"Mrs. Washington" on Martha's Summer Activites

by Elizabeth Keaney

Portraying young Martha Washington during the last four weeks has given me incredible insight into life of the mistress of Mount Vernon. While researching for this role, I was curious how she celebrated her birthday on June 2. While my search for information was unsuccessful, I was able to construct a schedule for how she spent her days in the summer. In order to share her life with our guests, I pattern my days after hers as much as possible (I’m not in the Kitchen at 6am, however!). Though the physical work was performed by enslaved cooks, house maids, laundresses, and waiters, Mrs. Washington acted as CEO of the large corporation that was Mount Vernon.

According to information compiled by Research Historian Mary V. Thompson, Mrs. Washington would rise at five o’clock, wash, and be assisted in dressing by her lady’s maid (in 1769, the year in which I portray Martha Washington, this was a woman named Sall). By six, Martha Washington was in the kitchen overseeing the making of breakfast by the cook, Doll. Breakfast was served to the Washington family and their guests at seven and by eight, Mrs. Washington was back in the kitchen to consult her recipe books and determine what would be served for the main meal at 3pm. According to family recollections, a ham was prepared each day. With Doll, Mrs. Washington would visit the smokehouse to select the ham and other joints of meat, the gardens to select fresh vegetables to be served, and to the Mansion’s cellar to dole out olive oil, nuts, raisins, spices, and other foods kept under lock and key.

The kitchen at Mount Vernon where Mrs. Washington oversaw the meals.At nine, Mrs. Washington retired to her bedchamber for “an hour of meditation, reading, and prayer.” During this time the maids would be cleaning bedchambers and the scullery maids scrubbing the dishes from breakfast. By ten, Mrs. Washington was once again at her duties including checking her stores of food in the larder off the kitchen, assuring the laundresses were at their work, and making sure that Breechy, a waiter, was keeping the dishes clean in the pantry.

The house maids at Mount Vernon were, like Mrs. Washington, skilled seamstresses. The Washingtons needed to provide the enslaved community with clothing rations each year which meant a great deal of shirts, shifts, jackets, and skirts had to be made. Martha Washington had oversight of the spinning house where flax and wool shearings were transformed into linen and wool cloth. Mrs. Washington and the house maids would have spent hours each week to ensure they produced enough for the entire plantation.

After a busy morning overseeing the work of the house, Mrs. Washington would wash and change for dinner. Sall, her personal maid, would lay out a formal gown, help Martha Washington dress, and arrange her hair in a fashionable manner. Just before dinner was served at three, Mrs. Washington would check to make sure all everything was ready: Doll and the waiters were transferring food from cooking pots to tureens and platters, Breechy had brought out the wines she had selected, and that her children, Jack and Patsy, had washed their faces and combed their hair. The main meal was a long one with many courses; after the last course, Mrs. Washington and the other ladies would retire to the parlor while her husband and the male guests would linger over port wine and talk of politics. In the spring of 1769, the colonists of Virginia discussed how to respond to the Townshend Acts. By May of that year, George Washington and others in the House of Burgesses formed the Non-Importation Association, agreeing not to purchase goods including oil, pickles, laces, and fabrics, all of which had regularly been ordered by Washingtons since their marriage. Music, cards, and reading were enjoyed into the evening. Before retiring around 9 o’clock, Martha Washington would don an apron and return to the kitchen where she had begun her day. She supervised the mixing of bread dough to rise overnight and be baked in the morning, dusting her hands with flour to be sure the loaves were to her satisfaction.

Elizabeth Keaney portrays "Mrs. Washington" at Mount Vernon.Martha Washington has sometimes been described as little more than a hostess, a purchaser of many fans, or a wealthy widow George Washington couldn’t wait to marry for her money. What has been so rewarding portraying her these last few weeks is seeing the light of understanding in our visitors’ eyes when they realize the amount of work it took to make Mount Vernon function, even with the enslaved staff doing most of the physical labor. They have a newfound respect for Martha Washington, even before she was titled the Mother of Her Country.

Martha Washington's Birthday Celebration

June 2, 9am-5pm

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