Martha Washington – Sexy, Smart, From the Heart?

Martha Washington

Martha Washington

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.

Martha Dandridge

19 year old Martha

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.

George Washington at Mt. Vernon. George Washin...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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28 thoughts on “Martha Washington – Sexy, Smart, From the Heart?

  1. Ah, you’ve hit on one of my favorite topics – history. I’ve read a lot about GW for a project, and so, I’ve also read about Martha. I admire her, but I especially admire the relationship she and GW established. She was on display almost as much as GW but it wasn’t her choice, but she handled it with such grace. Gotta love her for it. Also, they had guests at Mt. Vernon almost every day/night of their times in the “down” times. I was amazed at how much they had to entertain, and how fellow Americans felt they should be able to come see them at anytime. And, we know, who had to make those arrangements. Not GW!

    Obviously, I love to read about this topic. Thanks bunches for posting about it! I think you are exactly right. She should be honored right alongside of GW. 😀

    • I didn’t realize they had to entertain people so often! What a burden that must have been. I knew that she didn’t go to his inauguration and assumed she wanted no part of the political life. Must have been tough on her. What a good woman she was. Thanks, Bridgette.

  2. The whole ‘behind every great man stands a great woman’ thing certainly applied to George Washington, didn’t it? It’s too bad, in this day and age, that kids aren’t taught about strong women like Martha. The only president’s wife I remember hearing about in history class was Mary Todd Lincoln, and only because she was reputed to be crazy (but maybe not). So I am very glad to have learned about this woman. How strong she was to have endured so much pain and still be remembered so lovingly.

    • I agree, Kristy. First Ladies were never in the spotlight until Eleanor Roosevelt, another formidable woman. It was fitting to bring her story here on the anniversary of her husband’s birth. 🙂

  3. Fabulous story Marcia, just awesome. I had forgotten that today was George’s birthday because, well, Monday was the holiday and not today. That always messes me up. But Martha was quite a woman. Can’t imagine the difficulty of life back then and to have outlived her children and husbands. Huh, we have no problems, eh? Thank you for sharing her history. 🙂

    • I would have liked to have known her. I wonder if she had a good sense of humor or was playful. She was quite something. Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for coming by!

  4. At first glance, no—the photo did not scream sexy. But I’ve come to learn that sexy things come in all KINDS of packages. (Um, that sounded far more risque than I’d intended… :)) *pulls out goody goody ID card*

    But seeing as Mrs. Washington knew when to get help, supported her loved ones and had an affectionate relationship, I agree with you; she’s sexy for numerous reasons. Have you seen the HBO John Adams mini-series? If not, I HIGHLY recommend it. Great, historically accurate (I’m told) and eye opening.

    • Lol, August! Having helped raise her younger siblings and having a mother who taught her so well, I’m sure she had leadership qualities, a sweet nature and was quite capable. All of those things would make her endearing to a man, especially back then. As far as being pretty, I suppose we can’t judge too much by the pictures since we all look a little different from one photo to another.
      I haven’t seen the John Adams mini-series, but i think my hubs watched it. I’ll have to see if we can get it on Netflix. Thanks!

  5. Martha is an example of a woman’s ability to be resilient in the most difficult of circumstances. I admit, I didn’t know much about Mrs. Washington, but am glad to have read this excellent post about her! She is totally sexy, smart, and from the heart. Maybe you could write a biography about her life in the same manner as this post.

    • There isn’t too much more known about her, Tameri. Some details that would fill parts I had to summarize, but not much else that I’ve found. Maybe library research would reveal a bit more or assumptions could be made based on other facts. I wonder if someone already did write her biography? Anyway, glad you enjoyed this.

  6. I loved this post, Marcia! Over the years, I’ve read or heard bits and pieces of Martha Washington’s life as fragments in history courses, but this is probably the most comprehensive piece I’ve taken time to read on her. I can definitely see the sadness in her eyes in those pictures, along with soulfulness and sharp intelligence. I think in her time period she may well have been considered beautiful – a look of strength and refinement was a lot more valued in those days than what we consider “media-defined pretty” today. And I think she had a strength that not all of us possess – I can’t imagine going through the horrible losses she suffered over her lifetime.

    • The men loved were taken with her, so I think you’re right, Pam, about the standards of external beauty. She was a tough lady and I think she deserved a lot more happiness in life.

  7. Thanks for enightening us with the details of the first First Lady’s life. She had a difficult one, to be sure, but I’m surprised she was allowed to own property after her first husband’s death. I understand that most women at that time were not, and in fact, were often considered chattel themselves.

    Was Martha Washington sexy? To me, definitely. She was a strong woman who prevailed through the worst life threw at her–without the benefits of electric appliances, modern healthcare, and support systems (like Twitter and FB) women have today. For that reason, I’d have to say that most women who lived before the 20th century had a much more trying life than we do.

    • You’re welcome, Jolyse. Married women were not allowed to own property, enter into contracts, etc. A widow becomes the head of household and responsible for the property. She was also the executor of the estate because Daniel Custis died without a will.
      I feel the same way about her as you. Her strength and fortitude, along with her sweet nature makes her sexy.

  8. Wow. Martha Washington Sexy? That caught my attention.
    Martha was a very strong woman. I didn’t realize she had suffered such loss in her life. I can’t imagine the pain she endured and overcame. I am so glad that you are honoring her. I’m afraid George has been taking most of the attention all these years. I’m always up for a history lesson 🙂

    Thanks for posting this great biography, Marcia!

  9. What a wonderful story Marcia. I hadn’t hear it before and loved our introduction to Martha. She was obviously a woman of strength, intelligence and perverseness. All amazing qualities and ones needed to survive and thrive in the 18th century when I think life was considerably more difficult.
    Thanks for bringing her to us!

  10. I admire most Martha’s ability to find, revel in and appreciate the happy moments in her life despite all of her grief. Many would crumble, would have hid in a room with a blanket over their head and waited to die, but Martha carried on, focused on what she still had to live for. Bravo, Martha, and thank you, Marcia, for sharing her story.

    • Thanks, Sherry! Martha finally did do just that after George died. She went to her room and waited to die, but who could blame her? Losing 4 children and two husbands is loss enough for anyone. Thanks for coming by and glad you enjoyed the story.

  11. Marcia what an amazing story. I had not heard about her life but she is so storng and quite a role model for women today…we do have it easier let’s face it…but what we can learn from her story…marvelous! You have one date that I am sure you wanted to say 1758 not 1958 😉

    • Thanks, Donna! I was typing late into the night and missed that date.
      She was more woman, than I ever thought. I knew she didn’t take part in Washington’s inauguration or think much of him being president, but I’d had no idea of the truths of her life and their relationship.

  12. Being English, I hadn’t heard of this lady, or heard this story. Wow. Talk about Girl Power!

    How sad to live with all those losses. All those children, gone. I could not imagine what that would be like and hope I never do.

    What a great post. Who’d have thought I would be having a history lesson today 🙂

    • Most American President’s wives, before the 20th century, were obscure. they stood by their husbands and performed the household duties requested of them, but were rarely in the limelight as they are today. so most of us knew very little of this First Lady.
      Colonial times were tough. Most people lost at least one child to illness. Very sad.
      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Donna!

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