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If The Shoe Fits

2019 kicked off with an exciting acquisition for the Curatorial & Collections Department; the donation of a pair of leather slippers made in Philadelphia with a family history of having been owned by Dolley Madison.

This pair of leather slippers with silk bows have a family history of being purchased by Dolley Madison. Accompanying the slippers at the time of donation was a handwritten letter dated 1818 describing the shoes’ family history. It begins, This slipper was made in Philadelphia for Dolly Madison. Being too small, it was returned to the maker; & sold to Miss Elizabeth Rahrtson, of Nashville…

Shopping in Philly 

“This slipper was made in Philadelphia for Dolly Madison…”

New York. London. Tokyo. Today, these big-name cities are where fashion happens. During Dolley Madison’s time, Philadelphia was leading America in manufacturing and a place where the latest trends could be found. From furniture to textiles, Philadelphia offered local goods, as well as imports from England and around the world to wealthy patrons. As the Capital of the newly formed United States continued to move down the East Coast- first from New York, then Philadelphia, and finally to Washington D.C. in 1790[1]– Philly’s central location allowed for its continual use as a major port. As wealthy families in government moved in, out and around the Capital, they continued to purchase their goods from large-scale ports, such as Philadelphia.

In April of 1809, just as the Madisons were settling into Washington at the beginning of James’ presidency, Dolley received a letter from her friend Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst Latrobe in Philadelphia. The daughter of a Philadelphian merchant and an old friend of Dolley’s, Mary was one of the Madisons’ contacts who purchased items for the family.[2]

“Tomorrow you will receive your Box containing the hat & Turban, I ought to have been more of a Merchant than to have neglected to acknowledge the receipt of your Remittance—which I have done in the Letter that accompanies the Box.” Mary E Latrobe, April 12, 1809, Philadelphia.

From this record, we know that Dolley was purchasing garments from Philadelphia, through her contacts. This meant that she was unable to try the pieces on until she physically had them.

In another letter Dolley comments on a pair of shoes, this time purchased through a contact in France, which were regrettably too small.

“My shoes ware just a size two short, but the flowers, trimmings & ornaments, are enchanting.[3]

After Madison’s second term as president, the family moved out of Washington to Orange, Virginia. It is likely that Dolley continued to rely on her friends and shopping proxies to obtain the latest styles from Philadelphia for herself and for the Madison’s new home at Montpelier.

The Greek Influence

The Greek revival style swept through Europe and the United States during the 1800s. From architecture to fashion, embracing a stylized version of Greek design harkened back to the stability and ideologies of Ancient Greece.[4] Many architectural examples of this period are found in Washington, D.C. such as the White House and Treasury Building. Even the facade of Montpelier retains its commanding image with four columns and a pointed pediment.

Dolley, known for being a contemporary woman with superb elegance and fashion,[5] was documented wearing the trendy high waist gown of the revival style.[6] The reproduction Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison, below, shows the former First Lady in a low-cut, short-sleeved, cream-colored gown with gold accents and jewelry. The original portrait dates to 1804, the same time frame that this style of dress was popular. To compliment the garment, a woman would wear flat slippers, such as the pair donated to Montpelier.

At Montpelier, Once Again

Through a generous donation from Dr. and Mrs. Telfair Hodgson Parker of Charleston, S.C., these shoes made their second trip to Montpelier and this time they are here to stay. Although we do not know with absolute certainty that they were purchased by Dolley, their style, date, and condition make them an appropriate example of the type of footwear popular during this time.

You can view these shoes and many more objects from the ArchaeologyHistoric Preservation, and Research collections at our new exhibit, The Mysteries of Montpelier, now opened at the Montpelier Visitor’s Center.

[1] “The History of Washington, DC.”, 23 May 2016,

[2] Montpelier Records Database, Latrobe, Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst. MRD N0226.

[3] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Ruth Baldwin Barlow, ca. April 19, 1812, Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

[4] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Greek Revival.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 May 2017,

[5] “Return to ‘Books, Farm, Tranquility.’” Madisons at Montpelier: Reflections on the Founding Couple, by Ralph Ketcham, University of Virginia Press, 2011, p. 27.

[6] Matthews, Mimi. “The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide.” Mimi Matthews, 18 Nov. 2015,[vc_column][vc_text_separator title=Written By][vc_single_image image=2129 alignment=center][vc_column width=1/2][vc_custom_heading text=Leanna Schafer, BA font_container=tag:h5|text_align:left use_theme_fonts=yes][vc_custom_heading text=Curatorial & Collections Assistant font_container=tag:h6|text_align:left]Leanna joined the Curatorial & Collections Department at Montpelier in 2018 as a Museum Technician where she provides preventative care for the Montpelier Collection. She values the histories and stories told by objects and works to preserve those objects for generations to come.