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The women who saved George Washington’s Mount Vernon had the foresight to document their story, too.

The archives of the MVLA safeguard the stories of generations of Vice Regents and staff who preserved Washington’s home. (MVLA)
The archives of the MVLA safeguard the stories of generations of Vice Regents and staff who preserved Washington’s home. (MVLA)

If the need to preserve George Washington’s home seems obvious to Americans today, it wasn’t always so, and certainly not before the historic preservation movement in the United States. As the rescuers of Mount Vernon and the first national organization devoted to historic preservation, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) plays a key role in the larger American story. Only in hindsight is it clear that their papers were worthy of preservation also.

Fortunately, the founding Ladies of the MVLA had the foresight to save, store, and organize their own institutional documents, along with Washington’s, and set a precedent for future generations. Today, these important records are housed at the George Washington Presidential Library. The documents remain a rich primary source of information that describe Washington’s evolving legacy, the journey toward learning and setting preservation standards, and the commitment of Mount Vernon’s staff and caretakers.

Explore the Archives of the MVLA

Earliest Archival Efforts

After formally taking control of Washington’s estate in 1860, the MVLA’s primary focus was always the care and maintenance of Mount Vernon as a shrine to George Washington. However, Ann Pamela Cunningham quickly realized the importance of chronicling the story behind the saving of Mount Vernon and of the pioneering women who did so. Unfortunately, poor health prevented her from writing about the history of the organization, and she died before making any real progress. Cunningham did ensure, however, that future generations could fulfill this task. In a codicil to her will, added only two months before her death, she instructed that her papers, “which are of a private character, and yet maybe of public importance,” be turned over to three women, including two Vice Regents, Margaret Comegys of Delaware and Letitia Walker of North Carolina.

She specified these documents be “used judiciously in the preparation and preservation of the history of the said Association.” Totaling several thousand manuscripts, this collection of correspondence, financial records, and public appeals became the foundation for the MVLA archives.

This set a precedent for the Ladies who followed. As Vice Regents retired or died, their papers were forwarded to Mount Vernon. Former employees submitted relevant documents as well. Susan Pellet, one of the first secretaries of the Association, and George Riggs, banker and first treasurer, provided some of the earliest material in the archives.

MVLA founder Ann Pamela Cunningham realized the importance of chronicling the story of the women who saved Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

Paperwork Duties

The arrangement and cataloging of all these documents fell to the Vice Regents themselves. The two Vice Regents to whom Cunningham entrusted her papers formed the first committee to review and sort through them. Reporting on their efforts to the MVLA Council, Margaret Comegys stated, “Mrs. Walker and myself have arranged the papers according to our best judgement, guided by the recollection of conversations with Miss Cunningham.”

By 1883, one of the standing committees outlined in the MVLA bylaws was the Committee on Records. Its essential duty was “to keep a written list of all records, and where deposited, and report in writing what records of importance are in their keeping.” Members filed away documents and kept lists of box or folder contents. They sought to fill gaps in the historical record.

In a couple of cases, committee members found it necessary to approach the families of deceased Vice Regents to retrieve important records. After the death of Philoclea Eve, the first Vice Regent for Georgia, the Records Committee asked the Council “for authority to demand from the executors of the late Mrs. Eve all books and papers of the Association that were in her hands.” Papers concerning the MVLA founding—referred to as the “early records”—were considered the most important, along with official minutes, financial and legal records, and provenance documents used to prove the authenticity and ownership of Washington artifacts.

In 1890, Lily Laughton, second Regent, received this "suitable, heavy tin box" to hold relevant records in her possession. (MVLA)

Restricted Access

For many years, only the Ladies themselves or the superintendent could access the MVLA’s archives, as the records contained information deemed “sensitive” or “private.” Vice Regents who served on the Records Committee met before or after their formal annual meetings, or Council, to organize the papers of their predecessors.

Most found the work to be tedious, but occasionally fascinating. In 1935, the Regent and two members of the committee arrived a week before Council, commuting daily from Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon, to read and file the backlog of records. The committee chair, Mary Van Deventer of Tennessee, reported, “While the work has been an arduous one, it has been most interesting and has given to all three of us many hours of pleasure and real amusement.” In 1924, writer Grace King, sister of the Vice Regent for Louisiana Annie King, was granted permission to examine the early records for her book Mount Vernon on the Potomac: History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. Others were later allowed access for research and publications.

The MVLA considered the minutes of their Council meetings, such as this one in 1925, some of the most important records in their archives. (Photo by Bayart Reid, 1925. MVLA)

Passing the Torch

The Records Committee continued to remind succeeding generations of Ladies to keep track of their papers and return them to the Association after retirement. It started a photo album of Vice Regents in 1893, asking each to select a favorite likeness for inclusion.

The centennial of the MVLA in 1953, which featured an exhibit of objects and documents from the founding years of the organization, demonstrated the value of these efforts. The plea at Council that year by acting chair Rosamond Beirne of Maryland was especially striking:

It may not seem important at the moment to have this material at hand but when we have departed it is definitely late for a record and we become a research problem. Won’t you please help the future committees by becoming a Record and not a Research problem?

Another entreaty came only two years later, also by Beirne, “May I beg of you, dear ladies, not to destroy everything that may in the future bear on the history of the Association and give you some personality.”

Rosamond Beirne, Regent and Vice Regent for Maryland, petitioned her fellow Ladies to preserve their documents for posterity. (MVLA)

Storage Hunters

Finding appropriate storage for their records was a constant problem for the Association; records were initially held in an iron safe in the superintendent’s office. The items regarded as the most valuable, including some original Washington manuscripts, were transferred to a safety deposit box in a Washington, D.C., bank. The salt house, one of the Mansion outbuildings, was “fireproofed” in 1922 for the safe storage of relics. But when the collection of Washington-related artifacts outgrew the space and moved to a new museum building in 1928, the salt house later became the “Archives,” complete with two safes and steel filing cabinets. It housed an expanding variety of materials, such as photographs, blueprints, maps, postcards, pamphlets, and staff reports. The Archives remained in the salt house from 1935 until the early 1960s, when portions of it were gradually relocated around the estate, mostly in offices or administrative rooms, with the intention of bringing all library and historical paper records together at some future date.

George Washington used this structure to store salt for food preservation, but it was repurposed as the archives building from 1935 to the 1960s. (Photo by Samuel V. Chamberlain, 1946, MVLA)

Mount Vernon Staff

Supervision of the archival materials was eventually handed over to staff. Mount Vernon hired its first professional librarian, Irene Warren, in 1940. One of her key responsibilities was indexing the MVLA’s Council minute books and the early records. The files and papers of the Vice Regents passed through the hands of many later librarians, archivists, and assistants in an effort to classify the large volume of records. However, these same employees also cared for the Association’s reference library and Washington-related manuscripts and books, which were often seen as a higher priority than the Association’s collection of records.

In 1983, the archives moved into the basement of the new Ann Pamela Cunningham Building, an administrative building, as part of the Library and research center. And in 2003, the MVLA—and its records—were once again in the spotlight. The organization’s 150th anniversary was marked with an exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and in a large-format book filled with historical photographs and documents.

George Washington Presidential Library

Today, this collection of institutional records, deliberately and painstakingly assembled throughout the years, rests safely within the George Washington Presidential Library, where it benefits from modern preservation techniques, including climate control and acid-free boxes.

Research fellows, scholars, students, and Mount Vernon staff can all take advantage of the foresight of Ann Pamela Cunningham and succeeding generations of women who understood the value of preserving their own story within the larger context of an American icon.

The George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)