Conjectural timeline based on 18th-century documentation

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4:30 AM

An enslaved maid, such as Caroline Branham, lights the fire in the Washingtons’ bedchamber to warm up the room.1

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5:00 AM

Molly, an enslaved housemaid, brings up clean water and lays out Mrs. Washington’s clothes. Mrs. Washington then gets out of bed, begins washing, and dressing with Molly’s help.2

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6:30 AM

Mrs. Washington visits the kitchen to ensure enslaved cooks Lucy and Nathan have breakfast underway. Then she takes a walk on the piazza for exercise.3

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A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Cook

6:45 AM

The “great Bell” rings to announce that breakfast will soon be served.4

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7:00 AM

Breakfast is served by an enslaved butler, such as Frank Lee, to the Washington family and their guests in the dining room.

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8:00 AM

Mrs. Washington returns to the kitchen, where she, Lucy, and Nathan discuss the dinner menu. Mrs. Washington might consult her cookbook about how a dish should be prepared.5

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9:00 AM

Mrs. Washington retires to her bedchambers “for an hour of meditation reading & prayer and that hour no one was ever allowed to interfere with."6

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10:00 AM

After the hour of prayer, young enslaved girls come to the room, where Mrs. Washington teaches them to sew.7

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11:00 AM

Mrs. Washington ensures Lucy and her daughter Patty washed and properly stored the breakfast dishes. Then Mrs. Washington heads to the larder, cellar, and garden to take inventory of the available food.

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12:00 PM

Nelly Custis, Mrs. Washington's granddaughter, practices the harpsichord in the little parlor. According to Nelly’s little brother, George Washington Parke Custis, the “poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours under the immediate eye of her grandmother’.8

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1:00 PM

Mrs. Washington and Nelly Custis are in the little parlor when Frank Lee shows two guests into the room.9

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2:00 PM

Mrs. Washington stops by the dining room and kitchen to see how dinner preparations are coming along. She then hurries to her bedchamber to change clothes before dinner. Molly helps Mrs. Washington into the dress, which Molly has just ironed. Molly also arranges Mrs. Washington’s hair.10

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2:45 PM

Christopher Sheels and Marcus are in the kitchen, helping Lucy and Nathan transfer dinner to serving dishes and platters.

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3:00 PM

Dinner is served to the Washington family and their guests, by Christopher Sheels and Marcus who are wearing red and white livery.11

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4:00 PM

After the meal, the women withdraw from the dining room into the front parlor, where they talk while enjoying a cup of tea. The men remain in the dining room.12

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5:00 PM

Mrs. Washington and several of the guests move out onto the piazza to enjoy the view and chat. Some of the guests wander through the gardens. George Washington retires to his study to review the mail that came while he was riding around the plantation. He later rejoins the group on the piazza and shares news from letters.13

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6:00 PM

Lucy and Nathan are busy in the kitchen making tea and slicing bread and leftover cold meat in preparation for the next meal.14

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6:30 PM

Family members and guests gather in the front parlor for tea, a light meal featuring cold meats, bread, and butter. George Washington reads the newspapers aloud to those gathered in the room.15

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7:00 PM

Mrs. Washington goes to the kitchen to oversee Lucy mixing the bread for the next day.16

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8:00 PM

Mrs. Washington and Nelly Custis leave the assembled company and go up to the Washingtons’ bedroom. Nelly reads a chapter and a psalm from the family Bible, then all present including Molly kneel to pray. Molly helps Mrs. Washington undress and get into bed while Nelly sings a verse from a hymn. Nelly then says goodnight to her grandmother, who gives Nelly her blessing. Molly brushes Mrs. Washington’s clothes, making a brief repair to some torn lace on the hem of the dress, before putting them away.17

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9:00 PM

George Washington bids his guests good night and joins Mrs. Washington in their bedroom.18

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Citations

Originally compiled by Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon Research Historian
1. Tobias Lear’s account of GW’s death.
2. Custis, Reminiscences & Private Memoirs, p.509; H. Glasse, The Servants Directory Improved; or, House Keepers Companion, pp. 1-10.
3. Sally Otis Foster to Mrs. Charles W. Apthorp, 1/13/1801.
4. Winthrop Sargent, October 1793.
5. Custis, Recollections & Private Memoirs, p. 446; Blanche Berard to Mrs. Mary Berard, 4/18/1856.
6. Blanche Berard to Mrs. Mary Berard, 4/18/1856.
7. Augusta Blanche Berard to Mrs. Mary Berard and others, 4/18/1856, in “Arlington and Mount Vernon, 1856, As Described in a Letter of Augusta Blanche Berard,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, (April 1949, 140-175), 162.
8. David Ribblett, Nelly Custis: Child of Mount Vernon, p. 26.
9. Amariah Frost, 6/26/1797; Niemcewicz, 6/1798, p. 96.
10. Glasse, The Servants Directory, pp. 1-10.
11. Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 4/29/1823.
12. Lt. John Enys, pp. 149-150; Niemcewicz, 6/5/1798.
13. Niemcewicz, p. 97 and Niemcewicz, 6/13/1798.
14. Gibbs, “Daily Schedule for an 18th Century Cook”.
15. Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Autobiography, 7/1796; Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, 6/5/1798; Custis, Reminiscences & Private Memoirs, p. 453.
16. Blanche Berard to Mrs. Mary Berard, 4/18/1856.
17. Latrobe Journal, 7/1796; Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon Family (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1968), 74. This description of Mrs. Washington’s bedtime routine comes from Nelly’s friend, Elizabeth Bordley [afterwards Gibson], who spent the night with the family in the executive mansion in Philadelphia; there is no reason to think that Mrs. Washington’s routine would have been any different at Mount Vernon.
18. Robert Hunter, Jr., Diary, 11/16/1785; Custis, Reminiscences & Private Memoirs, p. 453.

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Martha Washington

Aided George Washington in running Mount Vernon for more than 40 years.

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