In honor of the George Washington Presidential Library’s 10th anniversary, Samantha Snyder, Mount Vernon’s research librarian, picks 10 of her favorite items from the Library’s special collections.

Samantha Snyder, Mount Vernon's research librarian. (MVLA)

Peering through a magnifying glass, Samantha Snyder strains to make out the light penciled writing in the margins of a music book once owned by Eleanor Parke Custis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter. “That’s why I love this book so much,” Snyder says. “Every time you open it, you find something new.”

For Snyder, discovery comes with the territory. As Mount Vernon’s research librarian, Snyder engages with Mount Vernon staff, research fellows, and the general public on all aspects of their research, bringing her into contact with a vast portion of Mount Vernon’s special collections— original Washington family papers and books housed at the George Washington Presidential Library.

Here are 10 of her favorites.

(Click documents to enlarge)

Invoice of sundry goods to be shipped by Robt. Cary Esqr. and Company for the use of George Washington, 1759 September 20 (MVLA)

Invoice of sundry goods to be shipped by Robt. Cary Esqr. and Company for the use of George Washington, 1759 September 20 (MVLA)

Invoice of sundry goods to be shipped by Robt. Cary Esqr. and Company for the use of George Washington, 1759 September 20

This invoice highlights the beginnings of the Washingtons’ lives together at Mount Vernon, specifically through the items they purchased. They purchased medicine, clothing, food, and even books and toys for Martha’s children John and Patsy.

"Washington's First Interview with His Wife," by John Whetton Ehninger, 1863. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley DeForest Scott, 1985. (MVLA)

John Parke Custis to George Washington, 1776 June 10

This letter offers an outsider’s glimpse into the Washingtons’ dynamic as husband and wife. Considering the unfortunate burning of George and Martha’s personal correspondence, it’s always special to find these sorts of snippets. This letter, written by John Parke Custis, is in response to Washington letting John know that Martha had successfully been inoculated for smallpox. John is pleased to hear this, as he knows, “[their] happiness when together will be much greater than when [they] are apart.”

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John Parke Custis to George Washington, 1776 June 10

John Parke Custis to George Washington, 1776 June 10. (MVLA)

John Parke Custis to George Washington, 1776 June 10

This letter offers an outsider’s glimpse into the Washingtons’ dynamic as husband and wife. Considering the unfortunate burning of George and Martha’s personal correspondence, it’s always special to find these sorts of snippets. This letter, written by John Parke Custis, is in response to Washington letting John know that Martha had successfully been inoculated for smallpox. John is pleased to hear this, as he knows, “[their] happiness when together will be much greater than when [they] are apart.”

Bushrod Washington to Hannah Bushrod Washington, 1783 July 1 (MVLA)

Bushrod Washington to Hannah Bushrod Washington, 1783 July 1 (MVLA)

Bushrod Washington to Hannah Bushrod Washington, 1783 July 1

In this letter, Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew, is eagerly telling his mother about the portrait he sat for in Philadelphia by Henry Benbridge. We have the portrait in our collection at Mount Vernon.

We recently acquired this letter and a few others from Bushrod to his mother where he talks about the process of choosing an artist, the style of the portrait, and the opinions of his friends. He was in Philadelphia at the time, studying law under James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Bushrod socialized with the best and the brightest of Philadelphia, learning the skills of how to best succeed in elite society. Getting his portrait taken was a marker of success in this new world he found himself in.

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Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1785 July 17

Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1785 July 17 (MVLA)

Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1785 July 17 (MVLA)

In this letter, Jefferson writes to George Washington, asking his thoughts on the possible use of new underwater technology in warfare. This is a fun letter because it mentions something I did not realize existed in the 18th century … submarines!

A rendering of the vehicle in question, Bushnell's submarine. Henry L. Abbot,

A rendering of the vehicle in question, Bushnell's submarine. Henry L. Abbot, "Bushnell's American Turtle," 1881. Library of Congress.

 

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George Washington and Martha Washington to David Stuart, 1789 September 21 (MVLA)

George Washington and Martha Washington to David Stuart, 1789 September 21 (MVLA)

George Washington and Martha Washington to David Stuart, 1789 September 21

I find this letter interesting because of the joint work the Washingtons are doing together on Martha’s finances. Washington is writing to David Stuart, the second husband of Eleanor Custis Stuart (widow of John Parke Custis), advising him on matters of the estate, with Martha’s approval.

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(MVLA)

(MVLA)

Elizabeth Powel to George Washington, 1792 November 4

This is one of my favorite letters because it shows how women could use their power in the 18th century to get things done. People sometimes think of women as passive presences in the political world, but this letter shows the exact opposite.

Elizabeth Powel, a good friend of George Washington’s, writes to him about his hesitancy to serve a second term as president. She calls out his insecurities and urges him to look past the romantic idea of retirement to Mount Vernon. He was likely convinced by this letter, as he ultimately served a second term.

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The docket of Powel's letter to Washington, stating: "To the President of the United States on the Subject of his Resignation November the 4th 1792." (MVLA)

George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 1793 February (MVLA)

George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 1793 February (MVLA)

George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 1793 February

This is a favorite item of mine because it shows the more private side of Washington. I like that it highlights the network of intelligent women that Washington communicated with.

One of his close friends, Elizabeth Powel, threw a party for her 50th birthday, which the Washingtons could not attend. Instead, Washington sent a poem to her in celebration of the day. He commissioned the poem from an author named Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, who was known for her literary salons, and copious amounts of poetry published in magazines and newspapers. Washington, a man of few words, concludes that: “The enclosed thoughts,” were “well-conceived" and “the sentiments… just.”

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Eleanor Parke Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, ca. 1796 (MVLA)

Eleanor Parke Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, ca. 1796 (MVLA)

Eleanor Parke Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, ca. 1796

I love this letter because it shows the inner workings of the first family.

Nelly Custis, the Washingtons’ granddaughter, lived with the Washingtons and her brother, George Washington Parke Custis, throughout her childhood and teenage years. In this letter, she is writing to her best friend Elizabeth Bordley about how she desperately wants to go visit her and another friend, but her grandfather is forcing her to stay home and play the harpsichord (which she was very skilled at!) for a large company of congressmen.

But, in typical teenage girl fashion, Nelly claims that although they “like to hear musick … they do not know one note from another.”

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Bound manuscript music belonging to Eleanor Parke Custis, 1797 (MVLA)

Bound manuscript music belonging to Eleanor Parke Custis, 1797 (MVLA)

Bound manuscript music belonging to Eleanor Parke Custis, 1797

Whenever I get asked on a tour what my favorite item in the collection is, this is my default. I love how this piece of music passed from Patsy Custis to her nieces. You can see all of the granddaughter’s signatures, including Martha Custis Peter who scratched hers out. It’s a testament to the intellectual network of women which transcended different generations.

The whole book is fun to page through. Some of my favorite things in the book are handwritten directions for tuning the harpsichord and a catalog of new music for sale in the 1790s. There are also plenty of doodles drawn by likely a bored Nelly, who, though an excellent musician, absolutely hated to practice.

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Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis's signature within her music book. Nelly, Washington's step-granddaughter, was an excellent musician. (MVLA)

Memorandum of papers taken from Mount Vernon by Jared Sparks, 1827 May (MVLA)

Memorandum of papers taken from Mount Vernon by Jared Sparks, 1827 May (MVLA)

Memorandum of papers taken from Mount Vernon by Jared Sparks, 1827 May

Bushrod Washington frequently received requests from authors, journalists, and friends to consult George Washington’s papers. Jared Sparks, an early compiler of George Washington’s papers, received Washington’s papers by ship.

This document shows the inventory of what was taken. Once in Sparks’ possession, he ended up giving the occasional letter, clipped signature, or even words snipped out of letters, as gifts throughout the 19th century. Even if many never returned to Mount Vernon, thank goodness this ship didn’t sink!

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About the Author

Samantha Snyder, Research Librarian & Manager of Library Fellowships, has worked at the George Washington Presidential Library since 2017. She is currently writing a biography of Elizabeth Willing Powel, a close friend and confidante of George Washington.

Archives Spotlight

Take a closer look at some of the intriguing items within the collections of the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon.

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