This article details the furniture items used by George Washington, from the elaborate furnishings chosen for him by Lady Kitty Duer and Mrs. Osgood to the desk he chose himself. It originally appeared in the February 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
“Great rejoicing in New York on the arrival of General Washington. Previous to his coming, Uncle Walter’s house in Cherry Street was taken for him and every room furnished in the most elegant manner. Aunt Osgood and Lady Duer had the whole management of it. I went the morning before the General’s arrival to look at it. The best of furniture in every room, and the greatest quantity of plate and china I ever saw; the whole of the first and second stories is papered, and the floors covered with the richest kinds of Turkey and Wilton carpets. The house did honor to my aunt and Lady Kitty; they spared no pains nor expense on it. Thou must know that Uncle Osgood and Duer were appointed to procure a house and furnish it. Accordingly they pitched on their wives as being more likely to do it better. — There is scarcely anything talked about now but General Washington and the Palace.”
So wrote a young Quakeress, Sally Robinson, on the “30th of the fourth month, 1789,” in describing to a friend the preparation of her Uncle Walter Franklin’s house for occupancy by the first President of the United States. William Duer and Samuel Osgood, both residents of New York and Commissioners of the Treasury, had been appointed by Congress to lease a house and furnish it for the President-elect; evidently after arranging for the Franklin residence they turned the balance of the job over to their wives. If, in this work, the ladies needed any advice regarding the predilections of the Washingtons, undoubtedly they obtained it from Tobias Lear, the General’s secretary, who had come to New York several weeks in advance of his chief. But in all probability he did no more than apportion the rooms in the house and perhaps occasionally suggest certain items or the number of each which would be necessary.
It seems reasonably certain that the actual selection of the furnishings was done entirely by Lady Kitty Duer (a daughter of Lord Sterling) and Mrs. Osgood (nee Hannah Bowne and formerly the wife of the deceased Walter Franklin). Evidently they did exceedingly well as interior decorators; at the time their taste was universally approved and elaborate as to offend the democratic sensibilities. Congress, of course, howled at what it chose to call reckless extravagance when the bill was presented, but ultimately paid it — actually the modest sum of approximately seven thousand dollars.
This government-owned furniture accompanied Washington to Philadelphia; then it was taken to the President’s mansion in Washington when that city became the capital in 1800 and there, apparently, it all perished when the British troops burned that building during the War of 1812. Fortunately, however, thanks to Washington’s fondness for minute, meticulous records, a complete list exists of this furniture, together with the cost of each piece. This is an inventory, in his own handwriting, of the contents of the house he was occupying in Philadelphia, made at the time he retired from the Presidency. Parallel columns differentiate the items which were publicly owned from those which belonged to him personally. In this list articles of the same category are grouped together; thus there are headings such as “Cabinet-Work,” “Plate,” “Looking-glasses,” “Upholstery,” and “Japan-ware.” China and glass are not shown, and this omission the President explained in a note at the end, saying: “Nothing herein has been said relatively to the Table Linnen, Sheeting, China and Glassware which was furnished at the expense of the United States; because they have been worn out, broken, stolen and replaced (at private expense) over and over again.”
“Nor has any account been taken of the Kitchen furniture, as that also, except a few of the most durable articles (which will be left) has been broke, burnt out, & otherwise reduced as above — The carpets also are entirely worn out — all on the floors at present, have been purchased on private account.”
With the minor exception of a few pine pieces, evidently for the bedrooms for the upper servants, all this furniture was made of mahogany. Much of it was in the style of Hepplewhite, then the height of fashion. Thus the inventory shows an inlaid breakfast table and an inlaid card table — perhaps the inlays represented the American eagle; a large sectional dining table which, with its two end tables was valued at twenty-nine pounds and two circular sideboards. These descriptions, considering the dater could hardly apply to any other type of design.
There were two items not included in the inventory of government-owned furnishings, and which, therefore, were not supplied for the President. Their omission may, at first glance, seem curious. Thus no desk was provided. But at that period a good deal of sentiment was often attached to such an article, and it seems quite probable that Washington wished to have one which he could take back to Mount Vernon. If such was the case, Tobias Lear probably informed Mrs. Osgood and Lady Duer of Washington’s intention, so that none was bought. In any event, immediately after the inauguration, the President purchased his own.
By his chief’s instructions, Colonel Tobias Lear kept a complete record of all receipts and expenditures for the household, and his account book, under date of November 21, 1789, exhibits the entry: “pd. Thos. Burling for a writing desk, aparatus, &c. — 40 guineas.” Since the President must have obtained a chair for the desk and since the accounts show no other applicable entry, it would seem that this payment also covered the cost of the circular chair which Washington used. In the inventory these pieces are listed as “1 Writing desk. T. B. — £98-13” and “1 Circular Chair — £7-0.”
The value of the desk thus given much exceeds the payment to Burling, which can only be a mistake, although an unusual one for Washington to make, since the T. B. initials certainly identify it. By his will, Washington bequeathed the desk and chair to his old friend and personal physician, Dr. James Craik. Both were acquired by the Mount Vernon Association about twenty-five years ago and are now in the study there.
The other objects which were not furnished were pictures and they undoubtedly were omitted to permit the Washingtons to use their own taste. Largely, this lay in the direction of prints, and Washington listed over fifty, many of which he is said to have brought up from Mount Vernon. The subjects ranged all the way from engraved portraits of Paul Jones, Captain Farmer and Alfred the Great to Venus Attired and Diana and Nymphs. Engravings of Benjamin West’s Death of Wolfe and Penn’s Treaty are included. A good many were colored; but, since the inventory seems to indicate that only eight were framed, it is possible that no more than that were actually hung. When, later, the President was living in Philadelphia, Mr. Twining, a British visitor, noted that there were no pictures whatever in the smaller drawing room. For some years a print of Louis XVI hung in the large dining room, which caused some comment during the height of the French Revolution. In his second administration, Washington acquired a pair of landscapes, painted by Beck, an English artist, for which he paid, with the frames, thirty guineas. One was a view near Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and the other depicted the great falls of the Potomac just above the City of Washington. Both are now at Mount Vernon.
Washington had his old spinet, which had seen many years of hard service, shipped by boat from Mount Vernon to New York. On its arrival, he turned it in to Dodd, the instrument maker, who allowed four guineas on it towards the purchase of a new English harpsichord for Nelly Custis, Mrs. Washington’s youngest granddaughter, who had been adopted by the President. The account book shows that it cost twenty guineas, equal to about ninety-three dollars, not, it would seem, an excessive price for a good instrument. This harpsichord forms the cornerstone of the Mount Vernon collection, since it was presented to the Association by Mrs. Lorenzo Lewis, daughter-in-law of Nelly, soon after the contract of sale was signed by the Regent of the Mount Vernon Association and John A. Washington just before the Civil War.
The Franklin house in New York, although the best available at the moment, proved too small for the President’s household and, besides, was inconveniently far uptown; so when the French minister to the United States, the Comte de Moustier, returned home early in 1790, Washington seized the opportunity to lease the larger house which he had been occupying. This residence belonged to Alexander Macomb and was on Broadway, just below Trinity Church.
The eccentric count had lived in elaborate style and, as he decided to sell his furniture rather than take it to France, the President bought quite a few exceptionally fine articles from him which were needed for the extra rooms or which were especially desirable. Thus, since the house contained two drawing rooms, Washington purchased nearly the complete contents of one of them: a sofa, twelve armchairs, six small chairs, a combined chair and stool called a “shepherdess” and the window curtains. Among other things he also acquired the desk of Madame de Brehan, the count’s sister, for Mrs. Washington; a chair for a model, which was for the use of Nelly Custis who was taking drawing lessons; a large fire screen; two very large and handsome mirrors; and two fixed sideboards, these latter, apparently, what today would be called “built-in” pieces. Much of this furniture, it is known, was of Chippendale design; the sofa, at least, probably of Philadelphia origin. Undoubtedly, it was obtained by the French minister, or his predecessor, before New York became the capital city.
The President spent a lot of money fixing up the Macomb house, only to have Congress decide to fix the seat of government for the next ten years at Philadelphia. Consequently, in the early autumn of 1790, he was forced to move to that city where the house of Robert Morris on Market Street was engaged for him. While Washington went to Mount Vernon for a rest, Lear arranged the furniture in the new residence, but not without a good deal of advice by letter from his chief, even to such details as the making of curtains for the second floor hall windows and the proper place to store the table decorations when not in use.
This house, like that of Macomb, had two drawing rooms, both one flight up. In the larger was placed the furniture obtained from de Moustier and Washington bought and added six more small chairs — making twenty-four altogether in the room — and two round tables. These additional seats were upholstered in green like the others and were Sheraton in style. Probably they were made by Henry Ingle, the Philadelphia cabinetmaker frequently patronized by Washington. From the ceiling in the center of the room hung a large and very beautiful eight-armed lustre adorned with hundreds of glass prisms. It had been in the Macomb house and Washington, on leaving there, bought it from the owner, for a little more than two hundred dollars. A pair of smaller lustres, purchased in New York from Berry and Rogers, flanked the larger chandelier. On the walls were the two great mirrors which came from the count, two large, highly carved and gilded light brackets containing oval mirrors, four “Mirrors & Pictures suspended to them for Lamps,” and, later, the two painted landscapes by Beck. The carved and mirrored brackets were made to order for the President by James Reynolds and the Argand patent lamps which they supported, of Sheffield ware, were obtained from the prominent Philadelphia silversmith, Joseph Anthony. There were at least two tables in the room, possibly the pair, supposedly card tables, which Washington bought from Thomas Burling, and probably it also contained a pair of girandoles, since the inventory discloses no less than thirteen of these articles, eleven belonging to the government — all of which were furnished by the Roosevelt firm — and a pair owned by Washington.
The arrangement of the smaller drawing room was very similar, but it contained government-owned furniture almost entirely. Here the three sofas, and most of the chairs, were covered with yellow silk and the window curtains were of yellow damask. A few chairs seem to have been done in blue, perhaps for a little variety. A pair of lustres hung from the ceiling and, of course, there were a pair of large mirrors, a pair of the Reynolds’ mirrored brackets with lamps, and at least one girandole. Washington, incidentally, was careful to deal only with the best tradesmen. Thus, when moving to Philadelphia, he wrote to Lear: “As we shall have new connections to form with different Tradesmen, find out those in each branch who stand highest for skill and fair dealing.” Consequently, the appearance of a craftsman’s name in Washington’s accounts is strong guarantee of his ability and high reputation. This drawing room also contained the “Pagoda,” Washington’s most elaborate ornament, which stood on a table. This was a large porcelain representation of a mandarin’s house, very handsome but exceedingly fragile. Gouverneur Morris purchased it for the President in France.
The pagoda seems to have been the only strictly ornamental object in the small drawing room; but in the other there were china figures, called images, and a pair of china vases. This porcelain was also obtained in France by Gouverneur Morris who, at the President’s request, bought a number of such objects for him there. At the same time Morris secured a plateau of nine sections, the mirrors being held in very fine Sheffield frames, which cost the President far more than he expected. Any number of sections could be placed together according to the length to which the dining table was expanded. When the plateaux were in use, some of the images were set upon them. All these articles reached Washington about the time he was moving to Philadelphia; while he was in New York he used other china figures which he had bought from Thomas Burling and which were sent to Mount Vernon when the new ones arrived.
The two dining rooms were on the first floor. The smaller room, that used normally by the family, was entirely unostentatious. Its color scheme was blue. Washington’s formal dinners were held in the larger room. Its window curtains were of crimson satin and the dominant color of the carpet was the same. Here was placed the sectional dining table on which the plateaux would be placed. But this room also used for the Tuesday levees and for the reception of special delegations; then the table would be separated into its units. These sections, placed against the walls, would then carry the two large silver punch urns, furnished by the government, or else would carry cast-iron images, gilded, which the President bought soon after his inauguration from the Roosevelt firm. On the sideboard were three large groups of china images with glass covers over them.
When Washington left the Presidency, there were a good many articles in the Philadelphia house which he had purchased, but which he had no use for at Mount Vernon. Consequently, after such pieces as he wished to keep were shipped to Virginia, some of the remainder were given to his friends and the balance sold. The latter articles were, in general, bought by a few of the then leading families in Philadelphia and through such sources many of them are now known.
(Author’s Note: While the inventory in Washington’s handwriting, which I have quoted in part and used as source data for this article, is not dated, it is generally considered to have been made just prior to his retirement from office. Internal evidence suggests an earlier date. It mentions Mrs. Fanny Washington, a niece of the President’s wife and widow of Major George A. Washington. In the summer of 1795, she married Colonel Tobias Lear. Thus it seems probable that his inventory was prepared before her second marriage, possibly at the end of Washington’s first term as President. This date would explain failure to include several articles well-authenticated as having been owned by Washington while he was President. They could readily have been acquired after the inventory was made, during his second term.)
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.