A shocking new installation at Montpelier

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Visitors to Montpelier during James Madison’s retirement vividly described the Drawing Room as museum-like and full of curiosities. Among these curious items was an “electrical machine,” likely intended as a party novelty to convey scientific principles and encourage socializing. Considered cutting-edge technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, electrical machines, also referred to as a “philosophical instruments,” were used to demonstrate emerging theories of electricity.

Many of the Madisons’ guests would have been familiar with electrostatic technology and the latest phenomenal electrical theories. Period medical texts suggested the application of electricity to the body as a source of relief for ailments, and scientists marveled at possible energy implications. Considered a field of natural philosophy, electricity was widely studied by Madison’s peers, particularly his fellow members of the American Philosophical Society.

Period texts and catalogues depict two types of electrical machines designed to create friction by rotating glass plates or cylinders against chemically-treated textiles. Because the devices were very sensitive, and glass components were easily shattered from pressure or misuse, they were typically housed in wooden boxes or cases. Users turned a crank, which spun the plate or cylinder, generating static electricity. The charge was conducted to a bar that transferred the static shock.

In a nineteenth century watercolor by Diana Sperling entitled May 25th. Henry Van electrifying – Mrs. Van, Diana, Harry, Isabella, Mum and HGS, a group of people holding hands all experience the static electric shock from an electric machine as it is conducted from one person to the next.1

Describing the Drawing Room in 1832, visitor John H. B. Latrobe noted busts, looking glasses, paintings, and “an electrical machine [which] occupies a corner.”2 An article from the Boston Evening Transcript (republished in the Baltimore Patriot in 1834) also mentioned that an “electrical apparatus” and “several philosophical instruments” were featured in the room.3

We presume John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison’s son, inherited the electrical machine, or had a very similar piece. Following his death in 1852, estate documents note an electrical machine or “box containing a shocking machine with tubes” at Toddsberthe, his home in Orange County.4 Such a piece was purchased from the Todd estate sale for James H. Causten Jr., husband of Annie Payne (Dolley’s niece and companion).5 In 1899, when Causten’s daughter Mary Kunkel sold many of the family belongings, she included an “electric machine used by Mrs. Madison in her last illness” in a draft of items to be included at auction.6 There is no documentary evidence confirming that James or Dolley Madison were ever treated with electrical stimulations, and by the 1840s static electricity was rarely used for medical treatment.7

The curatorial department is pleased to unveil the newest and most electrifying installation to date. Occupying one corner of the Drawing Room, as it was described by John H. B. Latrobe in 1832, the fully-functioning electrical machine demonstrates the Madisons’ interest in natural philosophies and dedication to entertainment.

Notes:

1. See Gordon Mingay’s (watercolors by Diana Sperling) Mrs. Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 1981), 52. 

2. John H. B. Latrobe to Charles Carroll Harper, August 3, 1832, box 4, John H. B. Latrobe Family Papers, MS 525, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland. 

3. ”Mr. Madison. From the Boston Evening Transcript, Oct. 6,” Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, MD), August 22, 1834. 

4. Inventory and appraisal of John Payne Todd’s Estate, September 28, 1852, Will Book 12:18-20 and loose papers, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Orange County, Virginia. 

5. List of items bought at Toddsberth sale, E. Rowe, November 11, 1852, Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro Historical Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina.  

6. Mary Carvallo Causten Kunkel, Manuscript notes created in preparation for the 1899 Kunkel Sale, n.d. [ca. 1899] (with later notes in unknown hand), Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro Historical Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina. 

7. W. D. Hackman, Electricity from Glass: The History of the Frictional Electrical Machine 1600-1850 (Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff & Noordhoff, 1978), 7. 

Madison's electrical machine occupies one corner of the Drawing Room.

Members of the Curatorial Department test Madison's electric machine.

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff