Fresh Look at Martha Washington
Monday, February 2, 2009; 1:00 PM
"Our image of the mother of our country, vague and insubstantial as it is, is drawn from portraits painted after her death showing a frumpy, dumpy, plump old lady, a fussy jumble of needlework in her lap, wearing what could pass for a shower cap with pink sponge rollers rolled too tight underneath," says Washington Post staff writer Brigid Schulte.
"But today, 250 years after Martha and George tied the knot, a handful of historians are seeking to revamp the former first lady's fusty image, using the few surviving records of things she wrote, asking forensic anthropologists to do a computerized age-regression portrait of her in her mid-20s and, perhaps most importantly, displaying for the first time in decades the avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that she wore on her wedding day.
Schulte was online Monday, Feb. 2, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the revised "edition" of America's first lady.
A transcript follows.
Brigid Schulte: Hello everyone.
Thanks so much for joining me to talk about Martha Washington -- how she has been viewed throughout our nation's history and how recent research is bringing to light an entirely different -- and decidedly less fat and frumpy -- side. I look forward to your questions, observations and comments.
New Orleans, La.: Hi Brigid, a D.C. friend just alerted me to your super story. What a great job of getting to the essence of the debate about Martha Washington! I loved it. -- Pat Brady, author of Martha Washington: An American Life
Brigid Schulte: Hi Pat,
Thanks so much for the comment. Since you are the expert here -- ladies and gentlemen of the chatroom, this is historian Patricia Brady whose research and book really got the ball rolling in revising the world's view of Martha Washington. Pat -- I'm going to ask you to stay online throughout the chat and add your views.
New York, N.Y.: What an interesting read! She looks quite beautiful in the picture. Are there any portraits of a young George Washington?
Brigid Schulte: Hi, New York.
Yes. Martha had a portrait commissioned of George when he was in his 40s. It hangs now at Mt. Vernon. You can see it online on their website.
Reading, Pa.: Martha in her own way was like a mother counterpart to George. The young nation needed that. I'm not much of a fan of fancy shoes but I wonder what those velvet slippers cost and what their value would be today?
Brigid Schulte: That's a good question. No doubt they were very expensive. Martha, at the time, was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, having inherited five plantations once her first husband died. And, true to the times, if you had wealth, you really flaunted it at parties and events like weddings -- wearing your finest, making sure you had the best clothes ordered from London in the deepest, richest colors. Those colors were what set the upper classes apart from the poorer or working class colonialists at the time, who wore homespun clothes in the only colors available at the time -- browns, beiges and tans.
Columbus, Ohio: Where did the idea of the "frumpy" Mrs. Washington start? Or are those pictures accurate as she got on in life?
Brigid Schulte: The frumpy image started pretty much after she died. Most of the most famous images of her -- looking old, stern, dowdy and wearing a lace bonnet -- were painted after she died. A curator at Mt. Vernon has an interesting theory that it was somehow comforting for such a young country, founded as a democracy, such a new and untested form government, to see its leaders as older, stately and dignified.
Martha was also a very private person. She once described life as First Lady as akin to being a "state prisoner." She disliked the limelight.
The view of Martha and George being more or less marble statues, the father and mother of the country, stuck pretty much throughout the 19th century, historians say.
Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a strain in popular culture that began to call Martha crabby and difficult to deal with, historians say. Though no one who held the view at the time seemed to offer any evidence for it.
On the contrary, there are numerous letters from Martha's era talking about how charming she was and how she could make anyone feel at home -- even in the cold, discouraging winters of Valley Forge, where she stayed with George throughout the Revolutionary War.
Nevada City, Calif.: Hi! What a historic mishap! She was beautiful. Have the forensics created a full body image yet?
Brigid Schulte: Ha!
From what I understand, they used the facial bone structure from the miniature made of her in middle age, and for coming up with her body -- they used purchase orders for clothes from that era, where you couldn't fib about your size (like ahem, we all tend to do on our driver licenses) -- because the clothes were expensive and coming from London. You had to be honest or you'd waste a lot of money. Purchase orders from that time, historians say, not her slim waist, her small hands, her delicate frame. She stood about 5 feet tall. She was tiny in stature.
Sturbridge, Mass.: No questions at the moment, but enjoyed the article, and Ms. Brady's book will be on my Amazon wish list in just a minute.
Brigid Schulte: Thanks for your comment. Good news, Pat!
Salem, Ore.: Hello, Brigid. Have you discovered some of Martha's interests as first lady? Was she interested in the typical things most first ladies devote themselves to, or was she more interested in the war her husband had lead? Did she have a political vent?
Brigid Schulte: This is such an interesting question. Like so many women in history, not much is known about her and her views, first because she burned all the letters she and George wrote to each other, but also because throughout history, the Great Man Theory gave little attention to women unless they were players on the great stage.
Martha was very much a woman of her time. She is not, as some may wish, some kind of proto feminist. She was educated, but not necessarily an intellectual. She was capable -- after her first husband died, she herself ran the plantations and bargained with tobacco merchants in London. But she clearly saw her role as being a support to George.
What people forget, however, is that she spent five of eight winters with George while the Revolutionary War was being fought -- making a home for him and keeping him together so he could in turn keep his troops together. It is clear she believed in him and the cause.
New Orleans, La.: You know, Brigid, everyone may not be aware of the new life-sized statues of Washington now on display at Mt. Vernon's museum/education center. They were done using the latest scientific methods and show him as a strapping young man. Very interesting. Pat
Brigid Schulte: Good point. Everyone, check it out.
Burke, Va.: Who was Martha married to prior to GW? How old was she when she married this man? And was it common for women then to have had four pregnancies by the mid-20s? Very interesting story. Even the GW mini-series portrayed Martha as short and dumpy as played by Patty Duke.
Brigid Schulte: Martha Washington, born Martha Dandridge, married Daniel Parke Custis when she was 18. He was about 20 years her senior. She had had four pregnancies by the time he died when she was 26. A daughter had died just months before he did -- suddenly. She was 27 when she met and married George Washington.
And the mini-series drew very much upon the Washington scholarship of the 1960s and 70s. Remember, Washington's passionate letters to Sally Fairfax were found in the Harvard Library in 1958 -- that colored the contemporary view of Washington -- prominent historians wrote that he spent his life pining for Sally and he "settled" for Martha, who was a rich widow that historians of the time portrayed as dumpy and a mousy homebody.
Arlington, Va.: Martha as a hottie: Where, in a suitor's list, would good looks stand, in relation to wealth, status, fertility, etc., in terms of 18th century Virginia/Colonial plantation/upper class society? Would looks be an afterthought, and that's another reason why everyone has viewed Martha as far less than "Miss Virginia" 1759? And, was Sally Fairfax really a fox, or did she just bat her baby blues to the men?
Brigid Schulte: Clearly, for someone who wanted to climb the social ladder and was ambitious, as young Washington clearly was, status and wealth were paramount in the public sphere.
Looks, while less important, certainly didn't hurt in the private sphere I would imagine!
And as far as Sally being a fox -- that's such a good question. There's one portrait of her from the time, but who knows how good a likeness it is. And tastes and notions of beauty change over time.
It's clear that George was clearly infatuated with her as a young man. And there is something special about that first love ...
New Orleans, La.: Just to add a point about her politics -- when Washington, Edmund Pendleton, and Patrick Henry rode away in 1774 to serve in the first Continental Congress, she waved them off, saying, "I hope you will stand firm -- I know George will." - Pat Brady
Brigid Schulte: Excellent point.
Ashburn, Va.: Martha might be tiny by today's standards, but the average 18th century American woman was 5'3", so she wasn't that much shorter. Of course, General Washington was 6'3", so she would have seemed tiny to him.
The picture of her as a young woman looks remarkably like a young friend of mine who is descended from several of the first families of Virginia, one of them being the Dandridges.
Brigid Schulte: Interesting!
What I found most interesting in the age regression is that it wasn't fanciful, wishful thinking -- wanting to make Martha into someone she was not -- but based on exacting science -- to bring someone we had forgotten or never knew back to life, so to speak.
Fairfax, Va.: Rather than focus on her looks, I would be more interested in Martha's politics. In a graduate history class, we had an interesting discussion positing that Martha was the reason George did not come out against slavery following the Revolution. There is reason to believe George was sympathetic to the anti-slavery position based on his relationships with Lafayette, etc. Because Martha brought much of the economic power to the relationship (via land and slaves), she would seem less likely to support giving up the free labor necessary to run her substantial land holdings. Martha may have been a hottie, but she was also a businesswoman.
Brigid Schulte: Interesting points. Martha clearly was a woman of her times. At Mt. Vernon, they write that Martha even felt hurt when a slave ran away, wondering why they would prefer a life on their own up north rather than at Mt. Vernon.
Crofton, Md.: Are there many of her clothes still intact? They would give an accurate picture of her size I would assume. Also, is it known why she burned her correspondence from George? Is it assumed to have been a love match since she had multiple properties of her own? I love those shoes!
Brigid Schulte: The curators at Mt. Vernon said that many of Martha's descendants decided to cut up her clothes so that each could have a piece of her, so to speak. Along with the shoes is an oddly shaped piece of cloth, believed to be part of her gold damask wedding dress.
And as far as being a love match, I don't think historians are going that far. It may not have started as a love match, but, they argue, it grew into a partnership and into a deep loving relationship.
Arlington, Va.: Hi, Brigid. What was the background reason for the custom of destroying written correspondence when a spouse died? And what did Martha know/think of GW's 'thang' for Sally Fairfax?
Brigid Schulte: Ha!
Apparently, it was not at all unusual for prominent people of that era to destroy their letters. (I know, hard to believe in this era of Reality TV, YouTube and 15 minutes of fame.) She was intensely private and wanted to keep their relationship that way as well. Thomas Jefferson, too, burned the letters he and his wife wrote one another before she died.
As to Sally Fairfax -- it is interesting to note that Sally and her husband lived "next door" one plantation over to George and Martha and the four were quite good friends.
When Martha's daughter died in her teens, very few people were invited to the funeral, but historians note that the Fairfaxes were. So -- if there was a youthful infatuation or passion, it appears to have moderated over time.
George did write a letter to both Sally and her husband, George Fairfax, in later life saying that the times he spent at their house were "among the happiest" in his life.
Some historians took that letter as further evidence that Washington pined for Sally throughout his life.
But -- in fact, Washington wrote the letter to George Fairfax and was quite emotional, because he had just returned from seeing the ruins of their house (they had since moved away to England). That letter also carried another letter from Martha to Sally.
Central Mass: Thanks for an interesting article. How old was George when they married? What year was it? (I apologize for my rusty memory of American history!)
Brigid Schulte: George was nearly 27 and Martha was 27 years old when they married on Jan. 6, 1759.
Anonymous: Why do you think this story has such legs? It seems to have touched something in our collective psyche?
Brigid Schulte: Good question. To me, it shows how imperfect our understanding of history is, and how, depending on the needs of the fashions of the times, how we often change the meaning of the narrative to suit our times. I think when something comes up that challenges our collective narrative and forces us to rethink the past in a fresh way -- it is somehow liberating.
Minneapolis, Minn.: It makes sense that we should not judge Martha Washington's youthful appearance by a portrait painted later in her life. After all, if the only portrait we had of Marie Antoinette was this one, we probably would think she was an old frump, too!
Brigid Schulte: Wow. So true. Check this out.
I think it would be unfair to all of us to be judged for our lives based on how we looked at the end of them. I wonder if the popular notion that Martha was crabby that surfaced sometime around the turn of the 20th century was based simply on the fact that that's how people interpreted the way she looked in those old portraits?
Rosslyn, Va.: Would Washington's letters to Sally Fairfax have seemed as racy as they do to us today? Or was this more a case of "courtly love"?
Brigid Schulte: Good question. It was a very different era and people wrote to each other and a far different and more formal language than we're accustomed to today.
D.C.: Does this mean that Martha Washington has surpassed Jackie Kennedy as the most stylish first lady?
Brigid Schulte: Hmmm. Martha was a clothes horse and did like her nice things. But that was in her prime. By the time George became president, she was an older woman. So I think Jackie still comes out on top for stylishness in office.
Philadelphia, Pa.: While I understand the people who painted their original portraits wanted to convey the message that the Washingtons come across as stately elder leaders, what guards against our modern desires that we might perhaps be going overboard in trying to remake Martha Washington as a "hot" modern woman?
Brigid Schulte: Well -- are we going overboard? Or are we simply, as historian Pat Brady said, "reclaiming" her? Giving her her more authentic life back?
She uncovered a surprising letter of the times, from another of Martha's suitors who wrote to his brother about how beautiful and charming she was and that he hoped to "arouse a flame in her breast." -- which sounded like he wanted more than just her money.
Brigid Schulte: Thanks everyone for such a lively and spirited discussion about the past and how it still lives on as we interpret and reinterpret it! And thanks, too, to Pat Brady for chiming in with her insights.
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