About the Author
Dawn Bonner, nicknamed “the picture lady,” has spent a career cataloging Mount Vernon’s vast photography archive.
Admission is free on Feb. 22 for George Washington’s birthday. Admission tickets will be distributed on-site upon arrival.
To better track and catalog more than 160 years’ worth of images at Mount Vernon, the George Washington Presidential Library has developed an extensive historical photograph and film archive. Dawn Bonner oversees this substantial—and ever-growing—collection.
Charged with everything from 1850s stereographs to a film collection dating from the 1930s, Mount Vernon’s manager of visual resources is part detective, part archivist, and part treasure hunter; Bonner continues to seek out images that help tell a more complete story of the historic estate, adding to the thousands of existing items in the collection.
Here are 10 of her favorites.
(Click photos to enlarge)
This early image of the Mansion is from a large glass negative taken in 1858. The view captures the dilapidated condition of the house as well as several unidentified residents with the exception of a gentleman named West Ford. Ford was an African-American employee of the Washington family and is likely the elderly man sitting near the interior corner of the piazza.
Large timbers have been placed to hold up the sagging roof, and evidence of damaged and missing siding is apparent. Repairing the Mansion was the first priority of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association when they fully acquired the estate in 1860.
For centuries, people made pilgrimages to Washington’s tomb. With the invention of photography, having your picture taken at this sacred site afforded the opportunity to memorialize the visit. This hand-tinted ambrotype, dated 1858-1859, shows a group of 12 men, women, and children on such an occasion.
A magic glass lantern slide of the Thos. Collyer passenger steamboat docked at the Mount Vernon landing. The view shows a newly constructed wharf completed by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1860.
The Collyer brought thousands of passengers from Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon beginning in 1851 when the Washington family owned the estate until the boating service was suspended in 1861 due to the Civil War.
The printed text on the slide mount credits William H. Rau (1855-1920) of Philadelphia as the photographer. It’s worth noting that Rau would have been far too young to have been the photographer of record and likely reprinted this image through his studio.
Recognized as the earliest group photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, this image is an iconic representation of the early pioneers of preservation. The photograph by Alexander Gardner is comprised of members of the Association present at Mount Vernon for their annual meeting in 1870.
This is a rare 1870 carte de visite of Jim Mitchell, who was born into slavery in 1795. He likely came to Mount Vernon in the 1830s or 1840s with other slaves from Blakeley, another plantation owned by the Washington family, where he worked as a field laborer. The canes beside him hearkened back to souvenirs—often canes—made from wood taken from trees growing near the Washingtons’ tomb and sold to tourists accompanied by stories of the estate during Washington’s time.
After the Civil War, some formerly enslaved people, including Jim Mitchell, returned to the estate as paid employees of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Visitors regarded individuals like Jim as a direct connection to George Washington, which is possibly why photographer Alexander Gardner photographed him in his studio in Washington, D.C.
This stereograph, along with other views of the Mansion and estate, were sold exclusively by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as a form of income. The view of the New Room shows the display of a floor-to-ceiling, life-size painting of “Washington Before Yorktown” by Rembrandt Peale, 1824-1825. The piece was given to Mount Vernon in 1873 by the artist’s descendants and hung in the New Room as it was the only interior space with the necessary height to exhibit the painting.
As the Association worked to more accurately furnish the Mansion as it looked during Washington’s time, the artwork was lent to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1902 and later donated in 1944. It now resides in the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
This 1926 colorized bird’s-eye view of the upper garden shows a Victorian-influenced garden with elaborate rose beds, sculpted parterres, and pathways bounded by high boxwood hedges. The space served both form and function—a beautiful setting for visitors to wander through and a source for satisfying those who desired “something grown in Washington’s garden.”
As a creative means to raise money, the sale of flowers began as early as the Civil War. As plant sales increased, a professional gardener was employed in 1881. The greenhouse (conservatory) was used to increase production. The white structure (visible far right) was built on top of the original foundation of Washington’s greenhouse, which had been destroyed by fire in 1835. Made of wood and glass, it was constructed in 1869 and used for growing and housing plants sold to the public. The wooden structure remained until 1950, when an authentic replica of Washington’s original greenhouse took its place.
Panoramic photographs became quite popular in the 1910s-1930s, especially for large groups visiting Mount Vernon. The First Annual Patriotic Pilgrimage of the Newspaper Boys of America was an outgrowth of a December 1929 incident at the White House in which carrier boys sang carols to President and Mrs. Hoover. The pilgrimage was organized by Mr. Shelton of the Washington Times and became an annual affair featuring 3 days of sightseeing, a parade and banquet, and a Presidential reception on Christmas Day. Participants were selected, and expenses paid, by cooperating newspapers. The group visited Mount Vernon on December 23, 1930.
Newspaper Boys of America, 1930 (MVLA)
In the 1920s, the U.S. Army began operating airships out of Langley Field. This model is a “TC-13” (for “Training, Type C”), and was designed primarily for training, coastal patrol, scouting, and observation. The lighter-than-aircraft would occasionally travel around the Washington D.C. area and down the Potomac River over Mount Vernon.
In an effort to further protect the Mansion, in 1970, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to enforce a restricted airspace over Mount Vernon successfully designating a one-mile radius around the Mansion as a no-fly zone for low-flying aircraft.
“Daniel Boone” visited Mount Vernon on July 10, 1937. George S. Stirl of Berks County, Pennsylvania, portrayed Boone and traveled the country as a means to raise money for FDR's presidential campaigns. The real-life American folk hero and contemporary of George Washington served as a militia officer during the Revolutionary War battling British-allied Native Americans in Kentucky.
In this photograph, Stirl poses with Mount Vernon guard, and likely kindred spirit, William J. Permar. Permar himself was quite the character, known for his impressive horseshoe mustache and long-term tenure. At the time of his death, he was described as, “…a colorful figure and a faithful employee for 37 years. His idiosyncrasies were unobjectionable; his uniform kindliness and good nature won the regard and respect of all who knew him."