service made expressly for the Washingtons in France. In 2007, a couple e-mailed Mount Vernon about a sugar bowl in their possession. Research revealed it descended through an ancestor who married Martha’s great-great grandson, Edward Parke Custis Lewis. Broken long ago, it likely would have been discarded if not for its connection to the Washingtons. As we move into the 21st century, emails, internet postings, and digital images have almost entirely replaced phone calls, handwritten letters, and photographs as the preferred methods of communication.

Pocket notebook
England or United States
Leather, gilt, wove paper, ink, ca. 1795
Gift: Jess and Grace Pavey Fund, 2007 [ML-6496-W]

George Washington’s grandnephew, Bushrod Corbin Washington, probably acquired this diminutive notebook while staying at Mount Vernon with his Uncle Bushrod, who inherited the bulk of the General’s estate. It is likely one of the “13 [blank books] Small $2.00” listed in the study after Washington’s death. Mount Vernon acquired it at auction in December 2007.

Sugar bowl with lid
Niderviller factory (French, 1754-present)
Porcelain (hard paste), enamel, gilt, ca. 1782
Purchased with funds donated by Melody Sawyer Richardson, Vice Regent for Ohio, 2009 [2009.014]

The elegant porcelains presented to Martha Washington by French officer Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine, at Mount Vernon on July 20, 1782, are the rarest of the Washington services to survive. How many pieces comprised Custine’s gift is not known and few have surfaced over the years. In 2007, a couple emailed Mount Vernon about a sugar bowl with a “smudge” in their possession. Curators immediately recognized the “smudge” was the distinctive cloud decorating other pieces from the Custine service. Research revealed the bowl descended through an ancestor who married Martha’s great-great grandson, Edward Parke Custis Lewis. Broken long ago, it likely would have been discarded if not for its Washington connection. 

VI.) A Man of Letters

At the time of his death, George Washington’s library held almost 1000 volumes representing his wide-ranging interests—from history and politics to literature, horticulture, and architecture.  His extensive archive of official and private papers contained tens of thousands of documents.  The books, letters, pamphlets, surveys, and other records Washington amassed during his lifetime were divided and dispersed by the late 1840s. 

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is engaged in an ongoing effort to reconstruct Washington’s library by acquiring original books and duplicate editions as well as significant documents in his hand.  Mount Vernon currently owns almost 40 book titles and several hundred documents bearing his signature, as well as the largest known collection of Martha Washington’s letters.  Each item added to the collection sheds new light on an aspect of the Washingtons’ public or private worlds; as a group, these books and documents add volumes to our understanding of their lives and times.

Letter, George Washington to George Augustine Washington, September 2, 1787. Purchased with funds donated by Jack Overstreet, 2007 [RM-1135/MS-5821a-b]
**on view February-August 2010

While attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Washington regularly wrote his nephew George Augustine with meticulous instructions about Mount Vernon’s care. A note stating George Augustine’s son owned this letter accompanied it at auction. Many Washington-owned objects in Mount Vernon’s collection have detailed histories, but few manuscripts carry lengthy provenances.