The Domestic Washington: Paradigm of Colonial Revival (1856-1930's)

Washington's sense of civic duty may have kept him from his cherished Mount Vernon, but biographers report that he never gave up hope that he would someday return to the leisurely, tender environment of his home. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote to a state governor, "I feel myself eased of a load of public care. I will spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good Men, and in the practice of domestic Virtues" (Schwartz 123)

Realizing Washington's attachment to domestic life, the American public often associated him with the warmth of hearth and home, and in doing so, attached a worthiness to domesticity that gained momentum throughout the 1800s. Karal Ann Marling, in her book, George Washington Slept Here, explores the way Washington's domesticity influenced the way Americans embellished their own living spaces. Washington's image, she argues, played a significant part in the Colonial Revival of the 19th century. The image of Washington as an upstanding, practical man tending to the cares of his estate became a prototype for gentlemen and women throughout the country.

The restoration of Mount Vernon stood as the centerpiece of this movement. Virtually crumbling by the middle of the 19th century, Mount Vernon was described by an artist in 1858 as an estate in deterioration, surrounded by "squalor and general neglect" (Marling, 65). Visitors were still able to view the tomb, but the house and grounds were off-limits. After the Civil War, with the celebrations of 1876 just around the bend, citizens began to worry aloud whether the decaying state of their hero's homestead would reflect poorly on their country. People began to form groups focusing on restoring what was already considered a national monument.

A group of women from "the best" Virginia families formed the core of this movement, calling themselves the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. By the late 1800s, the association had succeeded in saving the estate from decay and helped to refocus Washington's association with the domestic world.

The restoration of Mount Vernon included more than new paint and bricks. The interior space, in fact, received the most attention. Over time, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association collected hundreds of colonial antiques and Washington memorabilia to furnish the renovated interior. Spinning wheels, bedsteads, kitchenware and pottery added warmth to the space.

By 1880, Henry Adams' novel, Democracy lauded Mount Vernon as a popular resort. Although the house still needed several finishing touches, it was becoming a shrine of worshipped relics. Thousands of Americans made pilgrimmages to the site, hoping for a taste of the virtuous lifestyle of their beloved hero. In fact, many believed visits to Washington sites like Mount Vernon would improve their moral character. As Marling quotes within her book, one visitor found an "exquisite and friendly serenity which bathes the sense ..., that seems to be charged all through with some meaning or message of benficence and reassurance, but nothing that could be put into words" (Marling 84).

The popularity of Mount Vernon and its furnishings fed directly into a larger architectural movement that was gripping America by the turn of the century. The Colonial Revival, with its Wallace Nutting photographs, spindle chairs and clapboard shutters, was becoming a favorite style. Although the revival might apply to anything from New England cottages to the Georgian architecture of the South, the furnishings of the style imitated several of the pieces Washington supposedly used himself. The George Washington Highboy, a tall, straight chest of drawers, epitomizes the era.
Illustration from a furniture trade catalogue of 1910, depicting the model of a George Washington Highboy, from Karal Ann Marling's book, George Washington Slept Here
Advertisements described the highboy as sturdy, substantial and sparsely decorated. For those perpetuating the colonial revival, the good taste and cultivation of Washington's day could be resurrected with the purchase of furniture like this, affording America's citizenry a chance to symbolize their association with a refined ancestry.

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