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Furnishing a Bedchamber: Furniture

During our interpretive period of the Madisons’ retirement era, John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison’s son from her first marriage, maintained a bedchamber at Montpelier. Previously referred to as “the small bedchamber,” this space has now been furnished and interpreted as Payne’s bedroom and has been opened to visitors since January 2018.

With a wealth of research provided by former Director of Museum Programs, Meg Kennedy, former curator Teresa Teixeira utilized a range of source material to assist her in devising his bedchamber. The furniture chosen to be used in Payne Todd’s bedchamber includes a variety of era-appropriate pieces as well as Montpelier and Madison provenance furnishings.

To read how furniture, objects, and props were chosen for John Payne Todd’s room, visit our Project Page, Furnishing the room of John Payne Todd.

The Federal Style

Accurately recreating a room such as John Payne Todd’s preferably consists of written documentation of the space. Unfortunately, no distinct description of Payne Todd’s bed was noted in visitor accounts. It was therefore concluded that his bed was not particularly remarkable. Thus, both the bedstead and the hangings selected for his room are based on the evidence of found fragments (see Wallpaper and Textiles) and the absence of visitor accounts.

The late 18th-century bed that is installed in Payne Todd’s room has no Madison provenance, however, it is very stylistically similar to the one in the large bedchamber at Montpelier, which does have a strong Madison provenance. The Madison bed features carved posts with a similar profile carved with acanthus leaves. While the footposts on this bedstead do also have acanthus leaf carving, the upper vasiform section is carved instead with textile swags. The bed is extremely typical of Federal styles produced in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, and other major United States production cities.

Although the footposts are intricately carved, the headposts are not. This too is typical of bedstead techniques during the period: since the headposts would be covered at all times by the hangings, they were generally not as elaborately decorated as the footposts. Additionally, they were also made of the secondary wood instead of the “show” wood. (The footposts on this bedstead are a darker, more expensive wood that the parts of the bed that are not usually visible.)

Detail of the Madison provenance bed at Montpelier, MF2014.63.1


Furniture with History

A number of different storage forms are present throughout the house: sideboards, book presses, chests of drawers. The wardrobe installed in this room has a firm Montpelier provenance and a possible Madison provenance. According to family history, the wardrobe was purchased by Benjamin Thornton as part of the sale of Montpelier from Henry Moncure. It was later sold to Frank Littleton, owner of Monroe’s Oak Hill along with an affidavit from the Thornton sisters stating its purported Madison provenance. While there is no documentation for the object’s history prior to the Thorntons, it does date to the Madisons’ lifetime (1815-1835), and large case furniture such as this did often stay within a house through successive owners.

Though Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited with inventing the clothes hanger, hanging clothes was not widely practiced until late in the nineteenth century. Thus, wardrobes were fitted with shelves and drawers for storing folded clothing and linens. While “hangar presses,” wardrobes with knobs or hooks around the inside for hanging clothes did exist at the time, they are rarer, and clothes were hung more like on a coat rack than how we hang clothes for storage today.

During the Madisons’ period, this furniture form was called both a wardrobe and a clothes press. Though the term comes from a linen press meant to press creases into folded linens, the term press most often simply referred to case furniture used as storage, i.e. book press, china press, etc.

In front of the wardrobe is a drop-leaf table, positioned as if Payne Todd was at work reading or writing. The table has a family history of belonging to James Madison. Stylistically, it dates to the mid-eighteenth century, making it likely that it originated in James Madison Sr.’s household. A chair from the dining room set is at the table, as if Payne Todd took an extra that wasn’t needed.

View of the Montpelier provenance wardrobe, NT 57.67.1, and Madison provenance table, MF2000.33. Image courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site.