It did not start out to be a major event – but it became the benchmark of Washington society for nearly two decades.
Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, were both in their late fifties when they became First Ladies. They had entertained graciously, albeit very formally, in New York and Philadelphia, as befitting what they believed was their age and position. Neither had sought, wanted or particularly enjoyed their tenures.
But when Thomas Jefferson became President in March, 1801, the capital moved to Washington, DC. It was a tiny village, muddy, damp, unpaved, unfinished, with houses and businesses far-flung. Along with the new President came James and Dolley Madison. Jefferson and Madison had enjoyed a 25-year close friendship, and Jefferson insisted that his friend and political ally become Secretary of State.
There were sixteen states in the union when Jefferson became President. Senators and Congressmen came to the new capital as part-timers. A few weeks in the spring session, a few in the fall, and then back to their respective homes. Very few remained in town, although that would change in the decades ahead.
Most of the legislators, the judges, the military hierarchy and department heads lived in boarding houses or hotels. Few could manage the expense of bringing their families. Thus, there were few places for the movers and shakers to “move and shake” in an informal setting.
Dolley Opens the Door
Secretary of State James Madison (1751-1836) was a quiet man like Jefferson, and preferred the “small” table: a few select guests. No large crowds.
Not so Mrs. Madison. She was in her early thirties, with youthful good looks and energy. She also had a rare gift for friendship and for making people feel welcome. She was easy in company, and began opening the Madison’s house for luncheons and teas and dinners on a regular basis.
“Salons” had been popular in Europe for decades. Well-born ladies of fashion would open their homes to provide a comfortable venue for prominent people to engage in lively and informal conversation and refreshments. Madison’s Virginia plantation was prosperous; wagons of supplies were sent regularly.
Dolley Madison (1768-1849) had never been to Europe, but she did know, likely through Jefferson, the concept and purpose of the salon. It also suited her personality – and Madison’s political interests.
Space is finite, of course, and dinner invitations can only accommodate what a table can accommodate. But a “salon,” with its open house come-and-go concept, can attract large numbers of guests.
The house, the bountiful refreshments, the prominent guest list and most importantly, the gracious hostess were like a conjunction of planets. It was perfect.
Wednesday Evenings Chez Madison
It was a simple enough concept. Wednesday evening was “open house” at the Madisons. No invitations were necessary. Everyone knew about it. Everyone was invited: men and women, young and old. They came to meet and greet, to be introduced, to matchmake, to find employment opportunities, and even hold casual political discussions in a remarkably neutral setting. No arguments; no controversial subjects. Just good informal fellowship wherein political colleagues and political adversaries could become better acquainted.
Those who attended instinctively knew the expected behavior, and none wished to offend their delightful hostess.
For the better part of eight years, Wednesday evenings in Washington were spent at the home of the Secretary of State. Mrs. Madison became the unquestioned leader of the growing Washington society.
Wednesday Evenings at the White House
Madison became President in 1809, and the White House was now poised to become the social mecca of Washington. The country had grown and was continuing to grow rapidly, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase which added millions of habitable acres.
Dolley Madison’s reputation had also grown, and at forty, she was arguably the most famous woman in the country. Visitors to Washington insisted on shaking her hand.
Access to the White House in those years was very simple. Knock at the door. The doorman would ask if you had an appointment with the President or First Lady. If you did not, you would be invited to “leave your card” (which everyone had), and advise where you could be reached.
Within a day or so, a White House messenger arrived at your hotel or boarding house with an invitation to Mrs. Madison’s next Wednesday soirée. If you were properly dressed and mannered, you were welcome. Rich or poor, farmer or preacher, hoi polloi or upper crust, it did not matter.
Few chairs were provided, usually for the elderly or frail. The rooms had been generally emptied of furniture to accommodate upwards of three hundred men and women who crowded in, thus giving rise to the expression “a squeeze.” Mrs. Madison, elegantly gowned and sporting one of her trademark turban hats, perhaps adorned with an egret plume, would be at the door to greet her guests personally. Historian Catherine Allgor suggests that the turban cum plume added several inches to Dolley’s height making the hostess visible in a crowd.
And when a visitor to the capital showed up at her “squeeze,” she made it a point to greet them herself, inquire about their home or their business, and then introduce them to someone with similar interests.
Light refreshments would generously be provided by servants with trays. Coffee, tea, cold drinks in warm weather, “punch” and cakes, including her well-known seed-cake. There is no record that anyone was turned away. Everyone came, and they came every Wednesday evening.
Other Washington ladies opened their homes to guests on a regular basis, but Wednesday nights belonged to Mrs. Madison. And from that time on, the social center of Washington, DC was firmly fixed at the White House.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow
Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press
Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company
Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011