April 16, 2024

Episode 50: The Feathers are the only Tolerable Ones

Episode 50: The Feathers are the only Tolerable Ones

Martha Washington to Eleanor Parke Custis, c. February 1797. In which Washington warns her granddaughter that her dress may not arrive from Philadelphia in time for a Virginia ball.  Featuring , Assistant Professor of History, St. Michael's...

Martha Washington to Eleanor Parke Custis, c. February 1797. In which Washington warns her granddaughter that her dress may not arrive from Philadelphia in time for a Virginia ball. 

Featuring Dr. Alexandra Garrett, Assistant Professor of History, St. Michael's College.

Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is a production of R2 Studios, part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

Find the official transcript here


Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant
Episode 50: “The Feathers are the Only Tolerable Ones”
Published on April 16, 2024

Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction


Kathryn Gehred  00:03

Hello, and welcome to Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant. This is a Women's History podcast where we feature 18th and early 19th century women's letters that don't get as much attention as we think they should. I'm your host, Kathryn Gehred. This episode is part of our season on wit. And today I am so excited to welcome Dr. Alexandra Garrett. She is the Assistant Professor of History at St. Michael's College. Dr. Garrett's research deals with elite white women of the 18th and 19th century, specifically with slaveholding white women. So it's extremely pertinent to this podcast. We've actually worked together in the past. Alexandra did a piece on Martha Washington.

Alexandra Garrett  00:44

Yeah, no, I did a piece for Mount Vernon magazine. I was a fellow there for three months in 2019 2020 20. And it was titled "How Widowhood Changed Martha Washington's Life" as a short and sweet. He's just trying to explain how she got married twice, right, experienced marriage twice, experienced widowhood twice. And then how her life changed legally, especially during those periods. So from marriage to widowhood, to marriage to widowhood, and legally, things would have changed.

Kathryn Gehred  01:20

I remember it was great. So I'm so excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Alexandra Garrett  01:26

Of course, you're welcome. I'm so honored to be here.

Kathryn Gehred  01:29

Today we're doing a Martha Washington letter. She was an elite slaveholding. White woman. So how has she come to play in your research?

Alexandra Garrett  01:36

When I was completing my dissertation at the University of Virginia some years ago, I was thinking about how white slave owning women in Virginia, especially the revolutionary and post revolutionary periods, for managing these dual roles of being a woman in a patriarchal society, men have more power than women in a society like that. But at the same time, this is a slave owning society, and slave holders hold more power over non slave owners. So what does it mean when you're a woman who has less power, but you're a slave holder, which means you have more power. So it's supposed to be an intersectional analysis with gender and socio economic status, thinking about how they are perceived in this world, how they navigate this world. And then on top of that, thinking about how they navigate marriage. So basically, before states enacted what are called married women's property acts, the first one was in Mississippi 1839. The final one was actually Virginia, which is the state that we're thinking about today. The last one was 1877, in Virginia, so before these married women, property X, different colonies, and then also states utilize British Common laws, versions of kind of legal status for women when it comes to marriage. So if you're married, you'd fell under what's called feme covert. And it looks like F E M, E, and then covert. That's what it looks like, but it's French feme covert, which means you have covered your status, it means covered women in French and this is derived from British common law and it simply means that you are married and so in the legal system, your majority not all but majority of your property is subsumed under your husband's control, because he is the head of household and your legal identity basically is subsumed under his not in its entirety, you still have a right to dower share, which is about 1/3 of what the total combined property would be between your husband and you. But again that dowar share you own it, but really you more control it, you control it and then upon your death, it will go to your heirs. If you are a feme sole, that means you are an unmarried women, meaning you are never married or you're waiting to get married, or you are a widow, so feme sole right french kind of means uncovered women's solo woman, it means that you have the same legal rights as a man with some caveats. So the caveats Are you can't vote. That doesn't come until much later. You can't serve on a jury. But you can sign contracts, you can deal with your own business, you can control your own property, control your own wages and your earnings. You can basically legally do everything that a man can do with a couple caveats as long as you are unmarried. So unmarried women are femme souls. Married women are femme Corvairs. But over 90% of women in early America, get married. So you got way more femme COVID errs out there than femme souls however, lots of women also experience widowhood. So if you're going to have a femme soul, you're more likely going to be a widow then you are never married woman and this is a very long tangent. No. Very basic question. Just to get up Martha Washington so Martha Washington, she was a fam soul, Gosh, darn it, but she was also a femme COVID. Right. So she was a covered woman and an uncovered woman, meaning she was a single woman. So she fell under FEM soul. Then she got married to Daniel Parke Custis, when she was 18, and therefore, she was a covered woman, she fell under femme Corvair status. He died. She was single, again, not for very long, but she was so she fell under a different legal status right back to pencil. She got married to Darryl Georgie. And they were married for 40 years. And so she was femme kovair, again for 40 years, and then he died before her act. So now she's back to femme soul. I'm trying to think about what this would have meant in her life. It's one thing to have legal changes. And it's another thing to like, what are you actually experiencing day to day. So anyways, I was interested in that. That's how she factored into my dissertation.

Kathryn Gehred  06:02

I was one of the team of editors who published the papers of Martha Washington came out in 2022, which is a addition of all of Martha Washington's correspondence. And a lot of the letters that we have from Martha are doing of her early life. We don't have any from her youth. But there are quite a few from her first widowhood from Daniel park. There's these letters where she's you know, doing things like signing contracts and, and loaning money and at like extremely high interest. So I remember when I was doing research on this in the actual like language of the Virginia statutes about widowhood in one of the laws about being like a femme soul, they say, unless you have some sort of disability, and then it lists a husband, as a disability. always made me chuckle, but no, no.

Alexandra Garrett  06:47

No one thought, Oh, no one, no one laughed.

Kathryn Gehred  06:49

They didn't think that it was as funny as I did. 

Alexandra Garrett  06:51

No, it is funny. Actually, what you're getting at is, is actually, it's, it's easy to laugh. But also, there's actually some truthiness to it, the idea was right, you get married, and most of your legal identity is subsumed. And so your access to wealth that you would have brought in is, you know, again, not all of it, any of it is now you know, under this husband's control, but some husbands are ne'er do wells, and bombs, and might be people who get into too much debt, there was this concern for married women, which is why you could think of sometimes like a kind of a, a gambling husband as being a disability to a woman. Actually, what you're bringing up is really important, because when you think about the married women's property acts, those were state laws that are enacted over the 19th century. So first one, aging 39 Last 1877. And you might be thinking, Well, why that time period, like why the mid 1800s By the mid 19th century. And by that time period, you have intensifying increasing capitalism. So you have a lot more boom and bust periods happening in the American economy, meaning more and more people are going into debt or might in their total lifetime experience booms and busts themselves. So the reason then why these acts are carried out state by state, it's actually to protect family interests. It's not because Oh, women are asking for more rights. No, actually, what's happening is, Hey, before the married woman's property acts, okay, so in Martha Washington's time period, if your husband goes into debt, does a bad business deal, whatever it might be, his creditors will come after him, but he is the head of the whole family. And so the creditors can take personal property from the whole family to pay back that husbands debt. So suddenly, the personal property that a wife has brought into this marriage, this wife's property is now liable for her husband's debt. So debtors are coming in and taking women's stuff that they brought to the marriage and that deprives the entire family unit of wealth and property. Now, with these married women's property acts, women are protected from that meaning if my husband goes into debt, make some bad business decision, gamble's whatever it might be, his creditors come calling. They can only take my husband stuff, they can't take me the wife stuff. And if you can't touch my stuff, yeah, okay. You might be still taking away some husbands property, but the entire family unit, husband and wife gets away with not being hurt so much. If a wife can keep some of that property is not liable for her husband's debts anymore, that the family unit is able to hold on to more wealth generally. Then if creditors could come take wife and husband and stats. So really the married women's property acts, which were not during Martha's lifetime. So when you're, when you're living during Martha's lifetime, you just hope your husband knows his accounting, but the mid 19th century, this changes in order to protect whole families going under. So it's not in response to women's calls for greater autonomy.

Kathryn Gehred  10:25

That's super interesting. And that comes up so much in these letters, particularly, a lot of Virginia women at this time period, their husbands are in a huge amount of debt. Not for Martha Washington, George Washington seems to have been pretty good at keeping those finances in good shape. Her son, not so much. Not so much. But yeah, yeah, that comes up all the time. So it's legal history. So interesting. I'm so happy to have you on here. And people don't think of how women are affected by legal history. But absolutely there.

Alexandra Garrett  10:51

Oh, yeah. I mean, this is why the choice of husband during anytime before 1839, really, when the first married woman's Property Act is enacted in Mississippi, women getting married was a huge choice for their well being and it goes beyond their emotional well being. It goes to their financial their entire livelihood, you better shoes, right.  And that is a great segue into this letter. Martha who is working and trying to get her granddaughter engaged. You gotta hand it to Martha Washington. She married well, twice.  Sure, did,

Kathryn Gehred  11:29

To people who had a lot of money and managed it now. I mean, again, it depends on what you mean by Well, she was a slave holder marrying other slave holders. So it's like there's also that element. I never want to Girlboss a slave holder, but

Alexandra Garrett  11:40

Oh, never know, I'm writing my book on one of the largest female slave owners in Essex County, Virginia for decades. I tell my students about that. And they start their eyes start getting wide with this Girlboss energy. And I'm like, no intersectional analysis, my friends. She's powerful because she owns enslaved people. And then their eyes start squinting again. And they're like, Oh, no. So yeah, it's a good lesson. It's a good lesson, right?

Kathryn Gehred  12:05

Yeah, definitely. Yeah, you always have to keep that in mind. I guess we'll move into the actual letter. Yeah, try to keep it to the specific moment. So I'll set up a little bit of the background. This is a letter from Martha Washington to her granddaughter, Eleanor, who called Nellie Parke Custis, in what we're pretty sure was January or February of 1796. To get a little bit into the documentary editing weeds, the way that we were able to date this letter was through the content of the letter itself. Imagine you're in the 18th century, and you're writing letter to somebody, normally, you would put down the place, and the date that you are writing from, and this was really essential for a number of reasons, things got lost, all the times things would be delayed, you didn't know where somebody was, maybe somebody's saying they're coming to your house, and they're letting you know where they're writing from. There's a lot of reasons that you would put when and where you are writing from. But sometimes in some of these more casual women's letters, people either just forgot or didn't really think it was important to do. Martha knows that Nellie knows she's writing from Philadelphia. And she's writing this letter quickly. And it's this is also somebody that she speaks to all the time. So it's a very casual Martha letter. In the past, I've done some Martha Washington letters where she's trying to put her best foot forward. This is not that this is Martha writing, quick stream of consciousness. So she didn't even date it. She didn't date it or say where she was writing from. So from things like her saying that she's going to have been mentioning that Nellie's in Alexandria, we were able to look into when Nellie was old enough to be writing and receiving letters when she was visiting family. And from that we were able to narrow it down to probably the winter of 1796. At this point in January, February of 1796. Martha is they didn't call it the first lady back then. But she's the first lady. Her husband is president. She's 65 years old. In the political world, the Jay Treaty drama is at peak at this point. But Martha is not writing about that. Nellie is almost 17. If you've listened to one of our previous episodes, Episode Seven: "Strange, Most Passing Strange." We have another letter that was written during this time period, and you can hear more about what Nellie was up to. Suffice it to say that Nellie her older sister Elizabeth has just stunned everyone by getting married suddenly without telling anyone and her sister Patty has just had a daughter. And so Nellie was visiting her sister Patty at this time to visit the new family members. These are the Custis kids who Martha Washington sort of adapted, two of her grandchildren, George Washington Park Gustus and Eleanor Parke Custis and the other two stayed with their mother. It created this kind of interesting family dynamic where there's like George Washington Parke Custis, and Nellie are the little prince and princess of America figure are definitely speaking, and their siblings who are just as close to their grandma are sort of stuck, not as sort of famous a situation. So Nellie, when she's writing letters from visiting her family, you can just sort of like feel that she would rather be in Philadelphia, she'd rather be in the thick of it again, she doesn't want to be sort of stuck with all of her dozens of half siblings and siblings in Virginia she would rather be back with with grandma and grandpa. She's going to several balls while she is in Alexandria visiting her sister. And that is the context of this letter Martha is writing trying to help her get ready for a ball. So with that, take it away.

Alexandra Garrett  15:43

All right, so this is Martha Washington's letter to her Eleanor Parke Custis parentheses later in life, Lewis, and she's writing from Philadelphia in January or February 1796. And she writes, "My dear Nellie, I Expect to get your things every moment to put up— a servant of mr Easterns is going to Alexandria the Box will be put under her care for you— I can not get a pair of white Tassles in the city— I think your chemese will look much better with a handkerchief than without— I have sent you one of mine in case you should not have one of your one— I have put up every thing that I could think you could want— ask your Cousin to assist in dressing you when you go to the ball—  I wish you to look as neat as possable—and let all your things be of a peice— my love to you I wish you may have as much pleasure as you Expect— going to these places one always Expect more pleasure than they realize after the matter is over. wednesday morning My dear child— after hurring Mrs Wright  and getting your things put up and sent to the place they were to go from—the person was not ready to go and the stage is gon without it— I shall have it put under the care of the stage master and send it to morrow— I hope you will get it early on monday— the feathers are the olny tolarable ones to be had they have been picked so often that thare are none left that was handsome give my love to your sister—  the President joins me in love to you and wishing you every happyness— I am my dear your ever affectionate m. Washington as I told you before you must not depend altogather on the dress that is going in the stage give my love to your cousin."

Kathryn Gehred  17:27

Excellent, a beautiful read. From reading this letter, Alexandra, what are your sort of takeaways? What does that letter make you think about?

Alexandra Garrett  17:37

Sure, it makes me think about a lot of things. First and foremost, our listening audience can't really see the letter. But the pauses the natural pauses that I took aren't necessarily punctuated in the letter itself. So just to explain punctuation, grammar, spelling, you know, it exists during this time period. But it's not. It's not uniformly taught to everyone who even happens to have the wealth to receive an education. And for Martha Washington in particular. Basically, scholars have seen we don't have a lot on your her young life. But scholars have assumed that she might have been taught basic reading and literacy skills from an itinerant tutor growing up. And in Martha Washington's letters, you will notice there's a lot of spelling mistakes, or lack of punctuation, or words, the same word spelled differently multiple times, I want to be really clear with women of this time period, it's not a sign of intelligence at all. It is instead a gender division of education where women were taught to, to write in a way that was more about getting information across. So writing was more of a utilitarian task for women. Whereas for men, they're able to be the ones going to boarding school if you if you first of all, if you really can't afford it. They're truly genteel, you're going across the pond for boarding school. But even if not, you know, even if you have an itinerant tutor, you're being taught writing baseline is utilitarian. But on top of that, you want to have this loquacious flowery show off style, because you are showing off your education. It's a class status thing to write long sentences with lots of allusions to the books you read about Greek and Roman history. So if anyone reads early American letters from really well educated men versus you know, well educated enough women, you're still gonna see these differences. And I just really want to point out it's not about intelligence, it's about what was seen at the time was the point of writing and the point of writing for women was to keep households counts, and to communicate with loved ones.

Kathryn Gehred  19:45

Yeah, well, and I think that's part of why I thought of this letter under the subject of wit. I just think it's a little bit funny. I don't know if she's trying to be very funny in this but a little bit and she does pass on a little bit of wisdom like going to these places, one always expects more pleasure than they realize After the matter is over, very good.

Alexandra Garrett  20:02

That was 100% my favorite. Haven't we all experienced that? It whether you're a girl or a boy, right? A teenager, young man or young woman, you get all hyped up to go to the party, right? Because like, you know, there's gonna be some single crushes there. Right? And then like you go, and like maybe you have a fun time, maybe you have a devastating time, because so and so's dancing is so and so. But when you come home, you're like, Wait, I got super hyped up for that. And it was just fine. You know, we have experienced this. We have been 17. Yeah, we've gotten to prom. It's such motherly advice. Basically, she's saying, Honey, don't get your hopes up if things don't go so well.

Kathryn Gehred  20:40

Yeah, I thought I thought that was great. And that's one of the things I love about women's letters. Some of these men are writing such flowery, verbose letters that they think you can just tell they think they're so good. And it's just hard to get through. It's just hard to it's hard to get through. It's painful.

Alexandra Garrett  20:57

Yes, yes. Where this letter is not painful. This letter is short and to the point and it's like boom, boom, baby. Yeah, it's great.

Kathryn Gehred  21:04

She repeats three times do not count on this dress getting literally to you.

Alexandra Garrett  21:08

Literally I hope this just gets you I hope this handkerchief I hope this these feathers. But like don't count on that because like 111 thing already left and then didn't get on it. So like I hope and just cross your fingers. Like that's the tone for sure. It's like when you're waiting, you know, when you're like, Oh, crap, I didn't get my Halloween costume. Overnight it from Amazon. And it's just like, Oh, I hope it gets here in time. I'm not going to look fly at the ball without. It's so similar. It's actually uncanny.

Kathryn Gehred  21:36

Yeah, this it feels it definitely feels relatable to me. And I had another example I almost picked this letter. But I just want to give a quote from an earlier letter from January 3 1796. Martha wrote to Nellie, "I was very sorry, my dear child to hear that you had been sick and had the toothache. You should be very careful how you go out in the cold to keep your feet dry and to take care of your teeth to clean them every day." She just she keeps going with nowhere punctuation and everything that she's thinking like, take care of yourself. Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself. That is also classic Martha

Alexandra Garrett  22:07

Oh, yeah. And like, I think it's a really good point. It's such a mom move. And she's not the mom.

Kathryn Gehred  22:13

She took her adopted grandchildren bro her role very seriously. And it gives a little bit of a peek into what she was like as a mother. One of the things I really like about Cassandra Good's book on the Custis's is she gives outsider perspectives on how Martha is with the kids and she's a little bit smothering. She spoils them a lot. Oh,

Alexandra Garrett  22:34

definitely a third party. I mean, her love and like, right, this is like a doting person too. You can imagine the 17 year old Nellie 17 right now. She's 17. Right? You can imagine 17 year old Nellie being like, I know like, I know, kind of like God, you only say it to me, like every two seconds. It's this kind of this doting chittering type of motherly advice because she says, you know, she's all worried that the dress won't get there in time. But also, you better have your cousin help you get dressed. I wish you to look as neat as possible. Okay, let everything be matching. Let it be all of one piece. Oh, also, I love you. I love you. I hope you have a really great time. Have a great time. Yeah, but let your cousin help you. Girl you need it. That's the vibe, right?

Kathryn Gehred  23:21

When she says I think your dress or I think you should use will look better with a handkerchief than without I've sent you one of mine.

Alexandra Garrett  23:28

In case you should not have one as your own. And also you better wear it because it does look better. And I know you might not wear it so you better wear it like it's just such a mob. Like it's so cute. It's so cute. Yes.

Kathryn Gehred  23:40

You know, I was trying to think I don't know if it like if if Martha would be I don't know if Nelly would be rolling her eyes at this like Okay, fine. A handkerchief or like Martha did have a lot of money. She cared a lot about clothes. There's another great letter of her just absolutely tearing into this woman selling lace in Philadelphia. Mm hmm. She has strong feelings about these things. So I don't know. Maybe Maybe it was a very fashionable handkerchief. And no, it was like, Yes.

Alexandra Garrett  24:06

You're right. She could be like, Oh, another handkerchief, but that would only mean that Nellie is very spoiled. Grandma quote unquote, has beautiful handkerchiefs that she gives her all the time or maybe she's not rolling her eyes Exactly. Like you said, where it's like, Oh, thank god. She's sending me one of her own. I hope it's one of the good ones.

Kathryn Gehred  24:25

That I don't know.

Alexandra Garrett  24:28

I don't know either. That's That's the mystery.

Kathryn Gehred  24:30

Uh, again, a little bit of the documentary editing side of this letter. This one was a bit of a struggle A) it was not dated. So it took a lot of research B) She mentioned several people by name. This is a fairly well documented time. You can look people up in Philadelphia directories you can find George Washington's 1000s of letters. He mentioned people all the time. We could not find Mr. Eastern or a really good idea of Mrs. Wright. We know that she paid Mrs. Wright for something, but we don't know what service she was providing. So it was, this was just a little bit of a struggle of a letter for for a while, when she says a servant of Mr. Easterns. Who's going that's probably a slave. But I don't know she's in Philadelphia, probably that we don't know for sure. Yes, yes, it's good to bear in mind that at these balls were Nellies, having fun and meeting people and Martha sending things, the people who are delivering the clothes, the people who are probably serving them at the ball, the inheritance that people are set up to get a lot of that includes human beings, and that this was a society where people were human beings. And that's always something that you have to keep in mind, which they did not necessarily have to keep in mind like that was absolutely that they would sort of rather that we didn't talk about and that's why it doesn't turn up in letters all the time.

Alexandra Garrett  25:41

That's right. And or they just it's a part of their natural life. And they take it for granted don't even see. So why why mentioned the things that are just every day.

Kathryn Gehred  25:42

And also there's a lot of you mentioned, there's a lot of spelling issues in this. This is one of my all time classic Martha Washington spelling issues, she spells own o n e that you would read as one. So when she says you shouldn't have one of your own, she spells it o n e.

Alexandra Garrett  26:08

But when you think about it, it makes me own it makes sense phonetically.

Kathryn Gehred  26:12

And then the other the other spelling mistake in this one, which boggles everyone's mind is she wrote for only she spelled it oln y only, which is something that is more of a it looks like it's a typing error. That's an error that you make while typing every single time we would read this transcription, we would always go back to the manuscript. And even when we sent it on to later editors, we would always go back to the manuscript to make sure that wasn't a typo. And it was not she spelled it ol and why it does not say anything about intelligence. It was a difference in education. And also I actually like it that you get these absolutely completely not selfconscious just writing as she's thinking it letter that she wrote super fast and sent off. I feel like it is really telling about Martha as a person, and you get to sort of feel for her voice even in the letter.

Alexandra Garrett  27:01

Yes, definitely. And like I was mentioning earlier, just to kind of give an audience uses they can't necessarily like see this letter as they're listening. I'm going to read a sentence and it's going to have natural pauses in the way that we would think of it today. So I expect to get your things every moment to put up a servant of Mr. Easterns is going to Alexandria, the box we put under her care for you. Okay, that sounds like natural pauses. But just keep in mind that it looks more like this. I expect to get your things every moment put up dash, a servant of Mr. Easterners going to Alexandria the box, we put under her care for you, period. You know, it takes you a couple of times to be like, oh, oh, that's what the Okay, maybe maybe it would help modern day readers put a comma there. Yeah. But it's not there. And then with letters like this, but I it's not just this letter, it's this, these letters have this time period, they would write down things as they're happening or whatever thoughts they wanted, and then they would walk away from it and then add the next day, two days later, a week later, just pick right back up where they left off on that letter, and just kept going with something new. And that's not really how we experienced letters today, right? The first half of this letter is all about Mr. Easterns is going to Alexandria this box. I'm trying to get you this stuff do to do to do I want you to look nice, and then it just stops and then you just see Wednesday morning, and then it starts again. My dear child, she's like updating her but there's like at least two days if not more represented in this letter, but it's just one letter.

Kathryn Gehred  28:31

I love letters like that the day spanning letters and again I say it's like she read it really quick but she she wrote it really quickly over the span of several days. And then she didn't date it but she did right Wednesday morning.

Alexandra Garrett  28:42

She at least for a Wednesday morning to like let even Nelly know Hey, this is like a new New Day New Thought. Yeah, yeah, we have to keep in mind too. You're not You're not writing with an easy peasy ballpoint pen here, either. Whatever you take care to even write down. It must matter enough to you.

Kathryn Gehred  28:59

Yeah, paper is expensive. People always apologizing for the quality of their quills and ink and things like that. A lot of the letters that we come across almost none of them are just perfectly blank on the back because people would save the letters and use them for things like adding up debts and things on the back. There's almost always just like family scribbles on them because you just didn't have that much paper back then.

Alexandra Garrett  29:19

No, I mean, think about what you might just jot down quickly on a sticky note that might be on the what you jot down on like a nice beloved letter from grandma. You know, it's like, oh my gosh, my dear beloved grandma, then it's just like bread sugar. are just numbers from someone counting thing, right?

Kathryn Gehred  29:37

Yeah, we would have to figure it out too. Because it's like the letters dated this one time. And then there's something written on the back and we're like, I think that's from like 30 years later. Nellie does write that she she went to two balls in 1796 and her sister's wedding. She said the balls were very agreeable, and I danced a good deal. Dancing you know has always been my delight and I prefer balls to any other amusement? Hmm. So it seems like

Alexandra Garrett  30:03

Same girl, same. yeah, no, it seems, it seems that she really loves dancing and it seems to go, Okay, I really liked that you brought that up because I think this, this transitions into something I was thinking about with balls. You know, when we think of balls, we don't host balls really today in the same way. But really, it's a big dance party. And it's a big musical refreshments party. That's what a ball is. And it's one of the fewer moments or there were fewer moments during this time period to appropriately interact with the opposite sex. And this is a chaperone meaning like, you know, your mom and your aunt and other people or kind of other peers are watching. So it's kind of chaperone. So you want to stay in your lane. By it's your way to physically get close to people to flirt, especially when so much culture before the mid 19th century in general is is relatively homosocial where women hang out with women men hang out with men, though it's not always true. I mean, you have men and women reading in parlors together, and you have men and women dancing. So it's not always the case. But we don't have schools that have men and women really together as much as comes later. Right. So this is like a chance to flirt, a chance to be physically close a chance to socialize, talk in a way where it's safe, and you're not breaking any sort of norms or not being coquettish by any any means. But you can still kind of get to know other people. We still do that today. Like yeah, man, even though we have a much more mixed sex settings in our daily life, right socially at work, we still like to go to somewhere where there's music and dancing and kind of get to know other people on a different level.

Kathryn Gehred  31:46

Yeah, sometimes I think it'd be so fun to go to old time balls like this. And then I think about the fact that she talks about I danced a good deal. There were a set number of dances of songs that he like, had to like know the steps to if somebody didn't want to dance with you, you you weren't dancing. So it really was kind of a mark of how well you did of whether you were dance people were interested enough in you to keep dancing with you all night. And of course, now he was dancing all night. But I know for a fact if I was at one of these things, I would not be.

Alexandra Garrett  32:14

Oh my god, why would be your friend pulling you out into the dance floor? So yeah, no, it's so true. And in fact, so it's funny I have I have this book here that I'm using for my own research. It's the journal and letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, and he's the plantation tutor of the Old Dominion. So basically, this is 1770s. I know it's like some decades before what we're talking about. But this is like an itinerant tutor, journaling, jotting down his experiences in Virginia and the 1700s. And there's some great stuff here about balls. I just want to say he keeps commenting on how well the girl stance or not, which actually matters, apparently just like you said, right. He's at a ball in Hobbs Hall, which is Tappahannock, Virginia. And he goes, Oh, Miss Richie danced a minuet. She is a tall, slim girl dances nimble and graceful. And then there's somebody else. He goes Mr. Richie, he stalked about the room. He was the director of this ball. He dance middling though. I also want it known that women are not going to bed early. Okay, so this guy's writing and he says Miss McCall, Miss Ford, Miss Brock and berry to the younger Miss Ritchie's and Miss Wade. They dance till half after two. Oh, then he goes on. My girlfriend's a die he goes quote, We got to bed by three after a day spent in constant violent exercise, aka dancing, okay, and drinking and unusual quantity of liquor. For my part with fatique heat, liquor, noise, want of sleep, and the exertion of my animal spirits, aka dancing my butt off. I was almost brought to believe several times that I felt a fever fixing upon me. I danced and drank and partied so hard. I thought I was getting sick. The next day he goes, we were called up to breakfast at half after eight. We all looked dull, pale and haggard. Like bro is hung over and you know those you know these women are hung over to, right are you kidding me, can you be going to bed at like 2:30 and waking up at like 8:30 Anyway.

Kathryn Gehred  34:21

I love that. That's like a beautiful 18th century language description of a hangover is fantastic. =

Alexandra Garrett  34:27

Pale. dull. Haggered half times changed Katy really? How's our party changed that much? I don't think our bodily reaction to too much liquor has.

Kathryn Gehred  34:39

I do think of me dancing is animal exertion.

Alexandra Garrett  34:43

My animal exertions by violent exercise that's that's what somebody who would hate me would say about my dancing. Yeah, her violent exercise. Anyways, I know it's not from the Martha letter, but when you when we were reading about balls, I was like, I bet these balls got down like except for partied hard into the night, this is not, let's go to bed at eight ladies, this is our chance to shine.

Kathryn Gehred  35:06

And you weren't barred from follows after you got married Martha and George actually had a subscription to Alexandria balls, before he was famous. And they would go and they would go and dance just to be social butterflies in the city. And they would write little critiques of who threw good balls.

Alexandra Garrett  35:23

That's right, who through the good ones who did what, yeah, it's very gossipy. And like, I like that to like, let's just put it out there. This is a man's journal I read from, it's not just women who are gossipy. Anyone who's concerned about social status is gonna write like that. And that includes men. You know, lots of men got their social standing from the rich women they married. They're concerned with all this stuff, too. So

Kathryn Gehred  35:47

I have a slight theory about this letter. And I always read too much into letters. But I have a slight theory about this letter, that Martha, she cares so much about Nellie, looking nice, looking at a piece going to this ball, because this is a ball in Virginia. And Martha doesn't want Nellie to marry one of these Philadelphia guys, because as soon as she is done with this presidency, Martha wants to go back home to Mount Vernon. So she's really hoping I think that Nellie makes a good good impression to the Alexandria and Virginia social scene, because she wants to stay down there. That is just a theory that I have.

Alexandra Garrett  36:18

I think your theory I buy into you know, especially since you said earlier tonight that Nelly wishes she were in Philadelphia by the tone of her letters that would not that would not Miss Martha, Martha wouldn't know that. Right? So she's like, you go, you go look nice. You go have fun at this Alexandra ball and you mean a nice man. And like, everything will be fine. Right? You'll be close to me. And all these Philadelphia things. They'll just they'll just go away. Right. But of course, you know, we're not seeing that in the literal writing. But like, it's fun to infer, especially when you have context clues.

Kathryn Gehred  36:49

Yes, that's just just a little guess that I have. But Nellie does. Of course, she marries one of George Washington's nephews and lives, basically at Mount Vernon next door. So it works.

Alexandra Garrett  36:59

So Martha, Martha got what she wanted. I hope Nellie did too.

Kathryn Gehred  37:04

And then the very last thing that I just thought was funny where she says, I'm so sorry for the feathers. I'm sorry, I'm sending you these ugly feathers in this box. They're the only ones that were there.

Alexandra Garrett  37:16

They're the only feathers all the good ones were taken, like just do what you can, man. That's like the tone of it. Defini tely. No, it's really funny with

Kathryn Gehred  37:23

a beautiful beautiful chemese a beautiful handkerchief and these ugly feathers.

Alexandra Garrett  37:29

Martha's so concerned that, gosh, I hope this husband won't care about this feathers like this future husband. It's like it's fine. Martha, it's like a you almost like you almost want to just like reading it. Now. How many years later? It's just like, oh, Martha, you're so loving it also like it's fine. You're gonna look fine.  Funny.

Kathryn Gehred  37:49

This not the most intense letter. This is very much a little slice of life a little moment. But those are some of the ones that I enjoy digging into. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking about this with me.

Alexandra Garrett  37:59

Oh, you're welcome. It was absolutely my pleasure. And it's often from these slice of life letters that you get at people's real emotions, real life and real concerns that you're just like not necessarily going to get from a letter that's kind of more high minded or political. Right.

Kathryn Gehred  38:18

Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This was wonderful. For my listeners. I will leave more information about the letters we've been quoting in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening, and I am as ever, your most obedient and humble servant. Thank you very much. Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig center for history and new media at George Mason University. I'm Kathyrn Gehred, the creator and host of this podcast. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to listen to past episodes and check out more great podcasts from R2 Studios. We tell unexpected stories based on the latest research to connect listeners with the past. So head to R2 studios.org to start listening

Alexandra Garrett Profile Photo

Alexandra Garrett


Dr. Alexandra Garrett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Saint Michael’s College. She is a historian of early America, women, gender, and slavery. She is currently working on a microhistory that analyzes the life of Kate McCall (1766-1828), a wealthy, never-married, and Enlightenment-educated white woman who lived and controlled enslaved people in the Northern Neck region of Virginia.

M.A., Ph.D. University of Virginia
B.A. St. Olaf College