Does ‘Sexy’ come to mind when you look at this picture of Martha Washington? We have to remember this was taken in the 1700s when women did not adorn themselves the way they do today. Who knows? Maybe she did have a sexy way about her in a man’s eyes, or maybe her confidence or the way she handled life’s trials made her sexy.
However, I do find this woman to be beautiful in other ways. She was one smart cookie and she had to be strong to endure the trials of her life. Her heart was broken on many occasions, and yet she carried on. See the sadness in her eyes?
She was born Martha Dandridge to English immigrant parents, John and Frances in Virginia, 1731. She was the eldest of eight children. One can only imagine what her daily duties included once she was of age to help her mother.
Her father was a planter and as such, the family lived a life of ease, though not great wealth. Since her family was a member of the local gentry, we know that Martha learned the values and behaviors that would allow her the opportunity to marry well. The family’s two-story home, Chestnut Grove, was where she learned the art of etiquette, dance and riding horses.
Martha’s mother taught her well and prepared her for life on her own. She learned to grow vegetables, clean house, care for children and
animals, and prepare meals. Her mother would also have taught Martha
simple home remedies for common illnesses.
In the 18th century people still spun their own thread and wove their own cloth. This was an important skill as she would be responsible for making the clothing for all of her family as a wife and mother. Martha continued into adult life to cherish her pastime of decorative needlework and became know for her excellence.
Unlike most women of the time, Martha was taught her to read and write early on, which became one of her great loves in life. She found solace in reading books and magazines, the Bible and other devotional materials. As an older child and adult, Martha wrote volumes of correspondence, though little of her writing survived time.
During those times, it was usual for young women to meet suitors through family or friends. It’s thought that Martha met Daniel Parke Custis through friends at their church. Daniel was the son of a wealthy landowner who was a cantankerous old man. Daniel, who lived on his own plantation called White House, began courting Martha in his late thirties, twenty years her senior.
According to MarthaWashington.us, “Martha possessed a unique combination of talents. Only about five feet tall, she was lovely and attractive with a lively personality. She was strong but dutiful, charming yet sincere, warm yet socially adept. These characteristics allowed her to overcome obstacles and forge her own path in the world. Martha would need all of these traits in order to win over not only her future husband but also his father.”
Martha did win over her future father-in-law and married Daniel just before her 20th birthday. She was now a part of the highest echelon of society and she handled it brilliantly hosting formal dinners,entertaining Virginia’s ruling families and decorating their home with luxurious goods shipped from Britain. She was also mistress of the household slaves. It was a role she accepted, but her most loved role was that of motherhood.
Sadly, Martha’s first two children died before they reached the age of 5. But she bore two more children who became the center of her life. She hoped to have more children but a year after the last child was born, Daniel became ill and died on July 8, 1757, leaving her to raise two children and manage a huge estate alone.
Martha’s family realized she needed help and stepped in quickly when it was realized that Daniel had not written a will. This made Martha the executor responsible for paying off debts, handling complex business affairs, and managing complicated legal transactions for the estate.
Widowhood meant Martha was the head of the household which was challenging but, she was guaranteed one-third of her husband’s estate, with the remaining two-thirds divided between their children when they reached adulthood.
Every time Martha’s life took a turn, she made the best of it. Here comes another turn of events.
In March, 1758, during a visit to Williamsburg, George Washington heard stories of Martha Custis’ widowhood and estate inheritance. George’s mind turned toward thoughts of his future and marriage. He traveled 35 miles to meet Martha. They were enamored of each other and just a few months later George was improving his home and Martha was ordering wedding finery.
“Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, attractive, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him. Like his future wife, Washington’s own social status had improved as a result of an unfortunate death. After his half-brother Lawrence and his widow died, Washington had inherited Mount Vernon, a beautiful 2000-acre estate located high above the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.”
They settled in to a happy and affectionate relationship. George doted on his step-children Jacky and Patsy. Martha would have loved to have more children but was unable to ever conceive again. As with all colonial families, health was a constant concern and Martha had suffered her share of losses. She was to suffer more.
Patsy, at the age of twelve, developed epilepsy. There was no treatment and no cure found, no matter how many doctors she consulted. The seizures worsened over time and Patsy succumbed when she was seventeen, 1773. Soon after her death Jacky went off to school at King’s College (now Columbia College in NY) where he met his sweetheart, Eleanor Calvert. Smitten as they were, they decided to become engaged. George insisted Jacky to wait until he graduated college. Jacky, 19, pushed ahead and married his 16 year old Eleanor in 1774.
Once married they produced four grandchildren for Martha and George. The couple had no home of their own, so they split their time between Mount Vernon and Mount Airy, Maryland, the Calvert home. Martha reveled in the time spent with the children and George loved being a grandfather, as well. As you would expect, another tragedy befell the Washingtons. Six years after marrying, Jacky fell ill and died at the age of 27. Once again, Martha mourned one those she loved best and she was grief-stricken.
Martha Washington had hoped to have many years with her husband at Mount Vernon. This was not to be. “On December 14, 1799, only two and one-half years after leaving the presidency, George Washington died quite suddenly, soon after contracting a virulent throat infection.
Although the nation mourned, Martha was bereft. She had suffered so many losses over the course of her life—having outlived four children, numerous relatives, and two husbands—she almost could not bear the pain. She closed up the second-floor bedroom that she had shared with George and moved to a room on the third floor, where she spent much of her day.
Almost inevitably, Martha’s thoughts turned toward her own death. Always a religious person, she sought comfort in her faith. In later years, family members recalled that Martha studied the Bible or read devotional literature almost every day. One visitor remarked in 1801, “She speaks of death as a pleasant journey.”*
Martha’s health, always somewhat precarious, now declined precipitously. Just two and a half years after her husband and to the dismay of her extended family, Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802.
So, yes, Martha was sexy in the eyes of two loving, attentive men. She was smart to marry well and to manage her late husbands estates well. She was strong enough to handle the stress and grief of loss. Her happy moments were only sprinkled in between her times of grief. I suppose that’s what accounts for the sadness in her eyes.
What do you think of Martha Washington? It seems we should be celebrating her life along with George’s birthday. Did you ever read the story of her life? Do you think life was harder in the 18th century than now?
You know I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts below.
Don’t forget that this Friday is no ordinary Friday. It’s Life List Club Friday! Please join us for our biweekly blog hop. I’ll be over at the inspirational David Walker’s blog and the very intelligent Gary Gauthier will be here to get you thinking, as he always does.