5 o'Clock Tea with Anne Barone

A tranquil spot, a cup of tea, a book, and something to nibble. Afternoon tea is my favorite time of day. Please join me for Thé de 5 Heures.



book Martha Washington by Patricia Brady with Anne's tea service on table runner hand-embroidered in Hungary

image: book Martha Washington by Patricia Brady with Anne's tea service on table runner hand-embroidered in Hungary

|| 3 May 2020

A Martha Washington Tea

Today a Martha Washington tea. The wife of the first US president — and, as the wife of “the father of our country, surely “the mother of our country” — was an elegant and frequent entertainer whose culinary legacy was her Martha Washington cake featured in our previous George Washington Tea.

At the time I posted that 5 o’Clock Tea, I said that I was hopeful of finding a good biography of Martha Washington. The tea reading for the George Washington Tea was Joseph J. Ellis’s biography of Washington. As I reported, I was surprised that the author rarely mentioned Martha Washington to whom her husband was so devoted — and who played such an important role in George Washington’s life during those crucial years of the Revolutionary War and his two terms as president of the new United States of America.

For the next Christmas, a friend gave me Patricia Brady’s excellent biography Martha Washington. Though I read the book immediately, I have been much delayed sharing it with you. But there is a Martha Washington connection to the Covid-19 pandemic. So the time seems right to focus on Martha Washington and Patricia Brady’s biography of the first First Lady.

In the photo above you can see my copy of the book with my tea service. The book cover portrait of Martha Washington was not painted in her lifetime. We have none of her as a young woman. The image that has come down to us is the little-old-lady-in-a-Colonial-cap.

For the book cover, artist Michael Deas worked to create as true as possible rendition of Martha Washington as a young woman known for her beauty and elegance. The bright colors of the dress produce an effect too much like the cover of an historical romance novel for my taste. I would have preferred something truer to the portrait style of the mid-18th century.

Martha Washington And Tea

The richly historical account of Martha Washington’s life only twice specifically mentions taking tea.

The first is in the description of the decor of the plantation home of “Patsy Custis,” as Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was then known, and her first husband Daniel Custis.

Twelve yards of crimson damask arrived from London to cover the seats of the mahogany dining room chairs. Half a dozen large damask tablecloths and a dozen napkins to match soon followed. The table would be laid with their set of gilt china or stylish blue-and-white Chinese export dinnerware. A matching tea set in the same patterned porcelain appeared at the new ritual of afternoon tea.

The second time afternoon tea is mentioned is in the section of the book describing George and Martha’s life at Mount Vernon.

Everyone visited in the afternoon walking about the grounds, or going for a horseback or carriage ride. A simple tea was served in the late afternoon, in fine weather on the broad lawn overlooking the Potomac.

Those of us who have visited Mount Vernon just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. have seen — and possibly strolled on — that broad lawn overlooking the Potomac River.

Martha Washington And The Pandemic Connection

During the Revolutionary War in which George Washington served as the commander of the American revolutionary army, smallpox was epidemic. At that time, as for Covid-19 today, there was no vaccine. While we do not yet know if a case of Covid-19 virus brings immunity, by the time of George and Martha’s marriage, it was known that you gained immunity to smallpox — if you survived a case.

There was no vaccine, but there was inoculation, a dangerous procedure which involved purposely infecting a person with smallpox in order to produce immunity. Patricia Brady writes:

Martha remained a little over a month in New York. With the arrival of the army, smallpox began running wild through the city. Smallpox was very infectious and frequently fatal and left many of its surviving victims horribly scarred, their faces as cratered as the moon.

George himself was immune because of a light case he had suffered in his youth, but Martha wasn’t. Without being inoculated, she couldn’t stay safely in New York.

Summoned by Congress for consultation, George took the opportunity to escort Martha to Philadelphia, out of harm’s way and with access to the nation’s best doctors if she was inoculated. They arrived on May 23. That very afternoon, Martha plunged ahead, allowing a doctor to infect her before retiring to her room for the next three weeks.

The inoculation was successful. Not a pockmark marred Martha’s fair skin.

Martha Washington Legacy

Martha Washington, while remembered as the wife of the first US president — and for the rich cake that bears her name — is out of favor as one of the “founding mothers” of our country. Chiefly because of her pro-slavery stance and her refusal to free her slaves.

But Martha Washington’s devotion to and support of her husband during the crucial years of the Revolutionary War and the Washington presidency were of vital importance to the success of the new nation.

If there is a modern First Lady to whom Martha Washington bears a similarity, after reading Patricia Brady’s biography, I would say it is Jacqueline Kennedy.

be chic, stay slim — Anne Barone

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