I was raised just up the street from Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. My mom was a docent there, I have spoken at the leadership center there, and I am a member. I have also written about Mount Vernon quite a bit, these past seven months, in articles like 1919 Virginia Souvenir Tourist Postcard Booklet and 1825 Letter to Bushrod Washington at Mt. Vernon From Nephew, and, my favorite, 1865 Letter: Detailed Description of Steamship Journey to Mount Vernon.
I love Mount Vernon because it is truly a living museum. Every time you go, it's a little bit different. To me, second, only to the White House and the Capitol, it is an essential stop for anyone passing through DC. It predates both of those places significantly, and as the home of George Washington, it really is the place where the country was born. More so than either of those places, Mount Vernon also confronts its enslaved-person-owning past very well.
I loved writing this article because it lets me not just highlight an item in the OurHistoryMuseum collection, but it also enables me to feature the hidden-in-plain-sight fantastic-ness of the Mount Vernon website. To understand what I mean, please play detective with me, and try to find out the date of this booklet. More accurately, what is the date of the photography inside the booklet? I think it's a fascinating and fun journey, and I hope you'll enjoy reading along as we play CSI: Mount Vernon.
Step 1: Let's start with the cover.
The Leet Brothers were active at that address starting in 1905. That's a good start.
Zooming in, we can see the balustrade (latticework) atop the porch or piazza. Also, I can kind of see that the side porch is still there.
Both are easier to see in one of the photos in the postcard booklet.
The balustrade was removed in 1936, and there's actually a picture of its removal (see immediately below). Over the years, Mount Vernon has decided to restore the mansion's appearance to the time of George Washington as much as possible. So, now we know the booklet is newer than 1905 and no older than 1936.
Googling, I came across this tweet from Mount Vernon regarding the porch on the south side of the mansion. They are incorrect about the balustrade, but let's assume that they are right about the porch.
So, now we know that the south porch was removed in 1932. Thus, we can conclude our booklet is no younger than 1905 and no older than 1932.
Step 2: Can we narrow this down more by looking at some of the pictures inside the booklet?
One great feature about Mount Vernon's website is just how well preservation efforts are documented. For example, we can compare this image below to a timeline of photos of that particular room. So let's compare how our picture of the West Parlor to the timeline.
From this timeline, we can tell that the image is closer to 1899 than it is to 1922. So, now we know that the booklet is definitely post-1905 and pre-1922, and we now know that it is probably closer to 1899.
But! According to Wikipedia, the Detroit Photographic Company (see the caption under the 1899 photo) did not start calling itself the Detroit Publishing Company until 1905. Plus, from much earlier in the article we know that the Leet Brothers were operating at the 14th St. address only as early as 1905.
So that's another vote in favor of 1905 at the earlier end and 1922 at the upper end.
Does that mean Mount Vernon's website needs updating? Probably.
Step 3: Can we learn anything from the kitchen photo?
Here's a photo from the Library of Congress dated somewhere between 1900 & 1920 that is very similar.
We can see that it too is marked the Detroit Publishing Company in the lower left, but we know that our photo is newer than 1905. In the end, the kitchen photo is not that helpful. But does it bring down the range to 1905 to 1920? Maybe.
Step 4: The Banquet Hall or New Room, as it's now called, offers some tantalizing hints.
This room was recently renovated and returned to its George Washington-era appearance. So there is a lot of documentation about it. In particular, this blog is entirely devoted to the renovation and appears to be written by someone close to the renovation.
The 1860s sketch below seems to be the earliest depiction of the room. There's not a lot we can learn from that; however, I note that there was no brass surround protecting the fireplace. It's also just fun to play detective.
Interestingly, here's an 1873 illustration showing a sliver of Rembrandt Peal's Washington Before Yorktown 1825 painting. It is more easily viewed in subsequent photographs. Apparently, the curtains were part of a tradition of revealing the painting ceremonially during social gatherings.
As the Mount Vernon New Room blog says:
The formal presentation of the painting in 1873 became a symbolic occasion, with Washington the Father presiding over the newly-reconciled representatives of North and South. The scene described in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper poignantly paired the aged Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee with the youthful daughter of Union Genl. Ulysses S. Grant, Nellie Grant, surrounded by the Mount Vernon Ladies, representative of states throughout the Union.
1878-1883: the painting is much easier to see here. It was loaned/donated to the Corcoran Museum in 1902. Today, it hangs in the National Gallery of Art. There is no brass surround protecting the mantle.
The brass surround makes its first appearance sometime before 1902.
So we have reconfirmed that the booklet is post-1902 and pre-1920. We're making good progress. Here is some more confirmation of that.
1905-1920 according to the Library of Congress. It's a lot closer to our photo.
Here is a postcard produced by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1920, and it does not have the brass surround. The vertically oriented painting has been removed, and the mirror has been shifted over to the left.
Here's that same blog again with a reference now to the brass barrier. They seem to have our same photograph as well, and they don't appear to have been able to date it.
Here is Mount Vernon's current page devoted to the New Room, formerly called the Large Dining Room and the Banquet Hall before that.
Step 5: Let's review the rest of the photos. I want to see if there is anything that might help us narrow our current date range, which is somewhere between 1905 and 1920, with a definite leaning toward 1905-1915.
The wharf does not seem especially helpful because it really wasn't updated that much, and there is very little documentation about the updates.
Other than the ivy growth and the plants, there is very little on the tomb photo to help date it.
There are some fascinating photographs of the music room or a little parlor. The photograph below is dated 1902. The large cabinet disappears from the room in about 1926.
Other than re-confirming what we already know, none of those photos are really very helpful.
I was almost ready to give up when I thought I should take another look at the Mount Vernon website, and compare readily available images of the front view of the mansion with our front view.
Here is our photo:
Here is a 1910-confirmed photo:
The tree just off the south porch is gone!!!! So, that takes us down to a range of 1905 - 1910. Just to confirm, here is a confirmed-1901 photograph:
The tree is back. That's a good sign. It helps reconfirm my thinking.
It's not definitive proof because you don't know when the photograph was taken, but here is a 1906 postcard with the now-dead tree. Note the shadows on the side of the building for future reference.
And here is a zoomed-in and cropped photograph from a 1908 stereoscope; at least, it was copyrighted in 1908. Note the shadows mimicking the shape of that particular tree on the building and the slight overhang of branches.
Step 6: Let's review and celebrate.
That stereoscope photo brings us down to a two-year range of 1908–1910! It's not perfectly definitive, but it's pretty good.
How about we call it 1909?
This took me a week of research. I certainly hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
Have a different view? Leave it in the comments below!