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Dolley Madison

National Portrait Gallery
Dolley Madison served as White House hostess during the administrations of the widowed Thomas Jefferson and her own husband, James Madison. Her effervescence doubtless accounted, in part at least, for the popularity of Madison's presidency in its last several years. After the end of Madison's term in 1817, Dolley helped her husband put his papers in order, selling a portion of them to Congress after his death.

William Elwell painted Dolley Madison's portrait in February 1848 and later sold it to her longtime friend William Winston Seaton, editor and co-owner of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The National Intelligencer. The portrait offers a glimpse of the aging Mrs. Madison, described by the artist in his diary as "a very Estimable lady-kind & obliging-one of the Old School."

Dolley Madison

National Portrait Gallery

15c Dolley Madison single

National Postal Museum
mint

Dolley Madison and Anna Payne

National Portrait Gallery
One of the nation’s most memorable first ladies, Dolley Madison remained popular long after the presidency of her husband, James Madison (1809–17). When she returned as a widow to live in Washington in 1837, she was embraced as the grande dame of capital society.

Mathew Brady was understandably eager to secure a sitting with the venerable former first lady. He enlisted the aid of Washington-based newspaper editor Thomas Ritchie, who wrote to her in May 1848, urging that she pose for Brady’s camera. The appeal succeeded, and while visiting Washington that summer, Brady created several daguerreotypes of Dolley Madison, including this one with her niece, represented by this copy.

Una de las más memorables primeras damas de la nación fue Dolley Madison, cuya popularidad se extendió mucho más allá del término presidencial de su esposo, James Madison (1809–17). Cuando, ya viuda, regresó a vivir a Washington en 1837, fue acogida como la gran dama de la sociedad capitalina.

Es comprensible que Mathew Brady ansiara obtener una sesión fotográfica con la venerable ex primera dama. Para ello reclutó la ayuda de Thomas Ritchie, editor de prensa radicado en Washington, quien escribió a Madison en mayo de 1848 para instarla a que posara para la cámara de Brady. La invitación tuvo éxito, y durante su visita a Washington aquel verano, Brady creó varios daguerrotipos de Dolley Madison, incluido esta con su sobrina, el representado en esta copia.

First Ladies Gowns, Dolley Madison

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Displayed in the Arts and Industries Building

Postcard of a Dress of Dolley Madison

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Dolley Madison was the wife of President James Madison (1809-1817). The postcard has misspelled her name as "Dolly."

#4A-H2185. "C.T. Photo-Colorit," Made Only By Curt Teich & Co., Inc., Chicago, USA. Curt Otto Teich (1877-1974), a German immigrant, founded Curt Teich & Co., which was a postcard printing company that operated from 1898 to 1978. The company specialized in view and advertising postcards, and was the largest volume printer of this type in the world from the 1920s to the 1940s. C.T. Photo-Colorit was a printing process used by Curt Teich & Co.

This postcard is located in Accession Number 13-204, which is part of Record Unit 95.

Postcard of a dress of Dolley Madison at the U.S. National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building. The dress is yellow with pink and floral embellishments. It was part of the Collection of Period Costumes exhibit in the Arts and Industries Building and is now part of the First Ladies collection at the National Museum of American History. The mannequin is wearing a pink shawl and is reaching one of her hands out. An empty chair sits in the background. The message side is blank, and the card has white edging.

Dolley Madison portrait, Face-to-Face talk

National Portrait Gallery
Ellen Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at NPG, discusses a portrait of Dolley Madison by William Elwell

First Ladies Hall Diorama, Dolley Madison, 1961

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Also known as P65196.

Requested from Photographic Services Division by Division of Political History.

First Ladies Hall Diorama, Dolley Madison, 1961

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Also known as P65196.

Requested from Photographic Services Division by Division of Political History.

The Legend of Dolley Madison’s Red Velvet Dress

Smithsonian Magazine

As Major General Robert Ross and his 4,000 British troops closed in on Washington, with orders to set fire to the city’s public buildings, Dolley Madison stood her ground at the White House. One of the most powerful first ladies in history, she maintained enough composure to gather some of the nation’s treasures before making her escape.

That fateful day, August 24, 1814, Dolley famously arranged for servants to bust the frame of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington hanging in the state dining room and cart it off to safety. She also saved some silver, china and, of all things, red velvet draperies from the Oval Drawing Room.

At the National Portrait Gallery, a fiery red velvet dress steals the attention of visitors to “1812: A Nation Emerges,” a new exhibition commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Could the empire-style gown, which Dolley Madison owned until her death in 1849, have been made from the curtains she salvaged from the White House? Some historians and curators suspect so.

Piecing together the story of the dress requires, first, a consideration of the history of the draperies. In 1809, Congress appropriated $14,000 for architect Benjamin Latrobe to redecorate the White House. For the Oval Drawing Room (now called the Blue Room) Latrobe envisioned grand window treatments made of silk damask. But he wrote to Dolley, on March 22, 1809, with disappointing news: “There is no silk damask to be had in either New York of Philadelphia, and I am therefore forced to give you crimson velvet curtains.”

When Latrobe received the velvet, he found it garish. “The curtains! Oh the terrible velvet curtains! Their effect will ruin me entirely, so brilliant will they be,” he wrote in an April letter to the First Lady. Dolley, on the other hand, known for having bold tastes, liked the fabric.

“She gets her way, of course,” says Sid Hart, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and curator of the exhibition.

A letter Dolley wrote to Latrobe’s wife, Mary, shortly after the burning of the White House, is often cited as evidence that she did, in fact, grab the curtains. “Two hours before the enemy entered the city…I sent out the silver (nearly all) and velvet curtains and General Washington’s picture.” She saw to it that only a few cherished items were saved, so why include the curtains?

Image by Greensboro Historical Museum. At the National Portrait Gallery, a fiery red velvet dress steals the attention of visitors to "1812: A Nation Emerges," a new exhibition commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. (original image)

Image by Dolley Dandridge Payne Todd Madison by Gilbert Stuart / White House Historical Association (White House Collection). As Major General Robert Ross and his 4,000 British troops closed in on Washington, with orders to set fire to the city's public buildings, Dolley Madison stood her ground at the White House. (original image)

Image by Mark Gulezian. © National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Some historians and curators suspect that the empire-style gown, which Dolley Madison owned until her death in 1849, may have been made from the curtains she salvaged from the White House in 1814. (original image)

“She had a special affection for the drapes,” says Hart. “Maybe they somehow represented in her mind her efforts to make the White House a center of social activity.”

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the nation was about as polarized as it would be nearly 50 years later, at the start of the Civil War. Democratic-Republicans, like President Madison, supported the war, while Federalists opposed it. “There needed to be a cohesive force in Washington,” says Hart. Vivacious as she was, Dolley served that role.

During her husband’s term as president, Dolley hosted parties every Wednesday night, attended by people of all different views. Quite purposefully, she brought factions together in hopes that agreements could be struck. The gatherings, often held in the Oval Drawing Room, where the velvet curtains hung, were called “squeezes,” Hart explains, because “everybody wanted to squeeze in.”

Late in life, as a widow, Dolley was rather poor. When she died, most of her remaining possessions were sold at public auction. At an auction in 1852, Dolley’s niece Anna Payne purchased the red velvet dress, a portrait of Dolley, a few of her trademark silk turbans and other items, which Payne’s daughter and grandson later inherited. In 1956, a trunk containing the belongings was discovered in the attic of a rural Pennsylvania home, where the grandson’s widow had lived. The Dolley Madison Memorial Association invested in the collection and then donated it to the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1963. (Dolley was born in Greensboro.)

Once in the hands of the museum, researchers started to talk about how Dolley’s red dress seemed to be made of drapery-weight velvet. The dress was featured in a 1977 exhibition, titled “Dolley and the ‘Great Little Madison,’” at the Octagon House in Washington, where the Madisons lived after the burning of the White House. In an accompanying book, the show’s curator Conover Hunt-Jones noted that the gown was made “not of the light velvets ordinarily used for clothing.” The observation was enough to feed the imaginations of historians, and many since have entertained the idea that Dolley may have repurposed the curtains.

Watch this video in the original article

“It seems to be in character,” says Susan Webster, curator of costumes and textiles at the Greensboro Historical Museum. “Why let this go to waste, and won’t this be a great piece to talk about when we are having dinner with folks? Maybe it is her practicality as a Quaker. I think she treasured things. She understood their value.”

Documents found with the red dress tie it, unquestionably, to Dolley. It was likely made sometime between 1810 and 1820. Yet, no record, be it a letter of Dolley’s or an order for a dress, has ever been found linking the dress to Latrobe’s draperies. “It is a 20th century folklore,” says Webster.

In the stir of publicity for the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Diane Dunkley, director and chief curator of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum, also in Washington, D.C., read about the dress—most likely on display for the last time given its fragile condition. Her ears perked. The DAR Museum has in its collection a swatch of fabric purportedly from the red velvet draperies.

Plans quickly formulated. The DAR Museum and the Greensboro Historical Museum sent clippings of the alleged curtains and the dress to the National Museum of American History, for costumes conservator Sunae Park Evans to compare them using a new digital microscope.

“You can’t absolutely prove that the history is true just from a comparison,” explains Alden O’Brien, curator of costumes and textiles at the DAR Museum. Only through oral history, after all, does the DAR Museum know that their swatch comes from the curtains. “But if the fabrics match, it strengthens the likelihood that there’s truth to the shared histories,” she says.

In a brightly lit lab in the basement of the American History Museum, accompanied by a few half-built Styrofoam mannequin bodices, I watch as Evans and O’Brien analyze a tiny piece of the DAR’s remnant. The microscope’s magnified view is transposed on a computer screen. Based on the fabric’s weave, they quickly realize that it is satin, not velvet. Somewhat disappointingly, O’Brien concludes that the swatch couldn’t possibly be from the red draperies in the Oval Room Drawing Room, as the DAR thought, since all references to the curtains specify that they are velvet.

Evans then places a small snippet of the dress, taken from an inside seam, under the lens. “Oh, very different weave structure,” O’Brien exclaims. “Totally different.” In fact, the color is too. This piece is more pinkish than the previous swatch. Based on the way the fibers are woven, Evans says with certainty that this one is velvet. Whether it is the velvet from the draperies, though, no one can say.

Hart, of the National Portrait Gallery, likes to believe in the tale. “It seems reasonable to me,” says the historian. Dolley did keep the dress until her dying day. “But there is no way that I can see that this can ever really be proved one way or another,” he says.

Why Cokie Roberts Admired Dolley Madison

Smithsonian Magazine

When Cokie Roberts started out in journalism in the 1960s, the constant refrain she heard from men in the business was “we don’t hire women to do that.”

But the congressional journalist and political commentator—who died at age 75 on Tuesday "due to complications from breast cancer," according to a family statement—carved her own space in the industry and, in the process, helped transform the role of women in the newsroom.

“It was very difficult,” Roberts later said in an interview with Smithsonian Associates’ Paul Vogelzang. “When you moved up through the ranks you were often the only women there. When people finally put women on the air, they basically had their one woman and that was it.”

The daughter “of prominent U.S. Representatives Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, who represented a New Orleans-centered district for half a century,” as a biography and oral history by the U.S. House explains, her early memories were filled with moments like “riding the old Senate subway, with its wicker seats; accompanying her father on the House Floor on the Opening Day of Congress in the late 1940s; prodding her father to speak out on the floor in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and listening to prominent dinner guests such as Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas.”

Because of her family’s history, Roberts—born Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1943, but known as “Cokie” since childhood because her brother couldn't pronounce Corinne—never questioned that she would get into politics in some capacity. All of those formative years spent at the Capitol and House of Representatives made an impact. "I became deeply committed to the American system,” she recalled in the oral history project, “And as close up and as personally as I saw it and saw all of the flaws, I understood all of the glories of it.”

But rather than run for office herself, which she worried would cause difficulties for her husband, journalist Steve Roberts, she chose to cover Capitol Hill as a reporter. By the 1980s she’d risen to national prominence as a journalist for NPR and ABC News.

In a statement, NPR president and CEO Jarl Mohn praised her “signature voice and commentary…[which] accompanied public radio listeners, provided context for news and [has] been a familiar presence in their homes." Roberts, who joined the broadcasting company in 1978 to report on the Panama Canal Treaty, was, as Mohn added, seen as "one of NPR's 'founding mothers,'” alongside journalists such as Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg. (The reason there was some space for women at NPR early on, of course, was because the pay was significantly less than what commercial networks of the day were offering, as NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson pointed out in an interview earlier this year.)

Throughout her career, Roberts was widely respected by her peers in media and by the politicians she covered on both sides of the political aisle. As Neil Genzlinger writes in her New York Times obituary, in the wake of Roberts’ death, Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat recalled on Twitter, for instance, “a 2001 talk in which she ‘encouraged all of us, Republicans and Democrats, to always seek consensus where we could.’”

Perhaps because she was long accustomed to being one of the few women in the room, Roberts also paid special attention to women’s history. It was, in fact, because of her depth of knowledge on the first ladies of the United States that Kim Sajet, director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, invited her to speak on the museum’s "Portraits" podcast this summer.

Sajet remembers first meeting Roberts many years ago during her tenure as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “She was just incredibly smart and incredibly funny. She really knew her homework and was quite irreverent as well,” Sajet says, adding that Roberts "looked at history at a 90-foot height and can fill in the history with all these interesting details."

Tellingly, she says, when asked before the podcast which of the presidents' wives she wanted to focus on, Dolley Madison was among her top picks. The fourth first lady, says Sajet, embodied a model of dealing with Washington society that Roberts, in a way, cast her own career after.

“It didn’t matter where you were on politics, Dolley would bring anyone into her drawing room. Everyone could talk it through and work it out," says Sajet. "That was one of the things Cokie was admiring of, I believe, that Dolley brought people of different opinion together in a respectful and open way to talk."

painting

National Museum of American History

card case

National Museum of American History

Unidentified Woman

National Portrait Gallery

Constitutional Convention Box

National Museum of American History
George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, used this small box to preserve papers produced by the convention.

First Ladies Gowns Exhibited in Arts & Industries

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
One of the rooms in the First Ladies Exhibit reinstalled in the West North Range of the Arts and Industries Building on May 24, 1955, in period decorated rooms, showing figures with the gowns worn by Dolley Madison, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martha Washington, and Abigail Adams.

Meriwether Lewis

National Portrait Gallery

1812 Lesson Plans

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Four lessons in which students use critical thinking skills to examine, analyze, and compare/contrast artworks to better understand the events of the War of 1812. Lessons include a historical research project that has students create a textbook entry to demonstrate their understanding.

The First Presidential Wife to Be Called the First Lady

Smithsonian Channel
Dolley Madison, the First Lady of president James Madison was a Jackie Kennedy of her time. Her refined taste and elevated social graces brought an unprecedented sense of style to the White House. From the Series: First Ladies Revealed: The Style of Power http://bit.ly/FirstLadiesStyle

First Ladies Dolls

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Featured in the "Torch," August 1985

Dolls based on the First ladies, (l-r) Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Grace Coolidge, on sale at the Smithsonian Museum Shops, c. 1985.

Montpelier and the Legacy of James Madison

Smithsonian Magazine

The United States of America was born in April 1775, with the shots heard 'round the world from Lexington and Concord. Or it was born in July 1776, with the signing of the Declaration Independence in Philadelphia. Or it was born in the winter of 1787, when a 35-year-old Virginia legislator holed up at his estate and undertook a massive study of governmental systems around the world and over the ages.

The legislator was James Madison, and it was through his winter's labor that he devised a system of checks and balances that would be enshrined in the Constitution of the United States that fall. Madison's estate, Montpelier, proved less durable than his ideas, but now, after a five-year, $24 million restoration, it has been reopened to visitors.

"Madison is back, and he's getting the recognition he deserves," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns Montpelier. It may seem odd to think of Madison as being "back"—in addition to becoming known as the "father of the Constitution," he also served as Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state (1801-1809) and won two presidential terms of his own (1809-1817)—but then, he was overshadowed in his own time by his good friend Jefferson and the father of the country, George Washington.

"Without Washington, we wouldn't have won the revolution. Without Jefferson, the nation wouldn't have been inspired," says Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting Madison's legacy. "What made our revolution complete was the genius of Madison.... He formed the ideals of the nation."

Montpelier, which lies a few miles south of Orange, Virginia, and about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., is where Madison grew up and where he retired after his days as president were over. His grandparents had settled the estate in the early 1730s, and a few years after the future president was born, in 1751, his father began building the house where he would live.

Although Madison repeatedly left central Virginia—he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), for example, and sat in the Virginia House of Delegates in Williamsburg and Richmond; he lived in Washington for almost the first two decades of the 19th century—he always returned to Montpelier.

In the late 1790s, he added several rooms to the relatively modest house his father had built, and during his first term as president he added wings to each side, creating a more stately home that matched his position. Once his days in Washington were done, Madison spent his years overseeing the plantation at Montpelier, growing wheat and tobacco and raising livestock.

He died there in 1836, at age 85, the last of the founding fathers to pass away.

After Madison died, his widow, Dolley, sold Montpelier to help repay the debts of her son from a previous marriage. (She returned to Washington, D.C., where she had been a very popular first lady.) The estate changed hands several times before William duPont, a scion of the duPont industrial dynasty, bought it in 1901 and expanded it from 22 rooms to 55 and covered it with pink stucco. When his daughter Marion duPont Scott died, in 1983, she left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with the proviso that it be restored to the way it was in Madison's time.

But for lack of funding, little work was done on the house for several years. The estate opened to the public in 1987, but "people took one look at the house and they knew it wasn't what it looked like in Madison's time," says Quinn of the Montpelier Foundation, which oversaw the restoration.

Once the restoration began, in late 2003, workers removed about two-thirds of William duPont's addition to uncover the original house. They found it so well-preserved that the majority of the floorboards from Madison's time remained. As the renovation proceeded, if workers couldn't use original materials, they painstakingly tried to replicate them, hand-molding bricks or combining plaster with horsehair.

Researchers used visitors' letters and other accounts to envision the house as it was during Madison's retirement years. Architectural plans from Madison's expansions were also an invaluable resource. Quinn says there was also a lot of forensic work: after stripping off coats of paint, for example, experts could see "shadows" revealing where certain pieces of furniture sat. Furnishing all of the mansion's current 26 rooms will take a few more years, Quinn says.

In the meantime, the Montpelier grounds are also home to the Center for the Constitution, a resource for advancing constitutional education—and another extension of Madison's legacy. When the mansion was reopened, in September, the chief justice of the United States, John G. Roberts, spoke from its front steps. "If you're looking for Madison's monument, look around," Roberts said. "Look around at a free country governed by the rule of law."

Image by Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation. "In the late 1790s, James Madison added several rooms to the relatively modest house his father had built, and during his first term as president he added wings to each side, creating a more stately home that matched his position." (original image)

Image by Kenneth M. Wyner, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation. "Montpelier, which lies a few miles south of Orange, Virginia, and about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., is where James Madison grew up and where he retired after his days as president were over." (original image)

Image by Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation / Linda Boudreaux Mongomery. "James Madison's grandparents had settled the estate in the early 1730s, and a few years after the future president was born, in 1751, his father began building the house where he would live." (original image)

Image by Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation & Alan Dordick Studios. "Although James Madison repeatedly left central Virginia—he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), for example, and sat in the Virginia House of Delegates in Williamsburg and Richmond; he lived in Washington for almost the first two decades of the 19th century—he always returned to Montpelier." (original image)

Image by Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation. "After James Madison died, his widow, Dolley Madison, sold Montpelier to help repay the debts of her son from a previous marriage." (original image)

The Woman in the Frame

Smithsonian Institution

Did you know that Martha Washington was essential to America’s Revolutionary War effort? Or that Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights? According to journalist, writer, and commentator Cokie Roberts, many of America's First Ladies were dynamic, politically engaged trailblazers who are often overlooked. We sit down with the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery director, Kim Sajet, to talk about a recent episode of the museum’s new podcast, Portraits. In it, she and Cokie discuss four First Ladies who are remembered for their influence on American history. 

Note: As many of you have probably heard, Cokie Roberts passed away in the days since we originally recorded this episode. Our heart goes out to all of Cokie’s family, friends, and people like us who have enjoyed her work for decades. 

Portraits podcast website: https://npg.si.edu/podcasts

Portraits of First Ladies featured in the episode:

  1. Martha Washington portrait

  2. Dolley Madison portrait

  3. Eleanor Roosevelt portrait

  4. Nancy Reagan portrait

1812: A Nation Emerges

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition on an epic scale. Portraits and biographies of the war's leading players (and the leading opponents of the war) add up to a complex national portrait. The cast includes former president Thomas Jefferson, future presidents Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, Shawnee leader Tecumseh, first lady of first ladies Dolley Madison, and the pirate Jean Laffite.
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