At 6:45 a.m. the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, VA, is peaceful and quiet. The sun just rising over the home gives it a tranquil feeling. It’s a breathtaking view. I had the pleasure of a private tour of Monticello, the historical home of our third president, best remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence.
In March 1809, Jefferson was at long last liberated from what he
called the “splendid misery” of the presidency of the
United States, free to begin the evening of his life in retirement
at Monticello. The word monticello in Italian means “little
mountain.” Jefferson inherited his beloved Monticello from
his father, Peter Jefferson, in 1764. Today, Monticello is the only
house in America designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site.
FORCED TO SELL
Beginning in 1796, Monticello was transformed from an eight-room
dwelling to 21 rooms. What Jefferson created was unlike any other
house in the United States, and not just because it was the first
house in this country to have a dome.
The estate features an ornamental landscape, a farm, a plantation,
a small mountain and a large and diverse community. Monticello occupied
Jefferson’s attention and imagination for more than 50 years.
He designed the house and supervised its construction and expansion.
Jefferson strove to apply the latest agricultural theories and technology
to his farming enterprises. But despite the ideals Jefferson expressed
in the Declaration of Independence, his way of life was dependent
on the labor of the people he held in slavery. Despite his many
efforts to keep the plantation running, even once selling his expansive
book collection, the plantation was unprofitable and he died in
debt, forcing his family to sell the land, house, household contents
and enslaved workers.
The home was bought by Dr. James Barclay in 1831 and sold to a naval
officer, Uriah Phillips Levy in 1834. The Levy family owned Monticello
for almost 90 years. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased Monticello
from the Levy family in 1923 and began the transformation of the
home and the grounds to what we see today.
Jefferson’s suite occupied most of the south end of the house.
It comprised a book room (or library), two louvered outdoor porches,
a greenhouse, a cabinet (or study), and a double-height, sky-lighted
bedroom with an alcove bed linking it to the cabinet. The alcove
bed was a space-saving aspect of French house design that Jefferson
adopted when he remodeled Monticello.
According to Collections Manager Carrie Taylor, at Monticello “the
reproduction quilted counterpane, or bedcover, was a fine light
crimson silk taffeta (called mantua in the period). A coarse linen
and cotton blend fabric was used as backing material.” The
counterpane is bound on all four sides with a crimson and gold silk
twill tape. Silk fringe, four inches wide with a looped head and
a skirt of twisted strands knotted and tasseled below, is attached
to three sides of the counterpane. The fringe is made of gold and
crimson blended threads.
A few months after purchasing silk draperies for the parlor at Monticello,
Jefferson hired Philadelphia upholsterer John Rea. Jefferson wrote
to Rea on October 10, 1808, “Thomas Jefferson will thank Mr.
Rea to make and forward to him at this place a counterpane or coverlids
of the description below . . .” Jefferson recorded the purchase
of $40.50 in his Memorandum Book on February 6, 1809.
The original counterpane survives in the Monticello collection,
but is very fragile and must be kept in storage. The reproduction
counterpane was copied from the original in every detail and was
completed and installed August 1, 1991.
COUNTERPANES AND DIMITY
One of the two first-floor guest chambers, located along the north
passage, was named by the family for the prominent guest who frequently
occupied it. The North Octagonal Room was named “Mr. Madison’s
Room” for two of the most frequent visitors to Monticello,
longtime friends James Madison and his wife Dolley.
The room features a modern hand-blocked reproduction of the original
trellis wallpaper purchased in France. Jefferson favored dimity
fabric and, based upon notes and drawings he made in 1803, he used
dimity fabric in at least five rooms at Monticello. Although there
is no surviving documentation for textiles used in the North Octagonal
Room, dimity is a likely choice for Jefferson and coordinates well
with the trellis wallpaper. It also was a favorite of George and
Martha Washington (see D&WC, November, page 42.) The reproduction
dimity was custom woven in Lancashire, England, in 1992.
The counterpanes are simply rectangles of fabric made from four
10-foot lengths of fabric seamed in three lines that run from head
to foot on the bed. Jefferson seems to have preferred this simple
kind of counterpane that folds over the bolster pillow, because
when he ordered one for his own bed in 1809, he specifically requests
that it not be “hollowed over the bolster,” (i.e. cut
and shaped to fit like a slipcover.) The reproduction counterpanes
and matching bed hangings and curtains were made in 1993 by Natalie
Larson of Historic Textile Reproductions, Williamsburg, VA.
SWAGS AND TAILS
The Sitting Room was used mostly by Jefferson’s daughter as
her office and a schoolroom for her children. When Jefferson retired
in 1809, his wife, Martha, had been dead for 27 years. Their only
surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph, moved her household
from her husband’s nearby plantation to live with her father.
She was the mother of eight children at the time and would give
birth to three more between 1810 and 1818.
Once, while in Paris, Jefferson purchased “toile de Jouy”
(red) for 621 livres on December 20, 1784. Such a large amount of
money can only mean Jefferson received a large quantity of fabric,
and toile de Jouy was typically used for curtains and bed hangings.
Indeed, on March 8, 1785, Jefferson’s Memorandum Book records
relatively small amounts of money for two pairs “red calico
window curtains” and two pairs “red calico bed curtains,”
suggesting that he paid someone to sew curtains out of the fabric
bought in December.
The design of the curtains is based on an undated Jefferson sketch.
Jefferson drew simple stationary hangings gathered up in a double
swag with tapering tails on either side. Fringe decorates the sides
and the bottom with three added tassels. Jefferson marked the depth
of each swag as 26 inches. The reproduction fabric was manufactured
in France by Etablissements Burger. It was purchased through a supplier
in London, H.A. Percheron, Ltd.
The wool fringe was custom woven by Kathleen B. Smith, West Chesterfield,
MA. The cotton twill tape for binding the edges was supplied by
Jefferson’s family and their guests gathered to read, converse
and play games and musical instruments in the parlor. Jefferson’s
catalog indicated that 48 works of art filled the room.
According to Carrie Taylor, the reproduction draperies in the parlor
are based upon extensive documentary evidence for the draperies
Jefferson had commissioned for the parlor by John Rea in 1808. “In
the spring of 1808, Jefferson placed an order with John Rea for
new window coverings for the parlor at Monticello,” said Carrie.
“Drapery for the tops of four windows (no curtains being desired),
somewhat in the style here drawn of crimson damask silk, lined with
green and a yellow fringe.” The reproduction silk window treatments
were actually stationary, in a double-festoon design with tapering
tails on either side, and were cone-shaped.
Natalie Larson assembled all materials for the reproductions in
March and April of 1993. She examined 19th-century draper’s
books for guidelines in proportion, cutting and draping. Larson
did all the cutting, assembly, and finishing work herself, machine
stitching only the seams that are not visible on the finished product.
Jefferson’s unique design for his beloved Monticello brought
together spaces for working, living and storage. It is a place of
beauty and history. Schedule a visit today! You’ll be glad
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 August 2005 issue of SewWhat?