Role of Hostess
In the Chesapeake region during the mid-eighteenth century, there were no large cities and few towns of any significant size. Much of the colony’s social life occurred in people’s homes, whether they were one-room shacks or magnificent mansions.
From the time she arrived, Martha was responsible for social life at Mount Vernon. Guests often came unannounced, without having been formally invited. Strangers often arrived bearing letters of introduction from mutual friends.
Martha Washington was known as an excellent hostess. Guests invariably commented on her cheerful disposition, warm manners, and thoughtful attention to her guests. Although she did have the assistance of a large staff of household slaves and white servants, Martha, together with her husband, set the tone, established the pace, and provided the ambiance for her guests.
Demands on Hospitality
The demands were significant. In 1768, after the French and Indian War but long before Washington took charge of the Continental Army, the Washingtons served dinner to guests on almost one-third of the days of the year. They had overnight guests on almost half the days of the year.
As Washington’s national prominence increased, so did the demands on the family’s hospitality. After the presidency, the couple had dinner guests on two-thirds of the days in the year and overnight guests nearly as much of the time. In 1798 alone, more than 650 people came for dinner and over 675 individuals stayed overnight at Mount Vernon.
As members of the Virginia gentry, the Washingtons wished to entertain in a certain genteel style. Women were expected to be gracious and charming as well as hold their own in discussing topical issues of the day. Many men believed that conversing with women could be both pleasant and morally uplifting. As one Virginian put it in 1773, “If Men did not converse with Women, [men] would be less perfect and happy than they are.”
After dinner, the Washingtons often provided musical entertainment for their guests. Martha insisted that all her children and grandchildren learn to play a musical instrument, such as the harpsichord, flute, guitar, or violin. On special occasions, there would be dancing.
George Washington loved to dance, and dancing would have been an important part of sociability at Mount Vernon. The big table in the green dining room would be dismantled and the chairs pushed against the walls. With music playing in the background, men and women would choose partners for the quadrille or line up for the Virginia Reel, or do other fashionable dances. At some point in the evening, men and women would go their separate ways. Men might adjourn to play cards and drink alcohol; women, to drink tea and converse among themselves.
Although enacted in the privacy of Mount Vernon, the rituals of sociability practiced in the Washingtons' home had a larger public significance. Their hospitality not only strengthened family ties and cemented friendships, it also forged the bonds of connection between politicians who would soon become the leaders of the young United States.