Tag Archives: Letters

Mrs. Crowninshield goes to Washington

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.

Mary Crowninshield

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.

The Octagon Peter Waddell

20190325_170556

20190325_165931

20190325_170000Historical 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!

Boardman The-Splendid-Mrs-Madison White House Peter Waddell

7-CaptureOfCityWashington24Aug1814_fullPeter 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's Buterfly gown

Dolley Dress 1934

Dolley Madison’s yellow silk “butterfly gown (s)” ? at the Smithsonian: the First Ladies Hall and a 1934 Curt Teich postcard.


A Charitable Correspondence

Upon the occasion of  Walt Whitman’s birthday, an exchange of letters between the poet, then tending the Civil War wounded in a Washington military hospital (where he first went to search for his missing brother, then remained) and Lucia Russell Briggs of Salem, the wife of George Briggs, the pastor of the First Church.

Letter from Lucia Jane Russell Briggs to Walt Whitman, 21 April 1864

I have been very much interested in your hospital work, of which I have heard through my brother, Dr. Russell of Boston. I inclose seventy–five dollars, which I have collected among a few friends in Salem, and which I hope may be of some little service to our brave boys, who surely should not suffer while we have the power to help them. You have our warmest sympathy in your generous work, and though sad to witness so much suffering, it is indeed a privilege to be able to do something to alleviate it.

I hope to be able to send you an addition to this contribution, and thought of waiting for a larger sum, but I see that you are having numbers of sick sent in to Washington daily, so you will be in immediate want of money.

Very Gratefully Your Friend,

Mrs. George W. Briggs, April 21. Salem, Mass.

To which Whitman replied a mere few days later (as if he didn’t have enough to do!):

Letter from Walt Whitman to Lucia Jane Russell Briggs, 26 April 1864

Your generous remittance of $75 for the wounded & sick was duly received by letter of 21st & is most acceptable. So much good may be done with it. A little I find may go a great ways. It is perhaps like having a store of medicines—the difficulty is not so much in getting the medicines, it is not so important about having a great store, as it is important to apply them by rare perception, honest personal investigation, true love, & if possible the inspiration & tact we in other fields call genius.

The hospitals here are again full, as nearly all last week trains were arriving off & on from front with sick. Very many of these however will be transferred north as soon as practicable.

Unfortunately large numbers are irreparably injured in these jolting railroad & ambulance journeys, numbers dying on the road.—Of these come in lately, diarrhea, rheumatism & the old camp fevers are most prevalent. The wrecks in these forms of so many hundreds of dear young American men come in lately, are terrible, & make one’s heart ache.

Numerically the sick are the last four or five weeks becoming alarmingly greater, & in quality the cases grow more intense. I have noticed a steady deepening of this intensity of the cases of sickness, the year & a half I have been with the soldiers. Hospital accommodations here are being extensively added to. Large tents are being put up, & others got ready.

My friend, you must accept the men’s thanks, through me. I shall remain here among the soldiers in hospital through the summer, with short excursions down in field, & what help you can send me for the wounded & sick I need hardly say how gladly I shall receive it & apply it personally to them.

Walt Whitman

Source: Francis B. Dedmond, “‘Here Among Soldiers in Hospital’: An Unpublished Letter from Walt Whitman to Lucia Jane Russell Briggs” New England Quarterly 59 (December 1986): 547–48, via The Walt Whitman Archive.

3rd Edition of Leaves of Grass

 Walt Whitman, 31 May 1819-26 March 1892



%d bloggers like this: