Lost Photos of History – Dolley Madison at Montpelier
A visit with Dolley
The year is 1825, and we made yet another visit to Montpelier in our time travel adventures. This time we got to speak more with Dolley Madison, The Great Little Madison’s wife.
“Dolley Madison, the Orange County resident whose fashion sense set trends and whose social expertise brought real bipartisanship to Washington, set the standard followed by later first ladies such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. Madison chose her clothes as carefully as her guest list.”1
We met the Madisons on the front lawn of Montpelier framed by the beautiful Virginia Blue Ridge mountains in the background. I grabbed the camera once again to get a shot of the couple. Dolley greeted us in her red ermine-trimmed overdress that she wore during the War of 1812.
The Madisons of Fashion
James says with a smile, “My beloved Dolley cost me deep in the pockets for her attire. When I was president, Dolley sent William Lee to Paris to assemble her a wardrobe. She wrote to him and told him to draw on me for the amount. I’ve never forgotten the shock of that $2000 bill; it was eight percent of my presidential salary that year.”
Dolley retorts, “My dear little Madison, do you remember what I said to you after you received that bill and balked at it?”
“I am afraid I shall never ask for anything more.”2
James chuckles, “Do not listen to her. Go upstairs and look in that wardrobe of hers. Believe me; she’s asked for a lot more and gotten it.
“Oh, hush Madison.”
Mr. Madison, himself now dressed a little spiffier, surprises us with his colorful attire. Customarily dressed in black, Dolley sees to it that today he is dressed differently.
After our third trip to Montpelier, the once described “gloomy, stiff creature . . . who has nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners – the most unsociable creature in existence,” James Madison has opened up to us. He is now showing us more of his humorous, fun-loving side. A side, that historians note was reserved only for his close friends and family.2
The Romantic Mr. Madison
Dolley then asks us if we would like some ice cream. Of course, we couldn’t resist as the Madisons are known for having some of the best ice cream in the state.
We start to walk to Madison’s temple, where he keeps his ice underneath. He slips his arm around Dolley as they walk, and we see that this couple is still romantic as ever.
I say to Dolley, “I hear you two are quite the couple, happily married and still romantic.
“Oh yes, Dolley says, “Shortly after Madison and I started courting, he recruited my cousin to send me a letter that he approved “with sparkling eyes.” He said that he “thinks so much of me in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of me and starts in his sleep calling on me to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed. Believe me, after all these years of marriage; nothing has changed.”
James then quickly retorts, “Now, you hush, Dolley. Don’t be telling them that!”
Dolley laughs and then says, “Another time, he sent a note to me and said to send a kiss to my friend and “accept a thousand for yourself.” My sister Lucy told me that Madison said that when he kisses me, he’s afraid that he’ll make her mouth water.”4
Somewhat embarrassed, James says, “Dolley, please, is all this necessary? Let’s change the subject.”
Mr. Madison, still embarrassed, does indeed quickly change the subject as he hands us some of Dolley’s best ice cream.
“This is Dolley’s favorite flavor…… oyster. If you don’t like it, we have parmesan, asparagus and chestnut ice cream.”6
I thought to myself, Asparagus ice cream? What, no chocolate? Don’t know if I’m going to like this.
Life Mask Reconstructions
The above images of the Madisons are Photoshop compositions using the faces taken from life masks. The life masks were cast from plaster molds of the head and upper torso in 1825 by J. I. Browere.
Original Life Mask Image Sources: Google Arts & Culture, A view of a life mask of Dolley Madison., James Madison, 1825, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), Plaster, H: 28.5 x W: 21 x D: 11.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0244.1940. Photograph by Richard Walker.
Sources & References:
1Bryan McKenzie. “Montpelier exhibit highlights Dolley’s fashion, social sense.” The Daily Progress, 2 July 2011 https://www.dailyprogress.com/greenenews/news/montpelier-exhibit-highlights-dolleys-fashion-social-sense/article_97001ff2-47e0-5321-8831-c17ecb5b4ace.html
2Conover Hunt. “Getting It Right, The Embellished Obligations Of Dolley Madison.” The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/getting-it-right
3,4,5David O. Stewart. “The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-raucous-home-life-madisons-180954205/
6Molly Yun.”Ice Cream: An American Favorite Since the Founding Fathers” PBS https://www.pbs.org/food/features/ice-cream-founding-fathers/