Found  /  Discovery

Why Martha Washington's Life Is So Elusive to Historians

A gown worn by the first First Lady reveals a dimension of her nature that few have been aware of.

Historians are limited by the archives, and by ourselves. Biographers study documents to tell the story of a person’s life, using clothes and accessories to add color to their accounts. But what if we’re missing something obvious because we don’t know what to look for? Of Martha’s few surviving dresses, I’ve spent the most time looking at this one, and when I imagine Martha, I picture her in this dress. She wore it during the 1780s, a period I think of as the Washingtons’ second chance at a normal life. They were no longer royal subjects or colonists, but citizens; George was world-famous and finally satisfied with life; Martha was happily raising the young children of her late, ne’er-do-well son, John Parke Custis, as well as her nieces and nephews. They had experienced loss, triumph, life outside of Virginia, and believed, erroneously, that their life of public service had ended with the American Revolution. By the end of the decade, of course, they would become the first first family.

But was I seeing her clearly? The catalog entry for the dress listed the pattern I remembered, with flowers, butterflies and ladybugs—and other parts I didn’t remember. I suddenly found it odd that the 58 insects on the dress included beetles, ants and spiders, but I didn’t know the reasons behind these images. Assuming Martha chose the pattern, it reveals something important.

Zara Anishanslin, a historian of material culture who has spent time at the Washingtons’ home at Mount Vernon as a researcher and fellow, posed an intriguing theory to me. “Martha was a naturalist,” Anishanslin explained. Or rather, Martha would have been a naturalist, had she been born a man, or in a different era; she had very few ways of expressing her passion for the natural world, which makes it easy to overlook.

As Anishanslin spoke, I was riveted—in part because, after reading every Martha Washington biography, this was the only new, original insight I’d ever come across about her, and I wondered what the best medium would be to convey this forgotten element of Martha’s life. An academic history would hardly be the best medium to spotlight objects attesting to Martha’s passion for nature; a museum exhibition would be better. If I were curating such an exhibition, I would place the dress in the largest of three glass cases, front and center. In another case, I would display the 12 seashell-patterned cushions Martha made with the help of enslaved women at Mount Vernon. In the third, I’d display 12 Months of Flowers, one of the only books from her first marriage, to Daniel Parke Custis, that she kept for personal use. The arrangement would be the first chance to see Martha’s husbands used as accessories to enhance our understanding of her. I’d call the exhibition “Don’t Be Fooled by the Bonnet.”