Skip to main content

This small room at the top of the stairs was a flexible space in the 1790s, and was regularly used as a secondary bedchamber.

Plan Your Visit

Cost

Included with General Admission

On View Now in

The Mansion

The Small Room had the advantage of a window to provide sunlight, air, and a view of the river.

However, its small size and the lack of a fireplace or stove made it less desirable than the larger, more expensively furnished chambers on the second floor.

The Small Room was likely used to accommodate guests when the other rooms were full, or when the guest’s social station or short stay did not merit a more distinguished room.

The Small Room

The Small Room
The Small Room, 2022, photo by Gavin Ashworth

Unexpected Guest

Hannah Taylor (b.1790) recalled that, as a young girl, she accidentally fell asleep in the Washington carriage when it was in Alexandria for repairs. She did not awaken until the carriage arrived at Mount Vernon, at which point it was late and stormy, prompting the Washingtons to insist that she stay the night.

Taylor specifically remembered that Caroline Branham, an enslaved housemaid, took her to “a little room at the head of the stairway.” Caroline then brought a copper warming pan, ran it between the sheets of the bed, gave Hannah a nightgown from Eleanor Parke Custis, and left the candle burning in the room until Hannah fell asleep.

The event probably occurred sometime between the Washington family’s return to Mount Vernon in mid-March 1797 and the departure of George Washington Lafayette in October 1797.

As shared by the author Mary G. Powell in The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia.

Chronology & Room Use

Prior to George Washington’s residence at Mount Vernon, the Small Room was once part of a larger storage space on the east side of the Mansion’s second floor.

During the renovations that commenced in 1758, the “old store room” or the “store room that was” was subdivided to create two new spaces: the stair to the third-floor garret and the Small Room.

At that time, George William Fairfax described the Small Room as a “closet with the window of 8 x 12 [feet].” Fairfax’s use of the term closet, following period practice, implied the flexible nature of the space, as the word “closet” could refer to a small sleeping area, a withdrawing room for study or retirement, an office, or a storage area. 

When is a Closet Actually A Closet?

 

Dedicated Bed Chamber

By the late 1790s, when the Washingtons entertained the largest number of overnight guests, the room appears to have been in use as a dedicated bedchamber.

Later, by 1802, the function of the room changed. The probate inventory taken after Martha Washington’s death identified the space as an “Office” and indicated that the bedstead and wash stand had been removed.

Architectural Elements

The origins of the Small Room date to the initial 1730s construction period of the house, with significant changes made at the beginning of George Washington’s residence. The footprint of the room took shape with Washington’s first major building campaign, which began in 1758 and likely continued into the 1760s. The floors, mopboards (baseboards), window architrave (surround), window sashes, door, and door architrave (surround) date to this period.

The architectural elements in the Small Room reinforce its less prominent place in the room hierarchy, as the room does not have a chair rail, cornice, mantel, or fireplace like the other second floor bedchambers. In fact, its fitment is more similar to the rooms on the garret level.

Generally speaking, room significance, visibility, and architectural embellishment decreased when moving from lower to upper floors.

Furnishings

The probate inventory taken after George Washington’s death indicated it was furnished comfortably but not elaborately, with a low-post bedstead and bedding, a curtain, inexpensive Windsor chairs for seating, and a wash stand, dressing table, and dressing glass.

Curators chose a combination of original, period, and reproduction furnishings to represent the room c. 1799.

Original Washington Wash Stand 

The wash stand, or more specifically, shaving stand, is the Washington-owned original, purchased by George Washington in August 1774 from the auction of furnishings from Belvoir, the Fairfax family home. The compact piece features a mirror that slides out from the case and can be adjusted to suit the user’s height, as well as a fitted top for a salt-glazed stoneware wash basin, soap basins, a cupboard for storing shaving implements or other tools or accessories, and a shelf for a guglet or water bottle.

George William Fairfax had purchased the shaving stand from London cabinetmaker William Gomm in 1763 and used it in his dressing room at Belvoir for over a decade. After purchasing it in 1774, Washington likely used it himself for many years, until he acquired the larger, marble-topped French dressing table in 1790 (W-202).

After that, it became one of several wash stands that could be used in guest chambers. With convenient carrying handles on the sides, the stand could easily have been moved from room to room as needed to accommodate guests.

Low-Post, Virginia-Made Bed

The low-post bedstead with turned posts is an extraordinary example of a Virginia-made bedstead from the mid-eighteenth century. It represents the type of less expensive bedsteads acquired by the Washingtons in the 1750s and 1760s (including several brought by Martha to Mount Vernon from the Custis homes of her first marriage) that continued in use in the Mansion throughout their lifetimes.

The turnings on this bedstead and Tidewater Virginia staircases were made by specialty turners whose craftsmanship can be seen in architecture and in furniture. The turnings of this particular bed relate to similar examples on stairs and tables found near Norfolk, Virginia, the port city nearest many of the Custis landholdings.

Original shaving stand (W-199), purchased by George Washington from Belvoir in 1774. Made by William Gomm & Company, London, in 1763.

Paper and Paint

The Small Room’s function as a dedicated bedchamber indicated that it was most likely finished with wallpaper, similar to the neighboring bedchambers.

Several important data points guided the selection of the paper.  The Washingtons’ orders and correspondence indicate that from the late 1750s onward, they intended the plastered rooms and bedchambers used by the family and guests to be finished with wallpaper, following the practice in elite homes at the time. In such homes, even small, accessory spaces such as closets and dressing rooms attached to the main family and guest rooms typically had wallpaper.

In 1797, after eight years away, the Washingtons made substantial updates to Mount Vernon’s interiors. Documentary evidence indicates this was the last of several campaigns of wallpapering and painting during the Washingtons’ lifetimes.

In keeping with the modest nature of this chamber, the late 1790s fan-like sprig pattern would have been relatively inexpensive, due to the small repeat and the limited number of colors (orange and black). The original wallpaper was found in a historic home in Concord, Massachusetts. Adelphi Paperhangings, Inc. hand-block-printed both the wallpaper and border using hand-ground pigments.

Paint analysis of the woodwork identified several layers of early paint from the 1758-1802 period. When the woodwork was initially installed in the 1750s, it was painted a light blue color. In the years following, it was painted a cream or stone color, similar to that used in each of the other second floor bedchambers and the central and second floor passages.

American or French, circa 1790-1800. This pattern is licensed to Adelphi Paper Hangings by The Farmers' Museum.

What’s in a Name?

While visitors to Mount Vernon rarely recorded details about the bedchamber in which they stayed during their visit, in the case of the Small Room, the reminiscences of an unintentional visitor to Mount Vernon provide insight into how it was used.

Unexpected Guest

As shared by the author Mary G. Powell in The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia, Hannah Taylor (b.1790) recalled that, as a young girl, she accidentally fell asleep in the Washington carriage when it was in Alexandria for repairs. She did not awaken until the carriage arrived at Mount Vernon, at which point it was late and stormy, prompting the Washingtons to insist that she stay the night.

Taylor specifically remembered that Caroline Branham, the enslaved housemaid, took her to “a little room at the head of the stairway.” Caroline then brought a copper warming-pan, ran it between the sheets of the bed, gave Hannah a nightgown from Eleanor Parke Custis, and left the candle burning in the room until Hannah fell asleep.

Taylor’s identification of the room as “little” and at the “head of the stairs” correlates with the size and position of the Small Room. In addition to Caroline Branham and George and Martha Washington, Hannah remembered meeting Eleanor Parke Custis, and George Washington Lafayette, indicating that the event probably occurred sometime between the Washington family’s return to Mount Vernon in mid-March 1797 and the departure of George Washington Lafayette in October 1797.

The Mansion, Room by Room

Throughout the Mansion's three floors are twenty-one beautifully interpreted rooms.

Explore