When we think of Martha Washington, we conjure up a plump, retiring, gray-haired woman in a wimple and a simply laced gown, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of this feisty Founding Mother who managed a 17,500-acre plantation, which gave her the resources to be a Fashionista.
During the American Revolution, Colonists were anxious that Martha might be kidnapped for ransom by an English governor. Onboard a British man-of-war he threatened her, as he floated on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. Fearless horsewoman Martha let it be known that at 40 she could outride any British marine and knew the Virginia woods far better. So much for a retiring matron.
George strongly suggested she come to winter camp in 1775, where he and the remaining troops would ensure her safety. Unlike other generals, he knew better than to order her to do something. A following letter took a slightly more romantic turn: “It would greatly contribute to my happiness to have you with me.” (1) Martha arrived that winter to cheer the General and encourage the troops to stay to fight after the thaw. Many men who joined the Revolution on short commissions were leaving, making George worry about how many troops he’d have to hold off the British.
Consider Martha in her Prime
At 17 Martha met the British criteria for a “pocket Venus”– petite at barely five feet with delicate hands and feet, dark brown hair, strongly market eyebrows, and smooth white shoulders sloping down to full breasts. Her bright hazel-brown eyes drew into a ready smile and beautiful white teeth, a rarity in the Colonies then–the ideal of femine beauty for many Virginians. (2)
Martha did not have a life of leasure in her youth at Chestnut Grove, but learned all the useful “making” skills of the 18th century–killing, plucking and drawing hens and turkeys; spinning, weaving, dying wool and linen; making all matter of clothes, bed coverings; beating dust from rugs and turning mattresses; gathering herbs, plants, berries, salting and curing hams, bacon and fish; making vinegar, syrups and jellies; cooking over an open hearth or baking in a brick oven; and perpetually knitting woolen socks. (3)
Martha’s father, a naval officer and member of the governor’s Council, had died four years earlier, which crimped the family’s finances. While she was valuable for her domestic skills and her work ethic, Martha had the disadvantage that her family could not offer a dowery equal that of many other young women. She met Daniel Parke Custis at St. Peter’s Church in Williamsburg when she was 16 and he a vestryman of 37. Prior to their courtship, Daniel’s father had challenged him on every match he’d proposed, thus Daniel remained a bachelor.
Convincing her Beau’s Father, 50 Years her Senior
John Custis, an ill-tempered, 70-year-old tyrant, threatened to disown his son if he married Martha Dandridge, finding her family below him and charged her with gold-digging. Martha had the hutzpah to arrange to speak with the senior Custis, an unlikely and bold turning of tables. Her strength of character, engaging demeanor, and tender explanation of her feelings for Daniel softened his bitter, bad-tempered heart. Not only did he give consent for the wedding, he made a will providing Daniel 17,500 acres of prime farmland, well-appointed houses in the capital, Williamsburg, and Jamestown, nearly 300 slaves, and several thousand pounds in English treasury notes and cash. (4)
She made her case for a man who was nearly twice her age at the time of their marriage. Yet Daniel willingly shared his knowledge of the family’s extensive business dealings and his wealth. His memorandum book of orders sent to England with the annual tobacco ships requested: twelve yards of crimson damask, blue satin for a ball gown, a dozen pair of kid gloves to fit her dainty hands, silk stockings for her slim legs, flowered calico for a summer dress, purple pumps, and the latest ivory fan to match London fashion. (5)
Fragile Financial Freedom
Martha understood financial freedom and set herself apart as a Colonial woman by learning accounting and keeping abreast of the plantation’s production and the prices to be expected for Custis tobacco. When Daniel died at 45, after seven years of marriage, four children, and building a productive plantation together, Martha knew the business.
She protected her right to manage one-third of the Custis lands–automatic under Virginia law–while the courts ruled on the rest, since Daniel died without a will. Virginia approved her right to the Custis lands, indicating she’d presented a persuasive case. Martha became one of the wealthiest women in Virginia and did not backslide in the year and a half before her marriage to George.
By keeping the plantation team in place and not hiring a new male overseer, she avoided having someone else decide her future mate–no doubt a crony aged 40 or above. Martha did not want to contend with someone else’s choice.
She did not waste this time when she was feme sole. Under English common law (followed then in the colonies),during her widowhood as a landed woman before she remarried, Martha was free to make her own decisions. This would be the most free she would ever be as an independent woman. Once she remarried, the decisions would revert to her new husband, so she needed to pick exceedingly well–someone she could trust. After she married again, she would become a feme covert, and her legal status, wealth, children, place and matter of life would be controlled by her husband. (6)
In her businesslike letters to English tobacco middle men in London, Liverpool, and Glasgow markets, Martha explained she would be in charge now and expected their dealings would be “agreeable and lasting to us both.” (7)
Stay tuned for Young Heiress Seeks Charming (Young) Mate or
The 18th Century Wedding Fashionista
1 Patricia Brady, Martha Washington, (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 94
2 Brady, 25.
3 Brady, 22.
5 Brady, 37.
6 Brady, 54.
7 Brady, 35.