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Polly the Parrot

In late June 2018, Montpelier welcomed its newest in-house resident: Polly the Parrot. Polly is a life-sized model Macaw poised in a standing position, her wings folded by her sides. She can be found throughout the house, eyeing visitors from a bookshelf, hiding in a closet, or investigating leftover cake in the Drawing Room.

The addition of a parrot to the interpretative narration of Montpelier arose from written accounts of guests encountering Polly while visiting President and Mrs. Madison.  One account by Mary Cutts praised Polly’s beauty and her ability to speak French but noted the bird’s aggressive side, writing that the phrase “Polly is coming!” would frighten children.[1] Polly, although spectacular in color, had a mischievous side that kept guests wary of the exotic pet.

Parrots were a novelty pet of the time. Expensive, beautiful, and smart, parrots provided entertainment for gatherings. Guests could admire the rich colors of the bird’s plumage, watch as the creature flew around the room, or, as in Mary Cutts’ account, teach it to squawk out phrases. Having an exotic pet implied the family’s wealth, status, and access to foreign cultures. With the country’s fascination with exotic pets, Polly may have been acquired through an international dignitary sometime before the burning of the White House in 1814. Among the items of importance carried away from the White House fire, most notably the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, “a favorite Macaw” was rescued as well.[2]

It is thought that Polly had clipped wings, hindering her ability to fly around and perhaps allowing the Madisons more control over her interactions with guests. Pet parrots were kept either in cages or tethered to a perch, confining them to a designated area. Eighteenth-century images of pet birds show cages suspended from the ceiling or standing among the furniture of a room. A bird perch could be simply a T-stand or consist of climbing pegs for the bird to reach the top. A large bowl would be at the top of the pole, or at its base, to catch any mess the bird may make. A thin chain would keep the bird at its perch. Mary Cutt’s account of Polly’s death suggests the Madisons kept her on a perch. “…her career was recently brought to an end by a night hawk; which pounced upon her, when, one night buy the carelessness of servants she was not brought to her perch in the hall.”[3]

Today, Polly the Parrot resides safely at Montpelier in the care of the Curatorial and Collections Department. Each week the Collections Team helps Polly find her way to a new perch, offering returning guests a game of “Where’s Polly?” Utmost care is taken when deciding where and how to perch Polly. The care of the objects in the Montpelier collection is our top priority and each object is evaluated before being considered as a spot for Polly. The model parrot includes thin wires on both her feet, to aid in attachment. These wires have been wrapped to prevent damage to any object she may be placed on. The model is top heavy so we have used fishing wire to help with her balance. The Collections Team is currently creating a small stand to help counteract the model’s top heaviness and allow the figure to stand without the use of additional supports. This will broaden our options of places Polly can be seen in the house. Ideally, this small stand will be clear and thin as to not distract from the whimsical display of the bird.  Additionally, a reproduction bird perch, based on Mary Cutt’s account of Polly, will be installed in the House.

The inclusion of a Madison pet to the interpretation of Montpelier provides visitors with another detail of the life of James and Dolley. Polly entertained the dozens of guests enjoying a Madison dinner party, she represented the family’s association with foreign cultures, and paints a more colorful picture of life at Montpelier.

[1] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 23538.

[2] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, Memoir I, [1849-1856], Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, New England, United States. MRD-S 27600.

[3] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II.

Read More About Polly

Blog: Parroting Historical Research