Material Matters: Reading the Chairs of the Republican Court
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Material Matters
Reading the Chairs of the Republican Court
Keywords

George Washington, Martha Washington, Furniture design, Republican Court

The elegant side chair, with its clean lines, green silk upholstery, and crisp, white paint, was a key piece of furniture in George and Martha Washington’s presidential home. Between 1790 and 1797, when they owned this chair and its companion pieces—five more side chairs, twelve armchairs, and a sofa—it defined their best parlor as a drawing room. We know that this chair was made in France; that the Washingtons (along with many of their guests) likely sat in it; and that today it is reverently preserved at Mount Vernon, where it serves to validate the historic house experience.1

But can a chair tell us more? Does it offer evidence about the social networks and quest for national identity that drove members of the republican court—as David Shields and Fredrika Teute inform us—to make styles of manners and sociability a topic of political conversation and a cause of anxiety? Collectively, this suite of furniture from Paris heralded the intentions of the Washingtons to conduct their household, and by extension the new nation, along the Enlightenment principles of sociability: the hallmark of a genteel, polite, and civilized society. Yet, [End Page 287] when tied to the narrative of nostalgia that Shields and Teute posit as central to the post-bellum formulation of the republican court, the story of these chairs enriches our understanding of the politics of politeness in the early republic while at the same time illustrating the power of material culture to authenticate historical memory.

Figure 1. Jean-Baptiste Lelarge. Side chair, Paris, ca. 1785. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Collection, Mount Vernon, VA. <br/><br/>Photograph courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
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Figure 1.

Jean-Baptiste Lelarge. Side chair, Paris, ca. 1785. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Collection, Mount Vernon, VA.

Photograph courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

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In drawing our attention to the republican court during the Washington, Adams, and Jefferson administrations, Shields and Teute demonstrate that symbols are powerful stuff. They show how the ritual acts and behaviors performed in Philadelphia and Washington drawing rooms—associated with gentility, politeness, taste, sociability, and civility—helped build a community of interest, fostering the creation of a national, elite identity. With its focus on the culture of the drawing room, their work opened up new historical spaces in which scholars not only explored women’s influence on society and politics, or the home’s role as a public, political arena, but also opened avenues for understanding how the material world itself—displayed on bodies or within homes—contributed to the formation of that national elite.2

Let’s return to George and Martha Washington’s chairs. Keenly sensitive to the ways his personal and public life set political and aesthetic precedents, Washington paid considerable attention to his furnishings. When Congress rented 3 Cherry Street in New York City to serve as the first official residence, it appointed William Duer and Samuel Osgood to furnish the house. Recognizing the scope of this task, they ''pitched on their wives'' for help, according to a niece, as the ladies were ''likely to do it better.''3

Catherine Duer and Maria Osgood, seasoned shoppers both, worked with cabinetmaker Thomas Burling to purchase 125 pieces of furniture, from tables and sideboards to wash stands, beds, and 73 chairs.4 Surviving pieces and later inventory descriptions suggest the ladies selected items in the Chippendale style, rather than the latest Adam style then becoming more fashionable in elite London and Paris circles. Although Martha Washington declared the house ''handsomely furnished,'' it was [End Page 289] evidently not to the standard they had in mind for a drawing room welcoming national leaders and foreign dignitaries. At the first opportunity, the Washingtons supplemented the Congressional purchases with a suite of furniture from France.5

The side chair probably came into the Washingtons’ possession through this purchase. It bears the maker’s mark for Jean-Baptiste Lelarge, a third-generation Parisian master joiner considered among the best chair makers working in the Louis XVI style.6 In that purchase from Éleanor-Francois Élie, Cômpte de Moustier, the French ambassador, Washington acquired the twelve armchairs, six side chairs, and sofa upholstered in...