In the course of the Washingtons’ forty years of residency at Mount Vernon, the Chintz Room housed a wide variety of occupants.

Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis, 1796, by James Sharples. Purchase, 1974 [W-2645].

Nelly Custis Lewis’s possible occupation of the room would have been a brief, but important, episode in the long history of its use.

While there is no conclusive evidence to confirm that Nelly Custis Lewis occupied this room, some documentary and object evidence does suggest that this may have been used by her at some point as a newly-married woman and mother, perhaps from the fall of 1799 to early 1800.

Who was Nelly Custis?

 

Architectural features such as the closet, providing extra storage space, and the bell pull, giving the ability to summon assistance from an enslaved attendant, would have fitted it to Mrs. Lewis’s needs as a new mother. The furnishings listed in this space on the 1800 inventory also indicate the presence of a woman. These included a pine dressing table, a form used exclusively by women in the period, and a close chair, an arm chair or easy chair with a removable chamber pot, which would have been ideal for a convalescent. This last evidence corresponds with a visitor’s account of the second-floor “apartment” occupied by Mrs. Lewis noting that an armchair, likely an easy chair, had been carried upstairs for her use.

Mrs. Edward Carrington, visiting Mrs. Lewis’s apartment in late November 1799, described it as “elegantly prepared for an expected event.” Her comments imply that everything was ready to welcome the new infant and the subsequent visitors who would be coming to congratulate the family, according to the practice in elite homes at the time: the room would have been freshly cleaned, the bedstead hung with fine textiles, a layette prepared and in readiness, and a crib fitted out with new linens.

“It is really an enjoyment to be here, to witness the tranquil happiness that reigns throughout the house . . . My mornings are spent charmingly alternately in the different chambers; first an hour after breakfast with the lady in the straw [Nelly Custis Lewis, recovering from childbirth] — dressing the pretty little stranger [Francis Parke Lewis], who is the delight of the Grand-ma…”

—Eliza Ambler Brent Carrington to her sister, Anne Ambler Fisher, November 27, 1799

The current scenario in the room commemorates the short period of “tranquil happiness” at Mount Vernon in the late fall of 1799, between November 27 and December 13. Then, the Washington and Lewis families celebrated the arrival of Frances Parke Lewis, the first child of Nelly Parke Custis and Lawrence Lewis, and the Washingtons’ fifth great-grandchild. In the month after the birth, Mrs. Lewis would have been largely confined to her room and the second floor, but would have continued to entertain visits from close family and female friends.

Modern-day visitors now see in the room an easy chair and chairs gathered near the fireplace and the crib, suggesting that Mrs. Lewis, her visitors, and an enslaved nurse or attendant are gathered around the new baby. 

Nelly Custis Lewis's Crib

Nelly Custis Lewis at Mount Vernon

Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis (1779–1852) occupied several different spaces at Mount Vernon during the four distinct periods of her life here: as a young child in the years between the Revolution and George Washington’s presidency; as a young lady during Washington’s second retirement; as the newly married wife of Lawrence Lewis in the months just prior to Washington’s death; and as the primary hostess at Mount Vernon between 1799 and the death of Martha Washington in May 1802, at which point the Lewises finally departed Mount Vernon.

As a young child, Nelly may well have stayed in a trundle bed in the Washingtons’ own bedroom. The only reference she makes in her own writings to staying in a specific room at Mount Vernon refers to that space: she wistfully remembered her “grandmama’s bedroom where the happiest years of my life were passed.” Martha Washington also referenced a trundle bed which was used by Nelly and her brother Washy.

As Nelly grew into a young woman in the 1790s, she likely moved into one of the second-floor bedchambers. On February 22, 1799, she married Lawrence Lewis, Washington’s nephew, and shortly thereafter, they departed on what would become a six-month honeymoon tour, visiting friends and family throughout Virginia, as they considered where to make their main residence.

Learn more about Lawrence Lewis

 

In October 1799, the couple returned to Mount Vernon, imminently expecting the birth of their first child, whom Mrs. Lewis delivered on November 27, 1799. Again, no accounts specifically identify where her room was at the time, but a few documentary references indicate that it was on the second floor.

George Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, irrevocably changed the family dynamic. Nelly and Lawrence would have taken on more duties as host and hostess, lightening the burden for her grieving grandmother. At some point in the following months, the third floor was converted to a living space for the remaining family: Mrs. Washington’s bed chamber, a nursery for the Lewis children (Mrs. Lewis had delivered three by 1802), and “Mrs. Lewis’s room,” were all listed on the third floor in the 1802 inventory taken after Martha Washington’s death.

Amanda C. Isaac, Associate Curator, May 2016

References

Eliza Ambler Brent Carrington to her sister, Anne Ambler Fisher, 22 and 27 November 1799 (transcript, Mss. 244, Papers of the Ambler, Carrington, and Minor families, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)

Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 10 October 1832 (manuscript, A-569, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association). http://catalog.mountvernon.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16829coll15/id/571/rec/3

Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington, 13 April 1794, as transcribed in “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 264.

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