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.
The first of several carpet installations at Montpelier was laid on Friday, October 28. The Dining Room floorboards are once more covered with the installation of a Brussels weave carpet. In the nineteenth century, elegant carpets conveyed status, provided warmth during cool weather, protected floorboards, and enhanced the overall appearance of a room by thematically linking furnishings.
If you saw Richard Brookhiser’s recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” you might have been surprised to hear him say that James Madison was 5′6″. The height of America’s fourth president is a recurring topic of interest to visitors and readers. So, how tall was Mr. Madison?
James Madison, like many of his peers, was a man dedicated to knowledge of geography and history. In an August 1822 letter to William Taylor Barry, Madison wrote: “A knowledge of the Globe & its various inhabitants, however slight, might moreover create a taste for Books of Travels and Voyages, out of which might grow a general taste for history, an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction.”
This fall, visitors to Montpelier will witness another significant change to the Madisons’ Drawing Room. The curatorial team, with the expertise of historic textile consultant Natalie Larson, have identified and crafted historically appropriate red curtains—just as Dolley wished.
Throughout the Madisons’ retirement years (1817-1836), visitors to Montpelier were often surprised “at seeing [Madison's] negroes go to church [on] Sunday. They were gaily dressed, the women in bright-coloured calicoes; and, when a sprinkling of rain came, up went a dozen umbrellas.”1 This past Sunday, visitors to Montpelier also donned their much-needed umbrellas to pay homage to the generations of enslaved African Americans who lived and labored at Montpelier.
The summer has flown by and in the archaeology department we have made much progress in our excavations in the South Yard. We have completely uncovered the two southernmost slave quarters in the South Yard and have redefined our understanding of these buildings.
The seating furniture that populated Montpelier during James and Dolley Madison’s retirement varied from high-style French chairs in the Drawing Room and painted fancy chairs in the Dining Room to the furniture of D. C. cabinetmaker William Worthington that Madison retained after his second presidential term.
In “Mr. Livingston, I presume?” Montpelier’s curatorial team described the most recent additions to the Madisons’ prized Montpelier interior—the initial installation of statuary in the Drawing Room and Library, including six life-sized busts and two reductions. According to expert sculpture consultant and art historian, Dr. Pamela Potter-Hennessey, the proper display of these sculptures is often as critical as the artwork itself.
The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Central Virginia and many parts of the Eastern United States on August 23, 2011 was not the first of its kind to tremble the area. James and Dolley Madison’s historic Montpelier home lies squarely within the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, and while noticeable earthquakes are highly irregular, they are not uncommon.