The trunk is battered-looking, fragile, and kept from public display to prevent further deterioration. But even disrepair can’t mask the fine American artisanry that went into it, or diminish its history of holding treasured memories and belongings of the Custis-Washington family.
That is why it has been nominated as a 2013 candidate for “Top 10 Endangered Artifacts” in D.C. and Virginia. A public vote online, August 1-29, 2013, will help determine the final list, so we encourage you to take part! And if the story below moves you, please vote to the Tudor Place wedding trunk, from Martha Washington to a beloved granddaughter, for “Top 10 Endangered.” The designation will help us attract interest and funding to conserve a valuable piece of America’s past.
This trunk was sent by Mrs. Washington from Philadelphia, (Gen’l Washington being President and residing in Phila at the time) to her grand-daughter Miss Martha Custis, filled with a part of her Wedding trousseau in Jan’y 1795.
—handwritten note by Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon
Anyone opening the wedding trunk from Lady Washington would have immediately seen its maker’s mark. The 8.5-inch-square trade card still pasted to the interior reads:
Jesse Sharples Takes this Method of informing the Public in general, and his Friends in particular, that he continues to carry on the Saddling Business, As usual in all its various branches, at his SADDLE MANUFACTORY, the north-west corner of Chestnut & Third-Streets, four doors from the Bank, and opposite the Cross-Keys, Philadelphia. Where he makes, and has for sale, a quantity of read made work.
Just as fine luggage today bears its designer’s mark, like the Louis Vuitton “LV” or repeating C’s of Coach’s logo, Jesse Sharples branded his late 18th-century goods. His label prominently appears when the trunk lid is lifted.
In the 1780s, Jesse Sharples sold riding equipment and horse husbandry tools. He later augmented his American-made inventory with English luxury imports like silver and silver-plate bridles and silver-mounted whips, to attract an elite clientele. The wedding trunk is one of three known examples of Sharples’ work preserved today; two smaller ones belong to the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library and Historic New England.
Sharples appears to have been one of several saddlers to outfit George Washington, who traveled often for work and war. The documentary record reveals a variety of trunks and uses. For example, a June 1781 inventory of articles left to the then-General’s recording secretary, Richard Varick, included “4 Black Leather Campaign Trunks with Leather Straps.” In 1780, Washington penned instructions to pack winter blankets into a small, black leather trunk (labeled with a brass plaque engraved, “Genl. Washington No. 4”); when that piece later entered the collection of Historic Mount Vernon, it held fragments of clothing worn by George and Martha, as well as a pair of George’s dentures.
Another wedding gift: Washington is said to have given this English pocket watch to Martha Peter’s mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, when she married his stepson.
TUDOR PLACE COLLECTION. Gift of the Magruder family, 2012.7001.
Washington often purchased personal items and household goods from Europe, like the English-made pocket watch recently donated to Tudor Place. But through commissions like this trunk, he also encouraged domestic industry, particularly in the growing manufacturing center of Philadelphia.
Sharples’s shop thrived there in the early 1790s, as its advertising indicates. The master published calls for journeymen laborers eight times from 1792 to 1794. One ad in The Federal Gazette boasted, “40 to 50 journeymen in different branches will find constant employment.” Sharples also broadcast assurances of potential customers’ satisfaction, as in this 1789 notice:
Gentlemen and Ladies, who please to favor him with their Custom, may depend on being, well furnished with such Articles as they may want, and that their Orders will be punctually attended to.
He and his workers would have needed to know which leathers suited what purpose. Animal hides came from a variety of animals and, depending on how they were tanned, the leather could have different textures, colors and degrees of flexibility. An apprentice, several of whom Sharples also employed, needed years of handling experience to train their touch, according to Colonial Williamsburg saddle and harness maker Jim Kladder.
Tacks in an ornamental pattern anchored (now missing or torn) leather packing straps.
The Tudor Place wedding trunk is made of sawn pine boards, with an interior lining of plain-woven linen. Its exterior was clad in durable water-resistant leather, now peeling, and its outer edges and joints were reinforced with sheet iron plates and leather straps. Four additional straps could secure it during coach or boat transit. Originally, a wide leather skirt provided extra weatherproofing for the joint between lid and frame (and covered the lock and hasp), but it has been lost.
The wedding trunk’s leather cladding has peeled away in places, exposing the wood beneath.
Perhaps the trunk’s most notable use was for the January 1795 society wedding of Martha Parke Custis, known as “Patty,” to Thomas Peter. First Lady Martha Washington, Patty’s grandmother, happily anticipated the nuptials in a letter to her niece:
[F]rom what I can hear Patty and Mr. Peter is to make a match – the old gentleman [Robert Peter] will comply with Dr. Stuart’s bargain and in the last letter I had from Mrs. Stuart she says Patty had given him leve (sic) to visit her as a lover.
“Mrs. Stuart” was Martha Custis’s mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, Martha Washington’s daughter-in-law. “Dr. Stuart” was the widowed Eleanor’s second husband. (For more on Custis-Peter genealogy, see the biographical essay by Tudor Place Archivist Wendy Kail.) The groom’s father, Robert Peter, was a wealthy Georgetown tobacco merchant and landowner who had served as Georgetown’s first mayor.
The District of Columbia was still brand new then (established 1791) and the presidency based in Philadelphia, but neighboring Georgetown was a prosperous port. It was from Philadelphia that Mrs. Washington shipped her gift of trousseau items to her granddaughter. The President bestowed on the bride (at her request) a portrait of himself in miniature now in the Tudor Place collection, one of the few existing Washington portraits painted from life.
The bride asked for her step-grandfather’s likeness as a gift. He commissioned this miniature by Walter Robertson. TUDOR PLACE COLLECTION. acc. no. 6186.
The wedding took place on January 6 — George and Martha Washington’s 36th wedding anniversary — at Hope Park estate in Fairfax County, Virginia. Ten months later, Nelly described the newlyweds’ bliss in a letter to a friend:
[M]y Sister Peter expects a little one, in a few months … She is now settled in the Federal City very charmingly—her husband the best and most affectionate. She is perfectly happy.
Martha and Thomas Peter went on to have five children who survived to adulthood. An inheritance from George Washington enabled them to purchase land for Tudor Place in 1805 (the mansion was completed in 1816). The Georgetown Heights estate remained in their descendants’ hands until deeded, in 1983, to the foundation that runs it now. Britannia Kennon, their daughter and the estate’s second owner, carefully documented many heirlooms, often with labels like the one quoted above, visible on the trunk’s interior. Armistead Peter Jr., her grandson, later added his own note: “Everything in this trunk came from ‘Mt. Vernon.’”
We may never know precisely what those contents were, since the trunk was empty when Tudor Place opened to the public in 1988. But with more than 200 objects in the Washington Collection. from fine dining equipment to everyday kitchen items, there are plenty of candidates. Among other trunks in the Tudor Place collection are one that belonged to Martha Peter’s mother (possibly given from her mother, a descendant of Maryland’s founding Calvert family) and an 1830s cedar chest engraved with the name of Commodore Beverley Kennon, U.S. Navy. Commodore Kennon, Britannia’s husband, was killed in a test-firing explosion of the celebrated “Peacemaker” cannon aboard the U.S.S. Princeton in Washington harbor in 1844. His widow kept his chest at Tudor Place for 67 years, eventually using it, according to her grandson, to store family silver.
|With fragile hinges and broken lid straps, the wedding trunk’s lid
requires human help to stay open (received here from Collections Assistant Laura Gaylord). Click here to DONATE to the trunk’s future.
Few objects here, however, are in condition as dire as the trunk. The colorful woven tapes that once held it open are torn, now, and hang in tatters from the frame. Its leather exterior is peeling. Straps are missing. And the once neat linen lining appears to have been replaced, suggesting repeated use and past repairs: With the relative cost of goods far higher than today, even affluent householders of earlier times preferred to mend and re-use rather, like modern consumers, discard worn objects and buy replacements.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TRUNK’S CONTEXT:
In addition to links above, these resources also help tell the story of the trunk and the people who used it.
- Brady, Patricia. George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794–1851 (1991), 21.
- Cadou, Carol Borchert. The George Washington Collection: Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon (2006), 86, n72.
- Fields, Joseph E., Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (1994)
- Historic Mount Vernon: trunk information.
POST UPDATED, OCTOBER 14, to remove the following material dating to summer 2013:
[Voting for this artifact closed in August 2013.]
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