Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Washington's Philadelphia Household

This is a neat look into the household records of Washington when he was living in Philadelphia.  Here are some interesting tidbits from it:
For most of his presidency, Washington lived in a rented house in Philadelphia that served as both home and office. His household there consisted of his wife, Martha Washington; her two grandchildren, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis; secretaries; and a household staff consisting of both servants and slaves. What did this household buy?  To keep the house running, they bought ice in January to store in the ice house and use later on, wood and candles, the services of chimney sweeps, brooms for the stable, oats for the horses, and “grease for the horses feet.”

In March 1794, Washington paid for “mending an umbrella to be kept at the door.” This is something we can all relate to – who doesn’t keep an umbrella by the door? But Washington had his umbrella mended – something that likely most of us don’t do. Washington’s umbrella was made by hand, possibly in Philadelphia, and it would have been expensive, worth mending.

The Washingtons bought themselves things that defined their status as a well-to-do 18th-century family: gloves for servant Patrick Kennedy to wear while placing “table ornaments;” hair powder for the president; feathers and ribbons for the first lady; French and painting lessons, a harpsichord and a “pair of gold ear drops” for Eleanor Custis; a Latin book and fishing tackle for her brother; theater and museum tickets; tailoring and hairdressing; butter, sugar and wine; picture frames; and books and newspapers.

Both George and Martha Washington gave alms to the poor when they encountered them. The president also responded to direct appeals. One came from “two distressed French women,” refugees from the Haitian revolution. Another was from Peregrine Fitzhugh, a Revolutionary War veteran, down on his luck, who raised money for himself with a lottery, offering tracts of land as prizes.

This gives a great glimpse into the staffing and running of the household.  While records like this might seem mundane they are really a treasure trove.  You can even find out about the reading habits:
One of the most revealing things in this little book is the record of the Washingtons’ reading. Martha Washington, who read for both pleasure and enlightenment, bought most of the books. She bought a play, poetry, religious works, geography books, two books about the French Revolution (the worst part of which, the “Terror,” was then in progress), and two books about the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia in 1793. She also bought “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” (1787) by Mary Wollstonecraft, well-known author of the 1792 “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” All of these books are briefly described, so it is hard to tell which edition the first lady bought, but editions of most of them were published in Philadelphia in the 1790s. Mrs. Washington may have seen them in a Philadelphia shop or heard about them at her own dinner table.

Similarly evocative is a March 7, 1794, notation of “sundry books bought by the president.” Maybe that day George Washington grabbed the old umbrella by the door, went out for a walk and wandered into a bookshop. It hadn’t occurred to anybody yet that a president couldn’t go out without a motorcade, even one pulled by horses.

You can also see the entire book this is based from online.

No comments: