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.



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.


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.



April 17, 2009

After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.

So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.

Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps. Read the rest of this entry »

Celebrity Rocks

March 19, 2009

In the early years of the new United States, Presidents and Ex-Presidents had pride of place among the celebrities that attracted public interest. The fascination with James Madison stemmed from the notable role he played in the creation of the Constitution, and his outliving all his compatriots to become the “last of the Founders.” Foreigners and American citizens alike were anxious to meet the man who served as President and beat a path to his door, and retirement did little to diminish this appeal.

Today, Montpelier is the benefactor of James and Dolley Madison’s celebrity and the open door policy that reigned in Virginia. Many who came to see the Madisons in retirement recorded their impressions of the famous pair, their hospitality, and the house and its contents in letters to friends and family or in articles in newspapers and magazines. Montpelier staff has determinedly been collecting these accounts for many years because, when considered as a whole, they offer some of the best insights into life in the Madison household after their retirement from public life. Read the rest of this entry »

Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part Two

February 25, 2009

In 1833 New York publisher George P. Morris embarked upon the publication of another print depicting the presidential succession. Writing to James Madison on April 13,[1] Morris informed him that he was producing a “Splendid National Engraving.”  He hoped the former President would allow him to borrow one of his portraits in order that it might be engraved by Asher B. Durand for inclusion in the image. Madison, however, informed Morris that his wife Dolley, “to whom the portrait belongs,” had some aversion to the loan of his portrait by Gilbert Stuart on account of previous problems with the shipping of the work.[2] Intent on having Madison’s portrait, Morris sent Durand to Montpelier that fall, where he painted a new portrait of Madison.[3]

Since Gimbrede’s print was created in 1812, there had been three additional presidents peacefully sworn into office–James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. Morris’s presidential group was more emblematic than Gimbrede’s earlier effort. In his depiction the portraits were grouped around a mirror displayed over a pier table, with Washington’s portrait once again given pride of place at the top of the grouping.

The presidents of the United S... Digital ID: 807923. New York Public Library

Although not immediately obvious, the engraving shows the portraits as hung on the wall of a room or hall, the other three walls being evident in the reflection in the mirror. Also reflected in the mirror is a statue of a woman, holding a pole topped by a Phyrgian cap. Since Roman antiquity this cap had served as a symbol of liberty, and therefore the statue is meant to personify Liberty. Thus, the depiction suggests that the portraits of the presidents are displayed in the “hall of liberty.”

Other symbols in the engraving demonstrate the nature of American liberty. On the skirt of the table is found an unusual symbol.


Depicting a spiral club with lightning bolts and wings, this ancient symbol has long been understood to represent the thunder and lightning of Zeus (or Jupiter to the Romans), the king of the Gods in classical mythology.

Char de Jupiter. Digital ID: 1622965. New York Public Library

Therefore the symbol represents supreme power as well as military might. Often used during the French Revolution, the symbol was appropriated by Napoleon to demonstrate his ultimate authority over the French people.

However, here in the hall of American worthies, it is the power of words which has secured authority, and therefore continued liberty, as demonstrated by the quill pen which rests on the top of the table. The rose which accompanies it is perhaps meant to suggest that, unlike previous governments which had relied on military might to secure and hold power, this American liberty is gentle.

Morris promised Madison that he would send him a early proof impression of the engraving, which was intended for his publication, the New-York Mirror. Whether this print ever arrived at Montpelier, or hung on its walls, is not currently known. However, Madison’s own display of the presidents in the Drawing Room was a constant visual demonstration of the power of liberty secured through the pen.[4]

1 George P. Morris to James Madison, April 13, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2 James Madison to George P. Morris, April, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3 This portrait is now in the collection of The New-York Historical Society
4 For more on Madison’s Drawing Room arrangement, see Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part One.

Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part One

February 11, 2009

During the recent inaugural ceremonies for America’s 44th president, Barack Obama, there was much discussion in the media regarding the peaceful succession of power evident in this and every American inauguration. It may be difficult for those of us living in the twenty-first century to understand, but in the eighteenth century the idea that one leader (let alone an elected leader) would peacefully turn over the leadership of a nation to another leader was a radically new idea.

The generation of Americans who founded the United States was unsure that their “experiment” would work. However, the first transitions went well, and by James Madison’s inauguration in 1809 this peaceful succession became something to commemorate. Artists like Thomas Gimbrede began to produce prints depicting these players on this new World stage. In 1812 Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his new print.

 Grimbrede engraving

Madison and his wife Dolley were well aware of their place in this newly formed government. In 1804, the Madisons began collecting portraits of the presidents, beginning with one of then-president Thomas Jefferson, under whom James was serving as Secretary of State, as well as one of George Washington. By the early 1820s they had also acquired portraits of John Adams, our second president, and James Monroe, our fifth. Many visitors to Montpelier noted these portraits were displayed in the Drawing Room of the house, including one who observed that they were all “hanging together in a corner of the room” (“Mr. Madison. (Extract of a Letter),” Salem Gazette (Salem, MA), 11/20/1835).

As part of the restoration of Montpelier, the architectural research team mapped all of the nail holes that survived in the plaster of the Drawing Room–the only room in the mansion to retain its original plaster. Using this physical evidence in conjunction with visitor descriptions, the curatorial department determined that the presidential portraits were displayed on the wall to the right as one enters the room.

arrangement of portraits

The size of the known portraits and the length of the wall indicated that no more than three portraits could have been hung in a row. The physical evidence supported this possibility, as there were nail holes evident that could have been used for the nails to hang three portraits. In addition evidence of a nail hole right below the cornice suggested another location from which an additional portrait could have been hung. Given that Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his print several years before the Madisons retired to Montpelier, the combined evidence suggested that in a portrait group of presidential portraits the one of George Washington would be raised higher than the others to give it prominence and to suggest his elevated station as the first president.

Notably, the Madisons chose not to hang James’ portrait in the middle of this presidential grouping. They instead hung it along side of his wife Dolley on the opposite wall. Perhaps suggesting a certain sense of humility, this choice most certainly indicates the Madisons’ wish to be presented alongside of one another to the many visitors they entertained.

Madison portraits 

to be continued…

Image credits: Thomas Gimbrede print “American Star,” Library of Congress. The paintings illustrated are copies of those believed to have originally been owned by the Madisons including: Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, Clarkson University; Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, National Portrait Gallery; Portrait of James Monroe by John Vanderlyn, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The original portraits of James and Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart are owned respectively by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and The White House. Montpelier Drawing Room photographs copyright Montpelier Foundation.

Montpelier Restoration Update – 8/6/2008

August 6, 2008



The painters continue to prepare and prime the trim in M-108 (Drawing Room). They have also started to prime the reconstructed window sashes.




Gene Lyman and Keith Forry have installed the doors between M-104 (Mr. Madison’s Room) and M-105 (Dining Room), M-101 (North Wing, East Closet) and M-102 (North Wing Passage), and M-102 and M-105 (Dining Room). Gene has also started to install the mortise locks for the doors. The mortise is first cut with a router attached to an automated mortising jig. The mortise is then deepened to match the depth of our reproduction locks with a forstner drill bit. Finally, a shallow, rectangular mortise is cut with a chisel to receive the lock’s mounting flange.


Keith Forry also continues to repair the doors and he is currently working on the front door to the Mansion. This door was originally installed in circa 1812 and was painted light blue by the last owner of Montpelier.




Blaise Gaston continues to make interior doors and reproduction iron screws. The reconstructed shutters are also currently being milled at Gaston and Wyatt’s mill shop in Charlottesville, Virginia. A computerized router that mills the individual pieces of the shutter directly from an AutoCAD drawing is being used produce individual pieces of the shutter. The above video was shot at Gaston and Wyatt and the new shutters are copies of the original Madison shutters. The original shutters were removed and placed into a barn on the Montpelier estate by the duPonts in circa 1901.

M-008 (South Wing Cellar Passage)

Bill Bichell has installed the new doors on cellar passage’s east and west doorways. These doors were not found in the Madison house (the cellar passages were originally left open to the elements) and the new doors are being installed to help regulate the cellar’s environment.


M-100 (North Wing Room)


Mason Kevin Neito has re-laid the brick hearth in fireplace.


M-108 (Drawing Room)


Mason Kevin Neito is patching the small cracks in the plaster around the windows and doors.




Mac Ward is installing the decking for the South Wing’s east deck. He has also partially cut out a bed joint in the masonry just above the decking in order to install the flashing.

The original Madison road in front of the Mansion has been finished and the gravel base has been installed. The picture above shows a view of the road that would have been seen by visitors or slaves returning to the house from Madison’s stable (which was located near the recently completed visitor center). This is the first time in over 150 years that we have been able to see this view and this road will serve as the main visitor path to the Mansion.

Kevin Neito is repairing the damaged bricks on the east elevation of the North Wing. He is using pigmented lime putty to infill any bricks that have lost major amounts of material. These bricks have proven to be very fragile and so the repairs will also serve to protect the surviving brick behind them.

Les Lamois and Thomas Tyler are raising the grade around and under the Colonnade. By raising the grade they are ensuring that water will not be able to pool against the foundation and drain into the cellar.

The archaeologists have been looking for a kitchen that was built by Madison in circa 1797. Today they found evidence for what they believe is the kitchen’s southeastern corner and so it looks like much of the building’s footprint has survived intact under the later duPont kitchen. Check out the Montpelier archaeology blog in the coming weeks to learn more about this exciting discovery (http://www.montpelier.org/latest_dirt/).

Montpelier Restoration Update – 1/16/2008 through 1/23/2008

January 24, 2008


wayne browncoating 104

The masons have put the scratch coat onto the walls and ceiling of M-105 (Dining Room). A brown coat has also been applied to the walls and ceiling of M-104 (Mr. Madison’s Room). Currently, they are putting a brown coat onto the ceiling of M-105. Plastering in M-100 (North Wing Chamber) has been completed and, since the walls will be coated with a dark yellow distemper, they have not been whitewashed.



Dino priming 100 Jack painting 205 Ropey paint 205

Dino Copeland has finished prepping Dolley Kitchen for painting and has started to prep M-100. Jack Fisher has also started to apply the hand-ground, linseed-oil based paints to the second floor trim. This traditional paint is very similar to what Madison would have used (minus the white lead pigment) and forms a “ropey” texture that is a defining characteristic of hand-ground paints.



Blaise Gaston has started to layout and carve the flutes and composition ornament impressions for the chair rail in M-108 (Drawing Room). When this chair rail is finished and installed, it will be the highest status chair rail in the house.


M-109 (South Passage)

gene repairing paneling

Gene Lyman continues to repair pieces of the South passage’s circa 1765 wainscot

M-106 (North Passage)

mac finishing main section of rail landing rail 1 landing rail 2 106 stair upper railing 106

Mac Ward continues to install the stair railing. To securely fit a small section of the hand rail between two newels on the landing, he has cut mortises into both newels and installed a square, scarf-jointed wooden inner rail into the openings. After the rail was set, he then hollowed out a section of the finished railing and slipped it over the inner rail. This technique allows for a stable railing that does not have any visible joints or fasteners.


M-108 (Drawing Room)

ed-cutting-baseboard-blog-123200826.jpg ed installing cap 108

Ed Gomez continues to install and repair the baseboard for this room. In the course of removing an existing piece of baseboard he found a section of original baseboard that had been re-used as a shim in circa 1880. This piece of baseboard originally butted against the plinth of the stone chimney surround and provides evidence for how the baseboard and base cap terminated against the chimney piece during Madison’s ownership.


M-118 (South Wing Chamber)

Keith cuttin basecap keith installing basecap 118

Keith Forry is installing reconstructed caps on the baseboards in this room. All of the caps had been removed when Marion duPont converted the space into her “Red Room” in the 1930s. The Red Room was an art deco designed living room/parlor and was one of the most iconic spaces in the duPont’s Montpelier. Because of its importance it has been re-installed in duPont wing of the new Montpelier visitor center.

Bill installing nailer for cornerbeads

Bill Bichell is also installing the cornerbeads on the face of the chimney stack. Prior to installing the beads, wooden nailers first need to be inserted into the bead joints of the masonry.



M-002 (North Cellar Passage)

002 winder framing olivier installing treads

Olivier Dupont-Huin has installed the stringers for this stair and has started to install the treads.



laying out colonnade deck railing

The ipe sleepers have been installed and the carpenters are assembling the deck panels and laying out the Chinese railing that will encircle the deck.



Mark Soldering downspout installing downspout

Roofers from Martin Roofing have finished installing the copper downspouts for the gutter system.