Martha Washington’s Speckled Apron 

Mrs. Washington had a big house to manage.

Mistress Custis, Mistress Washington

Martha Dandridge (1731-1802) was not born to wealth per se. She was born, very much like George Washington, to a family of gentry. Her father, John Dandridge, owned several hundred acres. This entitled him to a comfortable living, respect from his neighbors, and a seat in the House of Burgesses.

It was not even close to the wealth of Daniel Parke Custis, the man Martha married when she was eighteen. Twice her age, Custis was the heir to nearly 18,000 acres across five separate plantations, fine houses and all the accoutrements of gracious living.

Daniel Parke Custis

Their marriage was a happy one for seven years. They had four children, two died in early childhood. Then Daniel died. At 26, Martha was one of the wealthiest young widows in Virginia, with not only land and a workforce of 300 souls, but investments and the rarest of planter commodities: ready cash.

Several months later, she met Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Militia, who had inherited Mount Vernon from his half-brother. He was ready for a career change, and determined to turn it into a showplace. They found themselves like minded, and once Martha was assured that Washington would be an affectionate stepfather to her children and honest guardian of their estate, they agreed to marry.

Mistress of Mount Vernon

Martha had been the eldest of five surviving children, and was well accustomed to life on a plantation. Her years as Mistress Custis raised the level to mistress of a wealthy Virginia planter. The household goods (silver, porcelain, linen, etc.)  she brought along to Mt. Vernon were some of the finest in the colony.

Said to be a young Martha Washington

Young Mrs. W. was no stranger to the work of a plantation wife, and was happy in domestic life. She loved Mt. Vernon from the start, helping to transform it hands-on, into exactly the showplace ex-Col. Washington had envisioned. Her gardens were bountiful, her house furnishings luxurious, and her pride and joy, the kitchen, provided sumptuous meals for their many visitors. 

Run Up To Independence

With a savvy sense of business that became legendary, George Washington was a successful planter who became increasingly aware of the constrictions Great Britain, the Mother Country, was placing on American trade. And taxes.

When Virginia led the “colonies” in declaring non-importation of British goods and encouraging “Buy American”, both Washingtons embraced the concept. Martha no longer purchased fine imported silks, satins and laces, but contented herself with the best “American” cloth she could find. She was a superb needlewoman, and her hands were never idle. Her fancywork was well known to her friends and neighbors.

Aprons

Dry cleaning was more than a century in the future. Laundering was laborious – centered around boiling hot water, harsh lye soap, and plenty of elbow grease. Followed by hot irons. And that was for the “washable stuff.” Naturally, velvets and taffetas, silks and satins, could not be immersed in boiling water. The best that could/might be done, was gentle spot cleaning.

Modern – but in colonial style.

Therefore, the optimum way to care for clothing was to keep from getting it soiled or stained to begin with. Thus aprons. They could be washed and ironed relatively easily. For the daily work around the plantation, they were usually bib, or pinafore style, covering much of the entire gown. For a more social atmosphere, a half-apron might suffice. For a woman of Martha Washington’s social status, it would likely be made of a fine linen. Just as likely, she would have had several of them.

Morristown, New Jersey

Once the Revolutionary War was underway, General George Washington was Commander-in-Chief. One of his important-but-subtle duties was to recruit financial assistance for the army. It was no secret that the General was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, and needed to face wealthy patriot-colonists as a peer, which he was. He had been to Morristown earlier, and had “commandeered” the finest house in town as his headquarters, befitting his station.

GW’s HQ in Morristown, NJ

Armies were seasonal then, and the cold and snow sent them into winter quarters. This provided time to tend the wounded, train the soldiers, gather supplies and plan for a spring offensive. Maybe even some fund-raising. He always sent for Martha when he could.

The General

Late in 1779, she arrived.

The Apron and The Message

Naturally several wealthy Morristown women came to call on her, dressed in their finest clothes, befitting their status. Surprisingly, the general’s wife greeted them with a cheerful smile, but wearing a plain homespun brown cloth gown.

Even more surprising to the colonial ladies, she wore a speckled apron. (By the way, this information has repeatedly been included in many old books about Mrs. W.) For the uninitiated, “speckled” cloth, as opposed to fine linen or lace, is a coarse material, possibly an unbleached muslin, more associated with servants rather than a fine lady.

The older Mrs. W.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Washington welcomed her callers, engaged them in pleasant conversation, all the while taking needles from her workbasket, and continuing with her project – knitting socks for the soldiers. It is unknown whether the fine ladies were taken aback by Mrs. W’s plain appearance, but her obvious hospitality and pleasant charm won them over. And her subtle message was not lost on them.

After their tea, she invited them to call on her again. They would do so, and she in turn would call on them during those long winter months of 1780.

But when they called, satins and plumes were left behind. The ladies came ready to work, with their knitting baskets in hand. The fine ladies were now part of the war effort too.

Sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Wives, An Anecdotal History, Oxford University Press, 1988

Bourne, Miriam Anne: First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, 1982, New York, NY, W.W. Norton

Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking, 2005

Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2016

http://www.mountvernon.org/

https://www.nps.gov/morr/learn/historyculture/ford-mansion-washington-s-headquarters.htm

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