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Industrious Archivists: How Rats Helped Preserve Madison’s Montpelier

Prior to the Restoration of Montpelier, Dr. Susan Buck, a conservator specializing in the analysis and conservation of painted surfaces on wooden objects and architectural materials, preformed an exhaustive investigation of the House. Among the findings, Dr. Buck’s team uncovered tiny fragments of wallpaper, clothing, letters, and furniture upholstery collected over the past 240 years- all in a rat’s nest.[1]

Generations of People…and Pests

After James Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley sold Montpelier and moved to Washington, D.C. Since leaving the hands of the Madisons, Montpelier has known many owners. From the merchant Henry Moncure (1844-1848), to Benjamin Thornton (1848-1854), eventually to Thomas Carson (1857-1881), then Louis Detrick and William Bradley (1881-1900) and finally, William duPont, of The duPont Company.[2]

Although each owner enjoyed Montpelier as their home, inevitably leaving their mark on the house, they were also caretakers. The historical significance of the property as the lifelong home of former president James Madison was not lost on the duPonts. William and Annie duPont purchased the property in 1901 and it was here their two children, Marion and Willie, grew up. While the family made large-scale changes to both the interior and exterior of Montpelier, essentially tripling the size of the house, they also took careful steps to preserve and reuse architectural elements. When William died in 1928, his daughter, Marion, kept Montpelier as her lifelong home until her death in 1983.[3] This generational respect for history and salvaging building materials would be a gift for preservationists, decades later during the Montpelier Restoration in 2003- 2008, when Madison-era doors, mantels and a hearth were discovered on the property.

Unknown to the people maintaining Montpelier throughout the years, another inhabitant was contributing to the preservation of the former president’s house. For years, rats had been raising families and building homes of their own inside the house’s walls. To make their nests, rats gather materials like paper, fabric, organic substances such as grass, and other scraps to provide insulation and comfort for their young. Gone unchecked, these nests can span generations and years, with each family building upon their predecessor’s work.[4]

If These Walls Could Talk

In 2001, while examining the wall that connects the Large Bedchamber and John Payne Todd’s Room at Montpelier, the Restoration Team discovered a large rat’s nest that contained fabric, wallpaper, and paper fragments. Because the nest was active for so long, the contents were mixed and therefore stratigraphy analysis was not an option. Instead, Dr. Susan Buck dated the fragments by diving into the history of paint and wallpaper. Pigments and paper fibers have evolved throughout the years, so by knowing how they were made during Madison’s time, investigators can determine what fragments belonged to which period.[5]

“…wallpaper can be given an approximate date by determining what kind of paper it is printed on and what kind of pigments were used in its paint.  In the case of paper, in order to date to the Madison-era, the wallpapers would have to be made out of cotton, flax, or hemp fibers…” –Gardiner Hallock, The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest, 2014[6]

The analysis confirmed the presence of chrome green and flax fibers in the wallpaper fragment.[7] Equipped with this information, it was part of the Curatorial and Collections Team’s job to find historical wallpaper with this pigment. To learn more about the wallpaper chosen, read Furnishing a Bedchamber: Wallpaper and Textiles. 

Through the intentional-and unintentional-preservation of many hands (and paws), Montpelier has been restored to its Madison-era structure. Over the course of 5 years, Montpelier underwent a major restoration, with elements still added today. To read more about the Restoration or to book a Restoration Tour with Jenn Glass, Director of Architecture & Historic Preservation at James Madison’s Montpelier, explore the options below.

[1] Hallock, Gardiner. “The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest.” The Digital Montpelier Project, Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2014,

[2] Hallock, Gardiner. “History of Montpelier.” The Digital Montpelier Project, Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2014,

[3] “History of Montpelier.”

[4] “The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest.”

[5] “The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest.”

[6] “The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest.”

[7] “The Bounty of a Rat’s Nest.”