About the Author
Since 2015, Rebecca Baird has worked as the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association archivist, safeguarding the Association’s most precious documents.
Mount Vernon is privately owned and will remain open in the case of a government shutdown.
In 1853, when Ann Pamela Cunningham sat down to pen a letter expressing her interest in preserving the home of George Washington, it set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the creation of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), which has meticulously cared for Washington’s estate since 1859.
But that early letter was also the start of something else; it was the birth of the MVLA archives, containing the historic institutional records of the organization dating back to its founding in 1853. Since 2015, this collection—made up of various types of historical records such as correspondence, reports, print material, architectural drawings, ephemera, audio/visual material, oral histories, and photographs—has been under the watchful eye of MVLA Archivist Rebecca Baird.
In her role, Baird is responsible for acquiring, organizing, and providing access to these records. By combing through the Association’s archives and making them available to scholars, staff, and the public, she has become an expert on matters of institutional history and has come to intimately know the items in this fascinating collection.
Here are 10 of her favorites.
(Click images to enlarge)
This is where it all began—Ann Pamela Cunningham’s first letter to a Washington family member indicating her interest in the preservation of Mount Vernon and her hope to somehow be involved.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was only an idea or a concept at this point, not yet a functioning and successful organization.
Mount Vernon’s precarious position on the border of the North and South during the Civil War made it difficult, or even dangerous, to leave the estate to purchase supplies or pick up mail. Carrying a military pass like these (8 total in the archives) allowed Mount Vernon employees, special visitors, or delivery services to cross military lines into and out of Alexandria, Virginia. These passes represent something uniquely Mount Vernon from such a significant time in our nation’s history.
This pass allowed "Dandridge Smith, (colored)," an employee, to travel in and out of Alexandria daily with his wagon, mules, and provisions of the MVLA. (MVLA)
Not much is known about this decorative, hand-lettered volume that recounts the story of the MVLA in the state of Illinois under the leadership of Elizabeth Willard Barry.
Mrs. Barry was appointed the first Vice Regent for Illinois by MVLA founder Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1859. She remained in that role until her death in 1883.
This book, probably commissioned by her successor Mary Leiter, is a combined history lesson and work of art. Created in the style of an illuminated manuscript, the neat script and beautifully drawn embellishments are truly a joy to examine.
We would love to know more about its maker and origins, but for now it remains a mystery.
Sarah Johnson was born enslaved to John Augustine Washington III, the last private owner of Mount Vernon, in 1844. After the Civil War, she returned to Mount Vernon as a paid employee of the MVLA.
She was eventually placed in charge of the Mansion, dairy, and poultry, and was paid $20 per month, as much as most of the male employees. The sale of milk to thirsty tourists, another of Sarah’s responsibilities, was meticulously logged by the superintendent every day.
The story of Sarah’s evolution from an enslaved person to a highly regarded employee, and later an owner of four acres of land near Mount Vernon, is such a fascinating one.
Ledger, "Produce, The Returns of Sarah Johnson for milk, ice, butter, poultry, etc.," 1885-1889 (MVLA)
The current Mount Vernon Inn, owned and operated by the MVLA, is not the first restaurant with this moniker to feed hungry visitors just outside the gates of Washington’s home.
The original was inside the terminal station for the Washington, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon railway (replaced by the George Washington Memorial Parkway in 1932) and was owned by the local Gibbs family for around 25 years. Also referred to as the tea house or tea room, they served fried chicken and waffles along with basic soups, sandwiches, desserts, and beverages.
This menu, representing a relatively brief period of time in Mount Vernon’s history, is a fun glimpse back in time to the 1920s-era tourist experience.
This lovely drawing by landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams was most likely used as cover art for a series of topographic surveys and maps of Mount Vernon he created in 1931 for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. He chose an iconic view of the east front of the Mansion, subtly reflected in the Potomac River, with an art deco motif. A few years later, Williams worked for the MVLA as the director of research and restoration from 1936 to 1939.
Drawing, “Mount Vernon, Elevation of River Front” by Morley Jeffers Williams, 1931 (MVLA)
Mount Vernon’s guest books, signed by VIP visitors since the 1890s, are filled with autographs of notable and influential people. These visits are often for diplomatic or military purposes, but occasionally a name catches your eye for a different reason.
The large, loopy signature of Lucille Ball is easily recognizable, and then you realize she is not the only movie star from Hollywood’s golden age represented on this page.
Others include Harpo Marx, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and James Cagney, who all stopped by Mount Vernon with the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, as part of a larger tour of Washington, D.C.
They were here to assist with U.S. war bond rallies, which was common for celebrities during WWII.
Worth Bailey, a museum technician and research associate at Mount Vernon from 1939 to 1951, was a talented woodcut artist. He combined this skill with a love for artifacts and historic places, producing beautiful scenes of Mount Vernon, Woodlawn, Kenmore, Gunston Hall, and others.
While working for the MVLA, he also created measured drawings and illustrated publications. The booklet Christmas with the Washingtons, by Bailey and his wife Olive, tells brief stories of the Washington family during the holidays with images of related buildings and objects throughout.
This cozy winter view of Mount Vernon appears in the booklet and was also used for a Christmas card.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has a long, rich history that has been preserved in their archives for well over 100 years.
This letter, discussing the disposition and procedures for keeping the Association’s records, contains many themes near and dear to an archivist’s heart, such as appraisal, storage, preservation, organization, and even the digital future. Favorite lines from the letter include, “I am haunted by the thought that civilization may some day collapse under the weight of its own records,” and, “Perhaps some day we will have an IBM machine into which all possible information of value can be fed and from which we can draw it in organzied [sic] form simply by pushing a button.”
In this brief but eloquent letter, Lady Bird Johnson responds to Mrs. Holderness’s previous correspondence concerning the MVLA’s continuing efforts to preserve Washington’s view from Mount Vernon.
Vice Regents participated in letter-writing campaigns throughout the 1960s encouraging support for the preservation of the Maryland shore across from Washington’s home. Mrs. Johnson visited Mount Vernon several times and especially loved its gardens.
She writes of her appreciation and support of the MVLA’s work, which fit nicely with her own campaign as First Lady for the conservation and beautification of public land.
Join Mount Vernon's archivist Rebecca Baird in the special collections vault at the Washington Library for the story behind the documents of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
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