A Birthday Discovery for Dolley
In the early nineteenth century, many fashionable men and women including Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry Clay, Queen Charlotte of England (wife of George III), and Dolley Madison dipped snuff. The nicotine stimulant made from ground tobacco leaves was typically stored in a small highly decorated box made of silver, tortoise shell, or other decorative material. Margaret Bayard Smith once said of Dolley, “Her snuff-box had a magic influence, and seemed as perfect a security from hostility, as a participation of bread and salt is among many savage tribes. For who could partake of its contents, offered in a manner so gracious, and retain a feeling inimical to its owner?”1 Currently on display in the Grills Gallery at Montpelier, Marion duPont Scott, Montpelier’s last private owner, bequeathed Dolley’s silver snuffbox, currently on display in the Grills Gallery at Montpelier, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon her death in 1983.
Recent research by Montpelier’s curators has uncovered previously unknown information about the snuffbox, namely its maker, Charles A. Burnett of Georgetown. This new discovery fortuitously coincides with the 244th anniversary of Dolley Madison’s birth, May 20. A hand-written note in the object’s file concerning an unidentified maker’s mark on the interior of the snuffbox was the first clue. Objects made of silver are traditionally stamped with several marks that provide future scholars with significant information about where and when the piece was made, as well as by whom. During previous examinations, it was noted that this piece was unmarked, because there were no visible stamps or maker’s marks on the exterior surface. The note provided a clue that a mark of three block-letter initials, “CAB,” was stamped on the interior of the snuffbox. A recent examination of the snuffbox revealed three marks on the bottom interior surface.
The “CAB” stamp was the maker’s mark of Charles A. Burnett (1769-1849), a well known Georgetown silversmith who produced wares for the Madisons at the President’s House and the Seven Buildings. Surviving receipts show that Burnett provided the Madisons with a wine funnel, punch strainers, chamber sticks, flatware, sugar tongs, and curtain pins. Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and other prominent residents of Washington also patronized Burnett. He was active for over fifty years, beginning in Fredericksburg, Virginia, then moving to Alexandria, and finally to Georgetown in 1796. From 1796 until 1806, Burnett partnered with John Rigden as Burnett & Rigden.2 In 1815, Burnett was commissioned to produce the skippet, or small silver box, to protect the wax seal on the Treaty of Ghent, the document that effectively ended the War of 1812. The plain skippet, measuring 3.25 inches, held a wax impression of the 1782 Great Seal of the United States, and is currently housed in the Public Records Office in London.3
1. Margaret Bayard Smith, “Mrs. Madison,” The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans (1836): 1-10.
2. Catherine Hollan, Virginia Silversmiths, Jewelers, Clock – and Watchmakers, 1607-1860 (McLean, VA: Hollan Press, 2010), 106.
3. Hollan, 108.