This past week my husband and I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, for a bit of vintage shopping and to visit the Greensboro Historical Museum. I’ll write more about the museum later because today I want to focus on one particular exhibit – that showing some personal items of First Lady Dolley Madison. For those of you not in the USA, Dolley was the wife of our fourth president, James Madison. She was a very popular figure during her time in the White House, and North Carolinians are proud to claim her as a native daughter.
Dolley was born in Guilford County, near Greensboro in 1768, though her family moved to Virginia when she was a child. In 1794 she married politician James Madison who became president in 1809. During his presidency the US and Britain went to war in the War of 1812. Things went badly for the United States, and in 1814 the British captured Washington, DC, and burned much of the city including Dolley’s home, the White House.
In August of 1814, President Madison had left Washington, leaving Dolley in the city with orders to leave if the British got close. When it became apparent that the city was going to fall into enemy hands, Dolley had the staff tear down the red velvet draperies, newly made from silk velvet from France. The presidential china and silver were wrapped in the velvet to cushion them, and then a portrait of President Washington was removed and sent to New York for safekeeping. Dolley sent the wagon containing the silver and china on to safety, and then she fled the city. Hours later the White House burned.
Eventually the United States did win the war, and Dolley was hailed as a national heroine. Unfortunately she was left in poverty after her husband died in 1836. She was forced to sell the Madison plantation, Montpelier, and later, her husband’s papers, in order to survive. She died in Washington in 1849, leaving her possessions to her son and to her niece and companion, Anna Payne.
Several years later Dolley’s son held an auction of many of her personal items. Anna Payne bought as many of the items as she could, which then were passed down through her family. The last of the line was her granddaughter-in-law, who died in 1956. After her death, a trunk containing the Dolley Madison items were found in her attic of her house in Pennsylvania. A group of women from Greensboro who called themselves the Dolley Madison Memorial Association traveled to the auction of the granddaughter-in-law’s estate and purchased the trunk. It and the contents were donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1963.
In the trunk was a red velvet dress that dates to the 1810s. Instead of being made of thin dressmaking velvet, the fabric is a heavy-weight fabric of the type used for draperies. I’m sure you have figured out by now that many historians and museum workers have speculated that the dress was made from the curtains that were saved that day in August, 1814. And it makes sense, as surely many of Dolley’s dresses were destroyed in the fire.
The problem has been in trying to prove the theory. The DAR thought they had a scrap of the fabric from the draperies, but examination under a high-powered microscope proved that the scrap was not very worn velvet, as they had assumed, but was a satin weave. That eliminated the possibility of comparing the two fabrics as the DAR piece could not have come from the draperies.
There is quite a bit of documentation concerning the fabric of the draperies. We know it was red velvet from France. We know it was saved from the fire. We also know that Dolley held onto the dress throughout her life. But we do not know if the dress was indeed made from the famous fabric.
The original dress. Photo copyright Smithsonian Institution
Today, the Greensboro Historical Museum no longer displays the original dress as it is much too fragile. A reproduction was made in 1988, and the original was put into storage. It was loaned to the Smithsonian for a special show, and when it was returned to Greensboro, it was put on display for several months. It now rests in its specially made storage box, away from view.
Some of the original items are on view, including a pair of white satin slippers, a card case, and two glass perfume bottles.
There is a fantastic video that was made for C-SPAN, narrated by the curator at the museum, Susan Joyce Webster. It really is so great, and has Webster showing the original dress and pointing out the details. It’s seventeen minutes well-spent.
This dress is also a reproduction. It came to the museum through a great niece in 1950 and was not part of the Madison treasure trunk that was found in the attic.
If you watch the video you will see just how close this treasure came to being lost. Considering all the twists and turns of the story, it is really quite amazing that the items were found and saved.