A colorful, albeit a bit light, source for women’s history is the collection of letters written home by Mary Boardman Crowninshield (1778-1840), the wife of Benjamin Crowninshield, a congressman and Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Madison and Monroe. On the surface, Mary’s and Benjamin’s marriage looks like a typical Salem mercantile merger, but not so typical was her decision (or maybe it was their decision) to accompany her husband to Washington in the fall of 1815. The letters describing their trip, by carriage and steamship, and residence in Washington over the next few months were published by Mrs. Crowninshield’s great-grandson, Francis Boardman Crowninshield, in 1905, and they yield some interesting insights into the Washington social scene in the immediate aftermath of the British occupation of the city and burning of the White House in general, and what everyone was wearing (most prominently First Lady Dolley Madison) in particular.
Mrs. Crowninshield was clearly an observant and detail-oriented woman, but her lengthy descriptions of the dress of the women whom she encountered really stand out in comparison with her briefer assessments of events or her surroundings. Almost as soon as she arrives in Washington, she calls on Mrs. Madison in the Octagon House, where she takes note of the blue damask curtains and finds the First Lady dressed in a white cambric gown, buttoned all the way up in front, a little strip of work along the button-holes, but ruffled around the bottom. A peach-bloom-colored silk scarf with a rich border over her shoulders by her sleeves. She had on a spencer of satin in the same color, and likewise a turban of velour gauze, all of peach bloom. She looked very well indeed. You can’t expect Mrs. Crowninshield to get excited about the architecture: she hailed from Samuel McIntire’s Salem! But one would like to see some mention of the rebuilding of Washington, the slaves who lived in the Octagon House along with the Madisons, maybe a bit of politics: but no, it’s really all about who wore what where and when.
Historical artist Peter Waddell’s depiction of the Octagon House in Washington, Mary Boardman’s childhood home on Salem Common, and the Salem house of the Crowninshields, where they entertained President Monroe in 1817, now the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women.
Well, if that’s what she wants to write about let’s go with it; these are her letters after all! She seems to be almost as impressed with the dresses of Mrs. Monroe as Mrs. Madison: the former is “very elegant”, dressed in “very fine muslin lined with pink” on one occasion and “sky-blue striped velvet” on another, both times with velvet turbans embellished with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield clearly is intimidated/impressed by all these velvet turbans in Washington: she has insufficient velvet and no feathers at all, and as they are very dear she combs her braided hair as high up as possible and weaves in flowers and ornaments—including a golden butterfly which Mrs. Madison actually admires. There is great concern about trim: Mrs. Crowninshield orders some very nice dresses from a Washington mantua-maker but implores her mother to send some red velvet trim from Salem along with Judge Story—–a Supreme Court Justice—when he makes his way back to Washington! And he does. This seems like the most insightful detail of Mrs. Crowninshield’s letters: imagine a Supreme Court Justice as a clothing courier!
Peter Waddell’s recreation of one of Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday Squeezes” with many turbans and feathers in evidence, White House Historical Association; the capture and burning of Washington in 1814, New York Historical Society. Mrs. Madison continued to be an active hostess in her temporary quarters, which Mrs. Crowninshield tells us all about, but she does not have much to say about the post-war state of Washington.
But back to Dolley Madison, of whom Mrs. Crowninshield has the most to say, as she attended several events over the holidays in December of 1815 and January of 1816 hosted by the First Lady. Mrs. Crowninshield admires everything about Dolley—her demeanor, her apparent kindness, her ability to converse with ease—but above all, her clothes. Either Dolley rescued her famous wardrobe from the burning White House along with George Washington’s portrait or she replenished it with purpose. At a New Year’s Day reception, Mrs. Madison was dressed in a yellow satin embroidered all over with sprigs of butterflies, not two alike in the dress; a narrow border in all colors; made high in the neck; a little cape, long sleeves, and a white bonnet with feathers. That’s quite a close observation. At a Wednesday night levee, Mrs. Madison was adorned in muslin dotted in silver over blue and a beautiful blue turban with feathers. Mrs. Crowninshield noted that I have never seen her look so well and was clearly very pleased that Dolley had remarked that they “thought alike”, as she was dressed in blue as well. The last description of Dolley’s dress refers to a more elaborate dinner party, in which she was dressed in black velvet trimmed with gold [and] a worked lace turban in gold with a lace and gold kind of thing over her shoulders and looked “brilliant” in Mrs. Crowninshield’s worshipful estimation. Not long after this event, Mary Crowninshield returned to Salem, where the Reverend Bentley seems to have visited her immediately, in search of all the Washington gossip as well as her opinions of both the President and the First Lady. In her last letter, to her husband who remained in the capitol, she admits that I think I never shall want to go from home again.
Dolley Madison’s yellow silk “butterfly gown (s)” ? at the Smithsonian: the First Ladies Hall and a 1934 Curt Teich postcard.