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Creating the Guest Spaces

Since 2008, when the restoration of the House was completed, Montpelier researchers and curators have worked together to furnish all the rooms to reflect the Madisons’ time.  When it came time to furnish the last two rooms of the house, our Chief Curator Elizabeth Chew and our former Curator Teresa Teixiera, decided to highlight guest spaces – illustrating how guests were accommodated in the house and to talk about the domestic work of the enslaved. The two rooms together create a joint look at the guest experience. With one room furnished with period objects and the other furnished with reproduction pieces, the hope is that our visitors will look at the period furniture, then through the reproductions, experience how they would have felt.

Overnight Guests Make Day-to-Day Work

Many people stayed overnight at Montpelier during James Madison’s retirement years, including American politicians, British and French aristocrats, and war heroes like the Marquis de Lafayette. Who prepared the house and took care of these guests’ needs? While James and Dolley hosted and entertained, it was the enslaved house workers who were expected to pick up the extra work of meeting the visitors’ needs.

One visitor described a conversation with Dolley Madison about numbers of overnight guests:

She enquired [sic] why I had not brought the little girls; I told her the fear of incomoding [sic] my friends. “Oh,” said she laughing, “I should not have known they were here, among all the rest, for at this moment we have only three and twenty in the house.” “Three and twenty,” exclaimed I! “Why where do you store them?” “Oh we have house room in plenty.” This I could easily believe, for the house seemed immense.

The Guest Room at Montpelier. The room is interpreted as it may have looked between guests when the enslaved housemaids were cleaning and preparing the space. 

With such a constant press of company, many guests bunked in shared accommodations, made more comfortable with multi-purpose furniture. As seen in the photo above, “Press” beds— the original Murphy bed—maximized floor space. Rooms may only have had one table, instead of separate dressing and writing tables to make more room.

This room is in transition – as if visitors have recently departed. As with all domestic work, preparing for and cleaning up after guests fell to the enslaved housemaids, possibly Becky, Nany, or Ailsey Payne, who day in and day out made beds, emptied chamber pots, brought water, cleaned rooms, and performed the myriad tasks necessary to sustain the Madisons’ reputation for consummate hospitality.


Laundering bed linens between guests was a labor-intensive process, typically taking enslaved laundresses a full day, if not longer. Account books show purchases of items such as fig blue (an indigo-based additive that brightened white fabrics) and borax, and irons and wash kettles appear in estate inventories. While we do not know the names of the laundresses who used these supplies at Montpelier, there is one reference to an enslaved servant named Sally, at the Madison’s Washington D.C. house.  Dolley’s niece asks Dolley to send her “a few dresses which I left for Sally to wash.”

Pillows, sheets, and blankets needed to be washed for every guest. Rope beds, like the one seen here, would have to be routinely tightened.

Laundry was washed with soap made from lye. Lye could be purchased, but more commonly was made by pouring water through ashes. Enslaved laundresses boiled large pots of water outside or in an out building, then added the soap or lye followed by the laundry. They then stirred, beat, and rubbed the wash until the dirt released. This could be done with washboards or wash bats, large paddles that could be smooth or grooved.

Be Our Guest 

After furnishing the guest space with the period pieces, in April 2019 the last room in Montpelier was furnished- as an interactive Guest Room for you! If you were the Madisons’ guest, you could lie on the bed, pull open the window curtains, and relax in the easy chair. In this space our guests are welcomed to sit, play, open, explore, touch, and wear, in this Interactive Guest Bedchamber.

The furniture and textiles in this room are modern reproductions of 18th and 19th-century pieces. They have been hand made by artisans and feature wooden inlay, loom-woven fabric, and handcrafted cast iron.

David S. Morris is a cabinet maker specializing in 18th and 19th-century reproduction furniture. Located in Pennsylvania, David has been working in restoration and reproductions for 30 years. He uses traditional methods such as hand planing, hand-cut dovetails, hand-carved elements, and mortise and tenon construction. The wing back chair, dressing table, and chest of drawers in the Interactive Room are all modern reproductions made by David with these traditional methods.

Rabbit Goody at @thistlehillweavers produced the bedhangings from a historic textile pattern. With more than 30 years of experience, Thistle Hill Weavers creates luxurious custom fabrics, carpet, and trim for designers, homeowners, museums, and the film industry and specializes in 17th, 18th, and 19th-century reproduction fabrics.

Chris Stokes of Stokes of England, Ltd., created the handmade wrought iron curtain and window rods in the Interactive room. Chris comes from a family line of blacksmiths, his father is Joseph Benjamin Stokes; Master Blacksmith and Master Farrier; UN Expert and Consultant in Blacksmithing to the UN.

In addition to the craftsmen and women who made the reproduction pieces in the room, the Collections Team had to do some assembling to bring the room together! The bed hangings and sack-bottom beds needed to be hung and tied and the bed ticks- the mattresses- needed to be stuffed and adapted for cleaning.

To reproduce the feeling of a down-stuffed tick, we used polyfill, the same material inside of stuffed animals. Polyfill is made of synthetic materials, which makes it more bug resistant than natural fibers such as real down. A fabric sack was sewn together, stuffed with polyfill, sewn shut, and then stuffed into the bed tick made by Thistle Hill Weavers. We then applied Velcro to close the bed tick, for easy access and removal of the fabric sack. This allows us to easily clean the bed tick by removing the interior sack with all the stuffing.

With the beds ready and the reproduction furniture all in place, we invited our colleagues to put the Interactive Room to the test!

Over the past year, many guests to Montpelier enjoyed learning about 18th century furniture, hospitality, and life by visiting and playing in the Interactive Room. Due to COVID-19 and the nature of the Interactive Room, the space has been temporarily closed. We hope that if you have not yet explored the Interactive Room in person, that you’ll be able to visit soon!

For more information and behind the scenes with Collections at Montpelier, follow us on Instagram! @collecting_montpelier

Behind the Scenes

Watch Jenniffer and Leanna assemble the bed hangings on the four-post bed and rope the sack bottom trundle bed in the Interactive Room, April 2019.

YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video

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