(The following is a guest post by Julie Miller, specialist in early American history in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)
Think of all the things your household buys and uses. Now think of George Washington. He was the commander of the Continental Army, first president of the United States and the father of our country, but he was not so different. Even though your expenses might include electricity, digital downloads, dry cleaning and gas for your car and his were candles, silver shoe buckles, clothing for his slaves and oats for his horses, the principle is more or less the same: the things we buy say a lot about who we are and the world we live in.
This month, as part of a temporary display on the first three United States presidents on view on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, you can see a small paperbound book containing Washington’s household expenses for 1793 and 1794. Maintained by a secretary (Martha Washington’s nephew, Bartholomew Dandridge), the book records the purchases of George Washington’s household in Philadelphia during a part of his second term as president. This volume is just one of many financial records that Washington kept throughout his life and that are part of the George Washington papers in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
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.
What about the servants and slaves who kept the household going? There are periodic glimpses in these pages of steward Samuel Fraunces receiving cash “to purchase sundries for the household.” Fraunces, who historians largely agree was a free black man from the West Indies, was the innkeeper in whose New York tavern George Washington said goodbye to his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War. He returned to innkeeping after this stint (his second) as Washington’s steward. The other servants appear when they are paid their wages, and at a few other times as with Patrick Kennedy and his gloves.
Overseeing the servants was housekeeper Ann Emerson, a widow with three children, who earned $33.33 per quarter. The slaves, who of course were not paid, appear in this book when the Washingtons bought clothes for them: “stockings for Austin,” “mending or altering boot for John whose foot was sore,” and money given by Mrs. Washington directly to Molly and Oney to buy shoes and stockings for themselves. These people are identifiable as slaves because they are listed here without surnames, something 18th-century slave owners commonly did. They are also mentioned elsewhere in Washington’s papers. Compared to the many details that survive about the Washingtons, these lives are documented by tiny fragments of information.
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.
The information in this book has the effect of drawing us close to the Washington household and at the same time distancing us from it. In some cases their needs and ours are the same: when it rains, we reach for an umbrella, just like George Washington did. But just as we are rooted in the specifics of our own times and places, so were the Washingtons. In their time, the United States was a political experiment and Philadelphia was its capital, the French and Haitian revolutions were in progress, and people lived in terror of yellow fever. Today very few of us rely on a houseful of workers to take care of our needs, people who live in cities no longer keep horses, we benefit from modern medical care and disease prevention, and, most significant of all, we no longer are slaves or own slaves. These are the important things that this little book has to tell us.