Founded by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina, the Association might never have come into existence were it not a tradition for ships to toll their bells when passing Mount Vernon. When in 1853 Miss Cunningham’s mother was summoned to deck by such a bell, ringing in homage to the nation’s first president, she was horrified at the sight of Washington’s once grand house covered with peeling paint and overgrown weeds, its famous portico so dilapidated that it was propped up by a sailing mast. “I was painfully distressed,” she later wrote to her daughter, “at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it? It does seem such a blot on our country.”
Inspired by her mother’s conviction, Ann Pamela Cunningham launched a campaign to raise the funds necessary to purchase and preserve the home of Washington. The Association she founded in 1853—a nationwide organization of women—appealed to the American people for $200,000 in an unprecedented grassroots fundraising campaign. The country responded, and five years later the Association purchased the Mansion, outbuildings and 200 surrounding acres from John Augustine Washington III, a great-grandnephew of George Washington.
Recognized as the first national preservation organization in America, the women who banded together in 1853 to form the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association were embarking upon a single-minded mission — to protect George Washington’s home from commercial development. But the rescue of Mount Vernon was just the first chapter in a long and illustrious preservation story. Inside, the Mansion was almost empty — only a handful of Washington Family pieces were left behind. The challenge of preserving the estate at a time when there was no historic preservation standard was made even more daunting by the fact that the country was about to be torn apart by Civil War. Room by room, garden by garden, and building by building, Washington’s estate was returned to its former glory. The women of Mount Vernon proved to be closely-watched pioneers in the evolving field of preservation and became an inspiration and guide to other preservation groups, often spearheaded by women, for protecting the homes of other founding fathers, inventors, and community leaders.
The Ladies took possession of Mount Vernon and opened it to the public in 1860. Under the Association’s 150-year long trusteeship, the estate has been authentically restored to its original appearance. Today Mount Vernon is a national monument that is open to the public every day of the year, serving an average of over one million visitors annually.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Archives contains materials by and about the Association's founder, Ann Pamela Cunningham, the 19th-century Vice Regents and superintendents (Upton H. Herbert, James M. Hollingsworth, and Harrison Howell Dodge), and the Association's first secretary, Sarah Tracy. The archives document the activities of the Association and its board members beginning in 1858 up to the present day. Archival holdings include about 6,000 letters between the Ladies, financial supporters, advisers, and the last family member to own the estate, John Augustine Washington. There are also minutes, reports, deeds, surveys, ledgers, visitor registers, scrapbooks, daily diaries, photographs, films, and audio/video recordings. These records document attitudes toward preserving the past, changes on the estate, and the image of George Washington. The significance of these materials consistently increases as they are used by scholars studying the history of preservation as well as the activities of the first national women's organization in America.
An inventory of the early records of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1853-1874, can be found in the Finding Aids section of our Digital Collections.
Issues of The Illustrated Mount Vernon Record can be found in the Mount Vernon Publications section of our Digital Collections.