Today, Mount Vernon is flowing with beautiful and interesting objects from the life and times of George and Martha Washington gathered over a period of years by gift, loan or purchase. Although it has been open to the public for more than 140 years, and some 75 million people have visited the home, it was not always the way it might have looked in the year 1799 when Washington died. This is the year that the mansion was in its most developed state.
I had the distinct pleasure of being a visitor to Mount Vernon to
learn more about the specific restoration of two rooms in the home
of our first president. It was an astounding visit, as I traveled
through the rooms where President and Mrs. Washington spent much
of their time–both before and after the presidency.
When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association first obtained ownership
of the mansion, it was basically an empty house. “There was
a scattering of a few things in the house,” said Curator Carol
Cadou. “Since that time we have tried to recreate the furnishings
and the textiles in the house. So, you’ll see a collection
of what restorations were done in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s,
’90s, and what we are trying to do today.”
Each generation of researchers learns more about historical textiles.
“Some of the things we did even five years ago can now be
modified and made more historically accurate,” commented Cadou.
“But two of the newest installations are probably the culmination
of our best research and certainly some of our greatest talent.
They include the Washington bedchamber and the Martha Washington
garret bedchamber. This was not only the work of a lot of research,
but the inspiration of Natalie Larson, who owns a textile reproduction
company and is on the staff at Colonial Williamsburg.”
In 1774, when George Washington added the south wing to the mansion
the addition provided for the current Washington bedchamber and
his study below. Removed from the hustle and bustle of the rest
of the house, the Washingtons, no doubt, enjoyed the quiet of this
sunny and spacious new bedchamber. The finishing details of the
room were decided by Martha Washington, and she opted for a plain
ceiling, plaster walls and simple woodwork.
When the staff at Mount Vernon took on the task of restoring the
Washington bedchamber to its original state, they found that they
owed their thanks to 18th century rats. “In our early investigation
of some plaster work, there was a rat’s nest found in the
wall,” says Cadou. “In addition to an 18th century shoe
and some string that was found, we learned that the bedhangings
and the window treatments were made with white dimity.”
Martha Washington had provided in her will that the bedstead and
its curtains would go to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis,
and indicated that the bed was draped with white dimity curtains.
Dimity, a light cotton material, became an extremely fashionable
furnishing textile during the last decade of the 18th century, so
it come as no surprise that the Washingtons selected it for their
Natalie Larson fashioned by hand all of the dimity bed hangings,
window hangings, slipcovers and the new, period bedding. She based
her work on 18th century pictorial evidence as well as surviving
examples in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
(SPNEA) and Williamsburg collections.
The reproduction dimity was generously donated by Brunschwig &
Fils, and the company had it bleached especially for this installation,
which was completed in early 2004. The dimity is trimmed with linen
fringe handmade by Context Weavers in England. The bed hangings
include a headcloth, tester cloth, base valances, a counterpane
and outer and inner valances. “It was really a wonderful sort
of stroke of luck that allowed us to combine everything in that
room as historical,” said Cadou.
After her husband died in 1799, Martha Washington closed the second
floor bedroom they had shared for nearly a quarter century. Mrs.
Washington moved to the bedroom in the garret on the third floor
that Washington furnished in 1797, when he converted a first floor
bedroom into a parlor. Martha continued to manage her household
from this room, and numerous guests wrote of visiting with her during
this period. The garret bedchamber also commanded a view of General
Washington’s tomb, the vault where he was first buried. It
was also a comforting room because her grandson’s room was
across the hall.
The reproduction of the Martha Washington garret bedchamber started
with a simple valentine. “We spent about two years researching
what we thought might have been in Martha’s bedchamber,”
stated Cadou. “We knew she had retired to the third floor
and that it was a cramped space, even referred to by a visitor as
‘cramped, attic space’ during the 18th century. In honor
of Martha’s 274th birthday this year we wanted to do something
a little bit different.”
They received a surprise discovery after their two years’
of researching the garret bedchamber. “We happened upon a
special collection in New Jersey,” said Cadou. “This
collector of Washington memorabilia had purchased a series of valentines
and letters that had fragments of yellow damask and yellow worsted
silken wool on them.” In this collection was a series of valentines
from a woman, who was a descendant of Nellie Custis Lewis, Martha
The note accompanying the valentine read: “Dear Mrs. Clay,
The valentine cushion I designed and made for you is unique in the
fact that it is the only one of its kind. The old gold tapestry
that covers the front is a piece of a curtain that hung at a window
in Martha Washington’s bedroom at Mount Vernon, and the pendant
is a spike of the fringe of the curtain. This room was the one Mrs.
Washington took after her husband’s death in 1799 . . . That
was the room you may remember that had a door with a piece cut out
of the lower part for Mrs. Washington’s pet cat to go in and
out of at pleasure.” The valentine goes on to describe that
“Mrs. Dangerfield Lewis, wife of a grandson of Nelly Custis,
gave the old gold tapestry or brocade and the fringe to my cousin
and she gave it to me.”
What a historical find this was for Mount Vernon. “I called
Natalie Larson and explained to her what I had seen, and we both
knew that this was historically what we had been looking for,”
says Cadou. “We knew that there had to be this heavy wool
damask in the house because it was so popular in the 1750s, and
Washington was always so on top of fashion. So, we decided to take
a look back at the invoices of the 1750s and found an invoice dated
1757 for a ‘mahogany bedstead with carved and fluted pillars
with yellow worsted hangings.’ It was a perfect blending!”
All that was left to do was decide which bed might have been the
original one. Mount Vernon happened to have on loan from the Smithsonian
Institute a bed that had carved and fluted posts and was mahogany.
The two matched perfectly. The bed had come down in the line of
Nelly Custis Lewis. But why was the bed so short? “It was
missing about four inches, plus we knew it had had a cornice,”
“Well, lo and behold, it fit perfectly on the third floor.
We think at the time it was moved up to the third floor it was cut
to fit, and the cornice probably tossed or made into something else.”
Again, Larson and Cadou went through published periods of designs
and printed textiles during that time. They used period design manuals
at the Mount Vernon Library and a book by Abbot Lowell Cummings,
“Bed Hangings.” The reproduction included using the
Smithsonian bedstead with a new reproduction tester and a lathe.
The worsted wool and silk gold/yellow damask for the bed and window
hanging were made by Context Weavers in England. The corresponding
fringe and tape also were made by Context Weavers. A reproduction
valance mounted to a box was made. The valance was pulled up on
one side and tied off with reproduction cloak pins, based on period
designs and recast by Christopher Drummer. All hand-sewn work was
done by Natalie Larson. All reproductions and 18th century English
furnishings were installed June 2005.
If you have not had a chance to visit Mount Vernon, schedule a visit.
It’s an experience you will not forget.
Patricia Sprinkle is the managing editor of Sew WHAT? Magazine
published monthly by Professional Drapery Seminars Inc., Swannanoa,
NC. Its mission is to help drapery, slipcover and upholstery professionals
with all of their fabrication and design needs. This article first
appeared in the March 2005 issue of SewWhat?