The Front Parlor dates from the earliest floor plans of Mount Vernon and George Washington's renovations of the 1750s. Washington continually updated the room with the introduction of fashionable Prussian blue paint starting around 1785, an elaborate neoclassical plaster ceiling in 1787, and a newly imported English Wilton carpet in 1797. Architecturally, the front parlor is one of the most elaborate rooms in the Mansion. The door frames, paneled walls, and mantel combined to make it a stunning example of colonial Virginia mansion interiors.
The mantel design was inspired by a plate in Abraham Swan's The British Architect, a popular eighteenth-century architectural pattern book. Prussian blue paint was introduced in 1787 when the Adamesque ceiling decoration was added to update the room. Prussian blue was an expensive pigment, having the peculiar property of deepening in color as pressure was applied to the brush, creating an irregular or striated effect. In the pediment over the mantel was a carved and painted representation of the Washington family coat-of-arms.
Until the addition of the New Room, the Front Parlor was one of Washington's favorite rooms in the mansion. Throughout Washington's lifetime the front parlor remained an important space for entertaining—tea and coffee drinking, playing cards, making conversation, and reading. At differing points the Front Parlor housed a variety of furnishings, including eleven mahogany chairs, a sofa, tea table, an elegant looking glass, family portraits, and a backgammon box. In this room the most important family portraits were hung, thirteen by the end of Washington's life, including the first known portrait of Washington by Charles Willson Peale.
In March 1797, George Washington requested that his secretary Tobias Lear procure a carpet for the Front Parlor. Washington was en route to Mount Vernon to commence his retirement while Lear was settling the Presidential accounts in Philadelphia: "[L]et me request you to provide for me as usual new Carpeting as will cover the floor of my blue Parlour. That it may accord with the furniture it ought to have a good deal of blue in it; -and if Wilton is not much dearer that Scotch Carpeting— I would prefer the former."1
The jacquard-woven Wilton that sat in the Front Parlor was one of the next most expensive and desirable British carpets imported to North America during the eighteenth century. It was also an extremely high-status furnishing. The furnishings in the room, according to the Estate inventory at the time of Washington's death in 1799, included eleven chairs, a sofa, and tea table as the only standing furniture.
1. "George Washington to Tobias Lear, 10 March 1791," The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, Vol. 1 ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 27-8. A copy of the full letter is available online as a Google Book.