Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Reflection: The Wedding of George and Martha Washington, January 6, 1759

"I retain an unalterable affection for you which neither time or distance can change."

George Washington to Martha Washington, June 23, 1775.


So much has been written on this first of first couples, that even tackling the bibliography is intimidating. A look at the clothing of George and Martha Washington and what it represented for them as individuals and as a couple is, however, is within in this writer's comfort zone. And there is enough primary source material available for a reader to begin their own journey or start afresh. I hope you find this post both informative and useful.
Portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis by John Wollaston, 1757, two years before she married George Washington.
It will come as no surprise that after the death of her wealthy first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, in 1757, the 25 year old widow, Martha, assumed substantial new responsibilities for managing not only the domestic aspect of her household (including the care of young children) but also the administration of the entire estate, which included her late husband's extensive business operations. Her business savvy and diplomatic acumen certainly stood her in good stead in her future life as President George Washington's wife and partner and yet, until recently, has been little remarked upon. As befitted a woman of position and responsibility, she needed to dress appropriately but stylishly. Therefore, in addition to negotiating commodity sales, such as tobacco, she ordered from England the most fashionable silks, jewelry, footwear, and so on. According to several sources, including those at  Mount Vernon, many of the goods were shipped by Cary and Company of London, including expensive textiles, such as silk. Of particular note, the name of  the Mantuamaker John Scherberg, has come down to us. Scherberg was known for handling the richly prized Spitalfields silks. It is also of interest that George Washington began to use the Cary firm for his own business interests, no doubt an effective method for consolidating the earnings and purchases of two estates through one trading house. (1)

After what has been oft observed as a very brief courtship, George Washington and Martha Custis were married on 6 January 1759.
According to Charlotte Chamberlain of New Kent County, Virginia to Lady Frances Shelbourne of London, England: 

"....The greatest social event that has ever taken place in our colony, occurred some three months ago, being the wedding of our mutual friend Mrs. Dandridge’s daughter, Mrs. Martha Custis to Colonel George Washington. The wedding was a splendid affair, conducted after the old English style that prevailed among wealthy planters. Military and civil officers with their wives graced the occasion. Ladies appeared in the costliest brocades, laces, and jewels which the old world could provide. The bride was arrayed in the height of English fashion, her wealth of charms a fit accompaniment to the manly beauty of the bridegroom, who stood six feet three inches in his shoes. The tallest and handsomest man of the Old Dominion. Colonel Washington is the hero of our new country, his heroic deeds for his country, his patriotism, perseverance, quick discernment, and military skill shown during the war with the French and Indians has been marvelous for such a young man, he being now hut twenty-eight years of age. I know you have heard his name often mentioned in England, and will be interested in him so [I] will tell you more particularly of the life of this young man to whim we give a kind of hero worship...." 2

Martha would have appeared much as she does in the Wollaston portrait above. Her wedding dress was of gold damask (some have called it a yellow brocade as well), trimmed with lace, and beneath her gown she wore a white silk petticoat with silver threads. Her unlabeled, London made shoes were purple satin and trimmed in silver metallic lace and the spangles popular at the time. Reportedly, she wore pearls in her hair.
Installation at Mount Vernon

Martha Washington's  London Wedding Shoes
Courtesy, Mount Vernon
Her groom wore a blue suit with a white satin waistcoat and blue buckles on his shoes, according to historian Ruth Ashby. With Martha at about 5 feet tall (although reaching to at least 5'2" in her heels) and George about 6'3" --the pair must have been striking indeed - her gold dress to his blue suit; white petticoat to his white satin waistcoat, her sparkly spangled shoes to his bright buckles. Small wonder that it was considered the "The greatest social event that has ever taken place in our colony...
George Washington wore a size 13 shoe..Miniature Replica of George Washington's dress shoe - George Washington imported his black leather dress shoes from England. Interchangeable buckles of silver, brass or paste decorated men's shoes at that time. This miniature dress shoe features a brass buckle replicated from one of George Washington's own, found in the Mount Vernon collection. His dress shoe and buckle, from
Mount Vernon
After spending their honeymoon or wedding trip in Williamsburg, Virginia, they newlyweds soon parted company as the General returned to his duties. However, this quote, from less than a year of marriage, reveals that George Washington was extremely pleased with his bride and their relationship when he writes:
"Fort Cumberland, July 20, 1758: We have begun our march to the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as to another Self. That All-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your faithful and ever affectionate friend, G. Washington." (3)
1.This site is extremely useful in understanding dower rights, inheritance rights and so on especially in the cases of remarriage.

2. There are a number of questions surrounding the source, provenance and accuracy of this letter. A full account is made in the attached link:

3. Warton, Anne Hollingsworth, Martha Washington, 37 (1897).

There are an abundance of print and online sources available for further research. 

The blog below provides an excellent visual compendium of portraits of Martha Washington:

www.Mount has posted a wide range of collections items and cataloging research on its web site. Also especially good for educators in building lesson plans.


  1. The shoe shown above is in fact a miniature, not an actual shoe worn by George Washington. The miniature buckle is based on a buckle, believed to have been owned by George Washington, and now in the Mount Vernon collection. the Mount Vernon collection does not include any surviving shoe worn by George Washington. Susan Schoelwer, Curator, George Washington's Mount Vernon

    1. Thank you for the clarification regarding the shoe image, Susan Schoelwer. Cheers, Kimberly


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