Update July 16, 2009

July 16, 2009

New Furniture in the Drawing Room

Last week we installed a pair of card tables in the Drawing Room (M108) that have excellent Montpelier provenance. Card playing, backgammon, and other games were popular pastimes during the late 18th and early 19th century. Several visitors recalled seeing games being played during their visit with the Madisons. During his 1816 visit, Baron de Montelzun mentioned games of chess being played at Montpelier.1 In an exchange of letters between Dolley Madison and her sister Anna Payne Cutts in the spring of 1804, they mention playing Loo, a card game similar to the modern game of Hearts.

The tables were purchased at an undated Montpelier sale by a local family who lived at a neighboring plantation. In the mid 20th century, the tables were separated when one was sold. Both tables maintained their Madison provenance and were brought together for display here at Montpelier after it was confirmed that they were a matching pair. As part of our research, wood sampling was conducted on the tables, indicating they were made in New England based on the types of wood used. It is possible that these tables were shipped to Virginia or were acquired by the Madisons in Philadelphia, a port city with a thriving furniture trade. One of the tables was graciously donated to Montpelier by Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Thompson, and the other is currently on loan to us. We are thrilled to be able to display them together in situ.

 Tables0907-3

Tables0907-4

New Document in the Grills Gallery

There is a new document now on display in the Grills Gallery in the Visitors Center here at Montpelier. It is an undated memorandum from Dolley Madison to a Mr. Zantzinger; a shopping list of household and personal items for him to purchase on her behalf. The many interesting items include “two [large] Looking-Glasses”, “100 yds best carpeting,” various types of clothing, and “one dozen fanciful but cheap snuff boxes.”

This is not the only time the Madisons made purchases through an agent or friend. In the 1780s, James Madison sent requests for books to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris. Shortly after his 1794 marriage, Madison asked his friend James Monroe, then Minister to France, to acquire household goods for him, among which were French carpets and yards of red and green silk intended for curtains for two rooms. Later in their married lives Dolley begins to order goods on her own, not just through her husband. The Zantzinger order is an example of this as is a quite similar order Dolley commissioned in 1810 from merchant and US Commercial Agent in Bordeaux William Lee.2

The Zantzinger memorandum gives us an idea of Dolley’s tastes, and her budget. She wants nice looking glasses and good carpet, but only as fine as can be purchased for $100 each. This was not a spending spree; Dolley was instead a savvy shopper who set a limit on the lengths to which she, or her agent, should go to acquire fashionable decorations for the house. Although she does not set an upper limit for the “print of the bust of N. Bonaparte” listed, she does quote Zantzinger the price that the print was selling for “some months since;” she did at least have an estimate for how much it should cost.

Who was Mr. Zantzinger? His identity is far from apparent in the memorandum, and he was not a regular correspondent with Dolley. There are a few possibilities, two of which seem most promising:

  • The first is the Philadelphia merchant firm of Kepple and Zantzinger. Although the memorandum does not appear to date from the period when the Madisons were living in Philadelphia, they may have kept in touch with useful connections in that city. The firm of Kepple and Zantzinger would have had at least one Mr. Zantzinger in it.
  • The second possibility is one William P. Zantzinger, supercargo, mentioned in a 1819 Supreme Court case. A supercargo is “An officer on a merchant ship who has charge of the cargo and its sale and purchase” ([italic]American Heritage Dictionary), so this Zantzinger would have been in a position to make purchases for the Madisons.
  • Of course, it is possible that William P. Zantzinger was somehow related to the Zantzingers of the merchant firm in Philadelphia; in a letter to a friend written in Tripoli, Dolley Madison’s brother mentions having met “Mr. Zantzinger Supercargo of a vessel from Philadelphia” while in Italy.[note: John Coles Payne to Boyd, May 25, 1807, Private Collection] Merchant firms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries sometimes included extended families – fathers, sons, cousins, nephews – so a supercargo from Philadelphia could be related to a Philadelphia firm.

The memorandum helps us to better understand Dolley Madison’s taste, the limits of her pocketbook and her desire to acquire certain goods in France. But, it also raises further questions about the Madisons’ patterns of consumption, who they used as agents for long-distance shopping and how they made those connections.

200907-memorandum

We hope that you can come and see this document and other Madison items in our Grills Gallery.


1 Moffatt, L. G. and J. M. Carriere “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” Virginia Historical Magazine, July 1945
2 Mary Lee Mann, A Yankee Jeffersonian: Selections from the Diary and Letters of William Lee of Massachusetts Written from 1796 to 1840, Cambridge, MA, 1958, p. 133.

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Update July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009

Court Records Research

In an earlier post, we explained the concept of “provenance,” and how we use it here at Montpelier. Tracking down an object’s provenance often requires documentary research. In this post, we would like to expand on a type of research we touched on in our last post – documentary research with court records, and how it is helping us better understand the Madisons and their lives at Montpelier.

Court records provide us with a unique approach to comprehending the Madison family through legal transactions. We utilize probate records such as wills, inventories and accounts of estate sales for many Madison family members to create a better understanding of what each person inherited, owned, bought and sold. We then build on this knowledge by examining the records of lawsuits for Orange County, Virginia which are housed at several repositories across the state, including the Orange County Courthouse, the Library of Virginia, and the State Record Center.

These records are spread across several courts, for example, courts for different jurisdictions, such as county and district. Making this a bit more difficult are changes to the structure of the court system itself as the 19th century progressed. Since we want to collect all information possible for James and Dolley Madison, his parents, her son John Payne Todd, and other close family members, we are systematically going through the records of each court in chronological order. It is a slow process, but more thorough than relying just on indexes or making random searches on years of suspected activity. While we are specifically interested in mentions of furniture and interior decoration in our current research, we record all cases for future reference. We have uncovered many court cases that have helped shed light on the history of the Madisons, their changing financial status, the individuals with whom they did business, their slaves, and so much more.

One interesting case involved Dolley Madison and a merchant named Thomas Vial. He brought suit against her for nonpayment of accounts, submitting as evidence a list of all the items she had purchased from him in 1842 and 1843. This list provides us with information on what types of beverages and food she purchased. It also raises more questions for us: Did Dolley buy items from Mr. Vial in other years? If so, were her purchases for entertainment or for the everyday management of the household? Do any records of Thomas Vial’s business survive? In this manner, court documents can provide answers as well as questions that will hopefully lead to further discoveries.

 Orange County Courthouse

The Fourth of July

Although July 4 was not designated as a federal holiday for almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and drafted, it was considered by some a day of celebration from the very first anniversary. The way people chose to celebrate varied from place to place, some holding big parties and others holding prayer meetings.

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1809, citizens of the town of Pittsfield, Vermont, chose to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence by writing a letter to their President, James Madison. That letter now belongs to the Library of Congress, and you can see and read it for yourself.

The language of the letter is more formal, and certainly more flowery, than most people today would use, even when writing to the President. The underlying message, on the other hand, still applies today. While these citizens of Pittsfield voted for James Madison, and wanted him to succeed, they closed their letter by celebrating the “Sovreign Lord” of the United States: the People.


Inaugurations

January 29, 2009

We are pleased to announce that Lynne Dakin Hastings has joined Montpelier as Vice President for Museum Programs. Prior to coming to Montpelier, Lynne was Curator of Historic Interiors for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, responsible for overseeing the arrangement and preservation of more than 200 historic spaces, as well as consultant for special projects in the Historic Area. She formerly was the Chief Curator and Cultural Resources Specialist for the National Park Service at Hampton National Historic Site, near Baltimore, Maryland for many years, initiating the research, planning and implementation of interiors restoration, collections management, archival collections and library, archaeological surveys, grant funded research and acquisitions, and collaboration with non-profit foundations. As VP for Museum Programs, Lynne will coordinate the Archaeology, Curatorial and Education departments, keeping projects focused, involving the appropriate staff and consultants, and helping the team to reach consensus. We are very excited that she is here!

Inaugurations and Mrs. Smith

Last week, our nation celebrated the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States with all of the pageantry and celebrations reserved for such an occasion. Many people do not realize that 2009 also marks the bicentennial of Madison’s Presidency and the first Inaugural Ball.

The Madison’s Inaugural ball took place at Long’s Hotel, located one block from the Capitol building in Washington. Four hundred tickets were sold, costing $4 a piece. The ball would have been the highlight of the year for Washington’s high society.

Margaret Bayard Smith, one of Dolley Madison’s lifelong friends, attended the ball and described Dolley’s entrance:

“Madison’s March was then played and Mrs. Madison led in by one of the managers and Mrs. [Anna] Cutts and Mr. Madison, she was led to the part of the room where we happened to be, so that I accidently was placed next to her. She looked a queen. She had on a pale buff colored velvet [dress] made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming, and beautiful pearl necklace, earrings, and bracelets. Her head dress was a turban of the same coloured velvet and white satin (from Paris) with two superb plumes, the bird of paradise feathers. It would be absolutely impossible for anyone to behave with more perfect propriety than she did. Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me that such manners would disarm envy itself, and conciliate even enemies”1

Margaret Bayard Smith’s letters and diaries are an invaluable source of information for scholars who study Washington in the early 19th century. Mrs. Smith’s husband was the editor of the National Intelligencer, the premier Washington D.C., newspaper, so the Smiths knew many of the most important politicians in Washington. The Smiths also visited Montpelier on several occasions; Mrs. Smith’s letters provide valuable clues regarding room use and furniture at Montpelier.

For example, in August of 1809, she described arriving at Montpelier and being ushered into the Dining Room,

“It was near five o’clock when we arrived, we were met at the door by Mr. M who led us in the dining room where some gentlemen were still smoking segars [sic] and drinking wine. Mrs. M. enter’d the moment afterwards, and after embracing me, took my hand, saying with a smile I will take you out of this smoke to a pleasanter room”2

Later in that same passage, Mrs. Smith called Dolley Madison “kindness personified”. The two women were already friends by the time of the 1809 visit, but as First Lady and the mistress of Montpelier, Dolley was a gracious hostess to people she barely knew. The letters written by visitors, especially those like Mrs. Smith, provide us with glimpses of the way the rooms at Montpelier were furnished and used.

1 Margaret Baryard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 61-62.
2 Ibid., 81.