George Washington had a fascination with exotic animals. As a result of a growing number of traveling entertainers and showmen who toured 18th-century America with unusual creatures, Washington, his family, and other members of the American public gained opportunities to experience animals native to other continents, such as elephants and camels. When word circulated about an upcoming event involving the display of an exotic animal, Washington often paid for himself and members of his household to attend the viewing. For instance, as early as January 1761, Washington spent 10 shillings to see a “Lyoness.” And in December 1787, Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel from Alexandria, Va., to Mount Vernon “for a show.” Washington’s attendance at such displays, even during periods when he was absorbed in domestic or public business, or in presiding over the burgeoning new nation, demonstrates his keen interest in such animals.
Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
According to his presidential household accounts, on April 5th, 1794, George Washington “pd. for 8 tickets to see automatons by order.” These automatons were mechanical creations made of wood or plaster, operated by “hidden springs and gears.” With the ability to perform many different complex actions, such as writing, dancing, and imitating human movements, automatons created a source of lively entertainment for spectators.
Unlike George Washington, Francis Hopkinson seems to have craved attention, enjoying both the public eye—and ear. From his days as a student at the College of Philadelphia through an impressive career as lawyer, statesman, judge, scientist, and inventor, Hopkinson often spoke publicly and wrote extensively. What few realize about him, though, is that he was intimately involved in shaping Americans’ opinions before, during and after the Revolutionary War—through song lyrics.
I hear a lot of myths surrounding the Washingtons since I have the honor of portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the opportunity to bring her story to life every day through first-person interpretation. It’s a job I cherish, partly because it has led me to meet many wonderful people who are dedicated to telling the Washingtons’ story with truth and passion like the good people at The Washington Papers.
Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
Parades, feasts, and festivals were, in the words of historian Simon Newman, “essential components of early national popular political culture.” In the late eighteenth century, these activities allowed regular Americans to participate in politics to a greater extent than ever before. 1 In the nineteenth century, the public pageantry of parades became a more official and hierarchical (and more white and male) component of political party organization. However, in the 1780s and 1790s, participation in public political celebrations usually included a broad and diverse collection of citizens.
Janet Livingston Montgomery demonstrated the traditional gender ideals of the early American republic by educating herself and her surrogate sons; embodying a sentimental view of courtship, marriage, and widowhood; and symbolizing republican virtues.1 In addition, she assumed a more progressive stance by surpassing these conventions, and actively engaging with and influencing the political culture around her.
Christmas celebrations have changed radically since George Washington’s presidency. The new republic that Washington had guided into being was only beginning to create itself as a nation and had little unifying cultural identity. The 13 states differed significantly among themselves, including in how their new citizens observed—or ignored—Christmas.
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.