Eleanor Forbes was a hired housekeeper who worked at Mount Vernon from December 1797 until at least December 1799. George Washington began advertising for a housekeeper in the summer of 1797, noting that he was offering a salary of $150 per year. Forbes was an English-born widow, who had previously served as housekeeper for Robert Brooke while he was governor of Virginia.
Brooke described Forbes as being "active & Spirited in the execution of her business—sober & honest—well acquainted with Cookery &. . .capable of ordering & setting out a table. . .her appearance is decent & respectable & such is her general deportment." She arrived at Mount Vernon on December 6th, 1797. Forbes was paid $20.00 "on a/c of Wages" in May of 1799.1
By the time the Washingtons had spent a little over half a year in "retirement" at Mount Vernon at the end of the presidency, George Washington wrote to a relative that his wife was "exceedingly fatiegued & distressed for want of a good housekeeper." The Washingtons were able to find an experienced and seemingly competent housekeeper in the person of Eleanor Forbes, a childless widow around fifty years old.2
George Washington was especially concerned that whoever was hired for the job not only had a thorough knowledge of the tasks required of a housekeeper, but could also manage the enslaved workers under her supervision and follow through on her orders. Washington explained that "Besides care, & A knowledge of the duties of the Station—one who will see to the execution, as well as direct the measures of the Servants is indispensable in my family—One too who has spirit to enforce her orders—in doing which she will have every proper support."3
Although Washington initially felt that the salary that Forbes was asking for was "unusually high," he was willing to pay it because of Martha Washington's "distresses for want of a good house keeper." In addition to her pay, Mrs. Forbes would be given "a warm, decent & comfortable room to herself, to lodge in," as well as the same food the Washingtons ate. However, Forbes would take her meals at the second table in order to prevent the lines between the housekeeper and her employers from becoming blurred.4
After an initial delay in arriving from Richmond, Forbes began working at Mount Vernon in December of 1797 and moved into a room above the kitchen furnished with four chairs, a tea table, a bed and bedstead, dressing glass, and fireplace equipment. Within days of Forbes' arrival, George Washington was able to say that both "her appearance, and conduct hitherto, gives satisfaction" to Mrs. Washington. The Washingtons continued to be pleased with Forbes' job performance, and she was still in their employ and helping to care for a suddenly and gravely ill George Washington when he died on December 14, 1799.5
1. The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 6, 271, 271n-272n; George Washington, "29 May 1799," Cash Memoranda, 47 .
2. "George Washington to Bushrod Washington, 23 October 1797," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1 eds. Dorothy Twohig and W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 422.
3. "George Washington to Robert Brooke, October 27, 1797," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1, 432.
4. "George Washington to Bushrod Washington, November 3, 1797," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1, 455. For the salary Forbes required, see "Bushrod Washington to George Washington, October 30, 1797," and "November 22, 1797," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1, 422n, 446, 482.
5. For money expended on Forbes during her time at Mount Vernon, see Farm Ledger, 1797-1798 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 67, 90, 145, 182. For Forbes' presence in the sickroom, see "Tobias Lear's Narrative Accounts of the Death of George Washington, 15 December 1799," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 4, 546, 552.