Resource for 19th Century DC social life
It’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here, but the Library of Congress recently digitized a collection that I think writers of stories set in early to mid 19th Century Washington DC would find helpful.
The collection is Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton papers, 1793-1861 and it can be found at https://www.loc.gov/collections/anna-maria-brodeau-thornton-papers/about-this-collection/.
Here’s the description from the “About this collection” page:
The seven volumes of diaries and notebooks, 1793-1861, of Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (ca.1775-1865) document her position at the center of a Washington, D.C., social circle that included George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Bayard Smith, and the cabinet members, congressmen, and diplomats who constituted the city’s entwined social and political worlds. Thornton was the daughter of Ann Brodeau, who emigrated from England in 1775 with the help of Benjamin Franklin and established a successful school in Philadelphia. The identity of Anna Maria Thornton’s father is unknown, but he may have been English clergyman William Dodd, who was hanged for forgery in 1777.
In 1790, at just fifteen, Anna Maria Brodeau married William Thornton (1759-1828), an architect who was born in Tortola and initially trained as a doctor. He is best known for his design of the United States Capitol. Thornton was one of the commissioners appointed to plan the capital city, and later in his career he became United States Superintendent of Patents. The Thorntons moved to Washington in 1792 and lived there for the rest of their lives.
Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton’s papers consist of diaries and commonplace books, 1793-1861, which she began when she was eighteen and ended at eighty-six, a period of sixty-eight years. These volumes document the operation of her household, including the management of slaves; travel, including visits to the Virginia homes of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison; the construction of Washington, D.C., and the United States Capitol; the city under attack during the War of 1812; visits of the Count de Volney, 1796, and Alexander von Humboldt, 1804; an attempt on her life by Arthur, a slave, in 1835; the 1844 shipboard explosion that killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Treasury Secretary Thomas Gilmer; the inauguration of president James K. Polk in 1845; and the start of the Civil War.
Thornton’s entries show the networks of visiting and social events, including presidential “levees,” at which she, along with other wives of Washington’s leaders, observed and influenced power in the capital city. Included are household accounts, receipts, a visitors log, 1794-1798, book lists and reading notes, essays in French and English, recipes, a collection of autographs of Washington figures, photographs, and silhouettes. Among the silhouettes are a few done by Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale of Humboldt and his party during their 1804 visit to Washington (volume 6).
I haven’t examined this material in detail, but it seems like it would have to have a lot of authentic details for antebellum Washington DC. If you do find this material useful, I’d love to hear about it in comments.
This post is not a prelude to either posting more regularly or doing a thorough overhaul of the site. Sometimes I just can’t help myself from sharing. We’ll see what happens here as I get through a few other commitments.