Sunday, April 10, 2016

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington: From Fashion to Family

In all of my busy-ness I've been reading lots of books. Last winter I chose one book from my bookcase that I had purchased years ago when I lived in Texas. I decided it was time for me to read Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady. It seemed to be a good choice since I had been on a roll reading several other books about her and her famous husband, George Washington, and their lovely home of Mount Vernon. This book though is the single-most volume I've found to focus so greatly on this esteemed first lady. A lady who was the first in so many ways.


One of the reasons why there aren't a lot of great books full of information on Martha Washington is because she understandably led a private life. She burned most of her letters from her husband. (A couple have survived. In fact, in one of our family homeschool history presentations I portrayed Martha Washington, receiving this letter. It was quite moving. I could identify with her greatly. Click the previous link to read the beautiful love letter from George Washington.) However Patricia Brady took lots of facts that were known about Martha Washington and wove those into her story, using the facts of Virginia society and the early Republic.

The book opens, of course with Martha's birth, or more specifically the backstory to her birth. We learn how her parents and their parents settled the early wilderness of Virginia. That alone makes this a fascinating read. It's a peak into how Virginia used to be and how it grew. The Virginia we know now is not the Virginia of the 17th and 18th century. Martha's background and the background of those she knew and loved, in many ways, paved their way.

Many assumptions can be made about Martha because we do know that the training of deportment was important in Virginia society. We also know that Martha was esteemed highly throughout her life. Thus is is reasonable to assume that she learned proper manners, or deportment. She may not have had French, art, or music lessons like girls her age from wealthier homes. However we can be certain that she learned at least the basics. Thus by piecing together all the details that were definitely known of Martha, like her growing up on a small plantation, the author made long lists and descriptions of what we can assume about her.

As I was reading this book, I saw how invaluable it would be for any interpreter to put together a proper persona. In fact, I had to laugh that a few days after I had finished reading this book, one of Colonial Williamsburg's interpreters who portrays the Martha Washington of the early years of marriage to George Washington wrote a blog about her journey. She used this very same book and the one detail that spoke volumes to her was discovering a saddle for Martha in the inventory. (Um, I think that was the detail. I've read the article linked above slowly the first time when it was first published. I thought that is where I read it. I keep skimming tonight but I don't see the horse details anywhere. But the actress did get excited about the horse details in her interpretation formation. I'm not sure if it was the discovery of the saddle or the riding habit that excited her the most.)  Since the actress rides horses in her free time, she now had a historical reason to portray Martha Washington while riding a horse.

We not only learn that Martha learned her social graces, how to run a household, and that she was an excellent horsewoman, but that she also used her strength of wisdom and wit to convince a stodgy old man  that she was the one who should marry his son, Daniel Custis. By the way, Daniel Custis had already been courting her but his father, John, was a bit of a troublemaker and initially stood in the way of marriage. Incidentally it is John Custis' house that you see in Colonial Williamsburg, on the Duke of Gloucester Street at the end of the Palace Green, near the colonial nursery. The home is known today as the Custis Tenement and he has a grand garden. My children and I posed for pictures in front of it one May. He was renown for testing seeds and plantings and such in his garden in the  early days of Virginia.


I also love how this book describes the mercantilism which was the economy of Virginia while under British rule. (You can see our research on mercantilism in Colonial Williamsburg here.) Much detail was put into fashion in the 18th century, from fashioning the home to fashioning the body. Specific details from the Custis inventories are revealed. Again details were easily pulled from inventories and such documentation that was popular in the day to allow us a glimpse into Martha's life in every facet of Virginia society.   

Never extreme in her dress, Patsy (Martha) liked elegant fabrics, bright colors, and fashionable, but not exaggerated styles. Daniel had to learn her taste; early in their marriage, he started to order satin for a ball gown, only to scratch it out and amend it to her favorite blue. Patsy took pleasure in the luxury of buying a dozen pairs of kid gloves at a time or an ivory fan in the latest London fashion. Every year when the tobacco ships arrived, she unpacked her purchases from their chests-silk stockings for her slim legs, a black satin hat, white or flowered calico for a summer dress, purple and crimson pumps, a quilted crimson petticoat against winter's drafts, a scarlet riding habit. (Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady, p37) 

Before long, the family began to grow. Four children were born. Two of them died.

No doubt it was during this afflicting period that Patsy Custis developed her life long anxiety about her children, which went hand in hand with her intense love for them. She delighted in their company but was always fearful of illness, accident or death. Losing her firstborn son-she always favored boys-forever made her an overanxious mama. (46) 
Then her husband died.

Patsy had little time to express her grief, other than in action. A local seamstress was called in to alter a gown and make mourning dresses for her; a tailor came to make black mourning suits for Jacky and the male house servants. In Daniel's account book, the date of his last memorandum was 1757, shortly before he died. Turning the page, the reader suddenly sees Patsy Custis 's neat and well-formed handwriting as she took up her husband's responsibilities two weeks after his death, listing the items the plantations needed from England. She plunged straight in, ordering two seines, or large nets for shad fishing in the Pamunkey. Her description of the desired nets is carefully detailed...She went on to other mundane items such as starch, cotton for the slaves' clothing, pins, thread, and castile soap.
Then she turned to "One handsome Tombstone of the best durable Marble to cost about 100 pounds (very expensive)-with the following Inscription and the Arms sent in a Piece of Paper on it, to wit 'Here Lies the Body of Daniel Parke Custis Esquire who was born the 15th day of Oct. of 1711 & departed this Life the 8th Day of July 1757. Age 45 years.'" In her letter to Robert Cary, her English factor, she included two locks of hair for the  jeweler, probably in a separate sealed piece of paper. She ordered two gold mourning rings in honor of Daniel and little Fanny, their tresses to be covered in clear crystal. (50-51)
 Soon she met George Washington, whom we all know married her and took her and her children home to Mount Vernon. He wrote,"I am now I believe fixd at this Seat with an agreeable Consort for Life and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling World." (73)

And thus we know most of the rest of the story. Yet the details have been discovered or logically assumed by the author, never created. By using the frequent cataloguing that the 18th century was so happy to do (and we are happy to have) and correspondences and writings of family, friends and acquaintances, we have a more full detail at her life with her beloved family.

Of Martha's two children that were alive when she married George Washington, both died. In her bereavement, she raised two grandchildren and became close friends with her daughter-in-law. The grandchildren grew up and married. More children were born. Cousins and nieces came to visit and live and keep Martha company. She always surrounded herself with love.

It is truly quite a complexity to keep up with all the family members, that I am not going to make sense of all that in this already lengthy blog post. However I will share that reading this book, after having read all the other Washington books in my personal library, drove me to attempt a family tree. There are family trees at the front of the book, but I wanted to know how many more greats and grands were born to the children of the children. Then I started stumbling upon their various homes after Mount Vernon. Martha's grandchildren adored their step-grandfather and loved Mount Vernon. However, none of them inherited their beloved home when George and Martha passed away. Instead the home went to George Washington's nephews. (More on that in a future post.)

Where did Martha's grandchildren go to live? I started investigating and tracking all the homes and made some surprising discoveries. For one, one of the grand homes is now a famous airport! Some homes are still standing. Some of those are in excellent condition, while others are in need of repair. Yet others are now in ruins. This summer for part of our stay-cation, we not only went mansion hunting but we also went 18th century ruins hunting!  It was truly quite interesting and gave us a fuller sense of the past. Stay tuned for photos and descriptions of this journey!

PS This book covers so much more than just fashion and family. Those are just two themes I chose for  my blog post. This is a most worthy book for all!

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