Settling In Mount Vernon
( Originally Published 1925 )
Development of the Domestic Life on the Plantation—Martha Washington as a Housekeeper—Mount Vernon Grows into a Village—The Spinning House —The Laundry—The Dairy—The Smokehouse—The Kitchen —Shopping in London by Way of the Tobacco Ships—Washington's Taste—Daily Routine—The Beginnings of Sixteen Years of Home Life and the Upbuilding of the Estate.
WITH the arrival of the master and the new mistress life at Mount Vernon took on a new aspect. During the previous seven years the mansion had been occupied only occasionally, there seems to have been no ordered life on the place, and none of the development under which it soon blossomed into one of the first estates of the colony. During these seven years the master was absent almost continuously on the western frontier. Even the extensive repairs, which he planned in anticipation of bringing home his bride, had been made in his absence.
Mount Vernon now became a house of life and gayety. The estate was developed and enlarged. The sixteen years following ,the arrival of Martha in the spring of 1759, until the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, was the longest period of the Washingtons' uninterrupted life at home.
Writing to England in the year of his marriage, Washington said: "I am now I believe fixd at this seat with an agreable Consort for Life. And I hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling World." He would like to have visited the land of his ancestors and the capital of the mother country, but he admitted the restraint on his further freedom: "I am now tied by the leg and must set Inclination aside."
Mrs. Washington had brought with her to Mount Vernon the two children of her former marriage: Martha and John Parke Custis. Washington became their guardian. His home was their home, and by all the ties except blood there was an affectionate union between them which went a long way to compensate him for his childless marriage.
These four were the nucleus of a busy and extensive life on the estate. The gradual accumulation of shoemakers, tailors, smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, masons, charcoal burners, farmers, millers, hostlers, house and outside servants, and overseers, all with their families, constituted an army of several hundred. Everything and everybody that had no relation to the "big house," as the master's dwelling on a Virginia estate has always been called, fell under the direct jurisdiction of Colonel Washington. This phase of life at Mount Vernon will be considered later in its detail and development. The house servants and all those connected with the domestic side of life in the big house were the responsibility of Mrs. Washington.
She was a woman of methodical habits, with real love for domestic management, and a native energy which kept her hands busy at all times. Even when she sat down to visit or rest the knitting needles danced under her chubby fingers.
Her grandson gives this brief sketch of her domestic life: "In her dress though plain, she was so scrupulously neat, that ladies often wondered how Mrs. Washington could wear a gown for a week, go through her kitchen and laundries, and all the varieties of places in the routine of domestic management, and yet the gown retained its snow-like whiteness, unsullied by a single speck. In her conduct to her servants, her discipline was prompt, yet humane, and her household was remarkable for the excellence of its domestics."
Near the big house grew up little houses for all sorts of domestic offices and manufacture. In one the shuttle bobbed back and forth through the great loom, in another buzzed a whole battery of spinning-wheels. In one year at Mount Vernon one man and four girls wove "eight hundred and fifteen and three quarters yards of linen, three hundred and sixty five and one quarter yards of woollen, one hundred and forty four yards of linsey, and forty yards of cotton, or a total of thirteen hundred and sixty five and one half yards." Later, when other hands were added, the list of manufactured cloths included: "Stripped woolen, woolen plaided, cotton striped, linen, wool-birdseye, cotton filled with wool, linsey, M.'s & 0's, cottonn-India dimity, cotton jump stripe, linen filled with tow, cotton striped with silk, Roman M., Janes twilled, huccabac, broadcloth, counterpain, birdseye diaper, Kirsey wool, barragon, fustian, bed-ticking, herring-box, and shalloon."
Across the lawn in another of the little white houses stood the suddy, steaming tubs. There was no appointed "washday" on the plantation. Everyday the laundry rang with the music of washboard and mangle, beaten clothes and hissing steam. Its neighbor, the dairy, was scarcely less active with the gallons of milk to skim, the butter to churn, and the cheese to prepare. A nearby smokehouse, lined with sides, legs, and shoulders hanging on crude forked hooks of natural wood, was the one quiet house in the little group.
After the fashion of most old Virginia homes, the kitchen was in a detached house next to the big house, and processions of pickaninnies carried the heaped dishes across the lawn in to the family dining-room. The modern or even the now old-fashioned cook-stove was unknown. The altar of this temple was a great fireplace with an opening which would accommodate half a dozen grown persons. Here andirons held wood cut to cord size, and often oak logs which strained a brace of black backs to lift into place. Cranes of iron, wrought over the hill in the blacksmith shop, swung steaming kettles over the glowing coals. Quarters of beef, young suckling pigs, and rows of fowl, game and domestic, were roasted on spits. Corn pone and sweet potatoes nestled in the ashes. The plantation cooks knew the nice properties of all the woods, and were particular to have sassafras or beech-nut, red or white oak, hickory, pine, or gum, according as they needed a slow fire or fast, or as the epicure demanded each wood's own smoky aroma.
Mrs. Washington refurnished Mount Vernon through-out. Some things she brought up from her former homes in the York country and she retained a few things in the house which survived the days of Lawrence and Anne. Among the latter were the painting of the English fleet before Carthagena and the old lantern in the hall, sent Lawrence by Admiral Vernon, and the brass window cornices and curtain bands in the west parlor, all of which have survived the changes of years and are today preserved in their accustomed places.
In the main Mount Vernon was refurnished by order on London. The Virginia colonial dame of means shopped almost exclusively by mail order on England, though in point of time she was then more distant from the London market than is Japan today.
Robert Cary & Company were Washington's London correspondents at this time. Immediately the Colonel and his bride reached home they made an invoice of needed furnishings and sent a long order, which included :
"1 Tester Bedstead 7i feet pitch with fashionable bleu or blue and white curtains to suit a Room laid w yl held. paper.
"Window curtains of the same for two windows; with either Papier Maché Cornish to them, or Cornish covered with the Cloth.
"1 fine Bed Coverlid to match the Curtains. 4 Chair bottoms of the same; that is, as much covering suited to the above furniture as will go over the seats of 4 Chairs (which I have by me) in order to make the whole furniture of this Room uniformly handsome and genteel.
"1. Fashionable sett of Desert Glasses and Stands for Sweet meats Jellys &c—together with Wash Glasses and a proper Stand for these also.
"Q Setts of Chamber, or Bed Carpets—Wilton.
"4. Fashionable China Branches & Stands for Candles.
"2 Neat fire Screens
" 50 lbs Spirma Citi Candles
"6 Carving Knives and Forks—handles of Stained Ivory and bound with Silver.
"1 Large neat and Easy Couch for a Passage.
"50 yards of best Floor Matting.
"Order from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best Old Wine, and let it be secured from Pilferers."
This order further included hosiery of cotton and silk; half a dozen pairs of shoes "to be made by one Didsbury, on Colo. Baylor's Last—but a little larger than his—& to have high heels"; riding gloves; a "Suit of Cloaths of the finest Cloth & fashionable colour"; a "large assortment of grass seeds"; "the newest and most approved Treatise of Agriculture"; also "a New System of Agriculture, or a Speedy Way to grow Rich," and "Six Bottles of Greenhows Tincture."
This was dispatched in May, 1759. In September Washington forwarded an order of about two hundred and fifty items, nearly all from two to six pairs or dozens of the articles itemized. Activities were extending on a large scale on the estate, but the orders assumed such wholesale character because they were sent to the English agents only twice a year.
"From this time," he writes, "it will be requisite, that you should raise three accounts; one for me, an-other for the estate, and a third for Miss Patty Custis; or, if you think it more eligible (as I believe it will be), make me debtor on my own account for John Parke Custis, and for Miss Martha Parke Custis, as each will have their part of the estate assigned to them this fall, and the whole will remain under my management, whose particular care it shall be to distinguish always, either by letter or invoice, from whom tobbacos are shipped, and for whose use goods are imported, in order to prevent any mistakes arising."
Quaint items arrest the eye all along these lists.
There are "a light summer suit made of Duroy, 2 plain Beaver Hats, a Salmon-covered Tabby, Calamanco shoes, 6m Minnikin Pins, 30 yards Red Shalloon, 6 castor Hats, 2 Postilion Caps, one dozen pairs coarse shoe and knee buckles, 450 ells Osnabergs." In an order "for Miss Custis, 4 years old," were "2 Caps, 2 pairs Ruffles, 2 Tuckers, Bibs, and Aprons, if fashionable, 2fans, 2 Masks, 2 Bonnetts," a "stiffened Coat of Fashionable silk, made to pack-thread stays," one fashionable dressed baby 10s. For "Master Custis, 6 years old," he ordered " 1 piece black Hair Ribbon, 1 pair handsome silver Shoe and Knee Buckles, 10s. worth of toys, 6 little books for children beginning to read, and 1 light duffel Cloak with silver frogs."
Other interesting articles in the early lists are some two hundred carpenter's tools, an extensive provision for the pharmacopoeia, "all liquids in double flint bottles," and these art objects for the adornment of his rooms listed under "Directions for the Busts":
"4. One of Alexander the Great; another of Julius Caesar; another of Charles XII. of Sweden; and a fourth of the King of Prussia.
"N. B. These are not to exceed fifteen inches in height, nor ten in width.
"2 Other busts, of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, somewhat smaller.
"2 Wild Beasts, not to exceed twelve inches in height, nor eighteen in length.
"Sundry small ornaments for chimney-piece."
These objects have been described as having actually been a part of the furnishings of Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, Washington was disappointed in expecting these. Indeed, when the vessel brought the other goods ordered; the invoice had these entries instead of the art objects requested:
"A Groupe of Aeneas carrying his Father out of Troy, with four statues, viz. his Father Anchises, his wife Creusa
and his son Ascanius, neatly finished and bronzed with copper £ 3.3
Two Groupes, with two statues each of Bacchus & Flora finisht neat, & bronzed with copper £2.2 each 4.4
Two ornamented vases with Faces and Festoons of Grapes
and vine Leaves, finished neat & bronzed with copper . . . f2 . e
The above for ye Chimney Piece.
Two Lyons after the antique Lyons in Italy, finished neat and bronzed with copper, £1.5 each 2.10
These is the best ornaments I could possibly make for the chimney piece. And of all the wild beasts as coud be made, there is none better than the Lyons. The manner of placing them on ye chimney piece should be thus :
A groupe of Vase--Aeneas---Vase---Groupe of Flora Bacchus
There is no Busts of Alexander ye Great, (none at all of Charles 12th of Sweden,) Julius Caesar, King of Prussia, Prince Eugene, nor the Duke of Marlborough, of the size desired; and to make models would be very expensive—at least 4 guineas each."
However, William Cheere, the London art dealer, offered to make "Busts exactly to the size wrote for (15 inches) and very good ones, at the rate of 16/ each: of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Galens, Vestall, Virgin Faustina, Chaucer, Spencer, Johnson, Shakespear, Beaumont, Fletcher, Milton, Prior, Pope, Congreve, Swift, Addison, Drydon, Locke, Newton."
Although bills were itemized in pounds, shillings, and pence, they were paid in tobacco. This plant was at once a crop and currency. Washington, like other great planters, shipped his tobacco to London and drew against it in orders for merchandise.
The orders which were sent from Mount Vernon to London show as clearly as any other surviving evidence the taste of the master which he stamped on the life there. He did not believe in a false economy. There is rarely a question of price. But throughout the orders appear the three requisites: good, neat, and fashionable. Always fashionable, but never ostentatious. In one letter he asks for the "finest cloth and fashionable colour"; again for a "genteel suit of cloaths made of superfine broadcloth, handsomely chosen"; but, he writes, "I want neither lace or embroidery. Plain clothes, with a gold or silver button (if worn in genteel dress), are all I desire." This excellence, neatness, and fashionableness in his personal attire was reflected in his house and its furnishings.
The domestic life at Mount Vernon was simple and methodical. One of Washington's sense of order and organization could endure nothing else. Martha, either natively or by cultivation, supplemented him exactly. "Everywhere order, method, punctuality, economy reigned," said his adopted son. "His household . was always upon a liberal scale, and was conducted with a regard to economy and usefulness."
They both were early risers, though breakfast was not early for all the household. Washington in winter often made his own fire in his library and there, over his correspondence and accounts, did an immense amount of work in a few hours. Mrs. Washington rose when he did and directed the beginning of the day's domestic duties into easy and ordered channels. After break-fast he rode out on one of his horses to overlook the laborers on the various farms into which he divided Mount Vernon estate, and returned, according to Custis, "Punctual as the hand of a clock, at a quarter to three . . . and retired to his room to dress, as was his custom." Mrs. Washington chose the first hour for religious devotion in her own room, an unfailing custom her life long. Dinner was a mid-afternoon meal after the Southern tradition. Washington rarely ate any supper, though it was always spread for his household and guests. When at Mount Vernon it was his habit to retire at nine o'clock.
Washington was already an important figure, one of the most important in the colony. But in the sixteen years of his married life at Mount Vernon before the Revolution he led a life of comparative retirement, and of real freedom and ease, devoting himself to the amenities of family life and the development of his estate. It was the life of his choice. He never planned and he had no ambition for any career elsewhere than on his own acres. Mount Vernon was the shrine of his greatest happiness. He was rarely far from his home during these sixteen years. When later he did consent to absent himself it was at the call of his country in the public service. It was only patriotic duty that made the long absences endurable, and he wrote and spoke of Mount Vernon always in terms of affection and home-sickness.
If during this period the estate did not reach in every aspect the maturity, expansion, and beauty of later years, nevertheless, under his able administration, it grew steadily in acreage and productiveness, until even at this time it became one of the largest and best-ordered plantations in the colonies. It was the scene of an easy, graceful social life, based on an opulent hospitality for which the villa eventually grew too small and compelled the additions which give the mansion its familiar outlines. These years were freer- of care and more buoyant in happiness than any that followed, when leadership imposed its burden of responsibility and fame robbed him of his treasured retirement.