Martha Washington was the first ‘First Lady’ of the USA. Although the term ‘First Lady’ was not introduced until much later, Martha Washington was known as ‘Lady Washington’, in recognition of her status as the wife of the USA’s first President, George Washington.
Martha Custis Washington (1731 – 1802) (nee Dandridge) was born into a family of tobacco planters and slaveholders in Virginia. As a very wealthy widow whose first husband died when she was 25, she married George Washington in 1759. When the American war of independence broke out in 1775, George was appointed to command the American colonists’ army, fighting for independence from British rule. He would not return for six years.
Every year, when the fighting came to a standstill during the long winter months, Martha made the difficult journey to the winter camps to join her husband, boosting morale and contributing thousands of dollars of her own money to the war effort.
After the war ended, in 1783, George Washington became the first President of the newly formed federal republic, the United States of America. Martha did not attend her husband’s inauguration ceremony and it is rumoured that she was against her husband accepting the role. Once he was President, though, she took on the new responsibilities of a president’s wife, including hosting governmental social events, and setting an example to the nation by behaving with dignity at all times.
The Washingtons continued to profit from the goods produced by the labour of enslaved people on their plantations. Many of these slaves were inherited by the Washingtons during Martha’s lifetime, and some of them ran away to freedom while working in the ‘President’s House’ in Philadelphia (which predated the White House). George Washington arranged to manumit (free) his own slaves after Martha’s death.
This doll was made late in the 1800s, during the ‘colonial revival’, as a reminder of the traditional values of the time before the American war of independence. Martha Washington was seen as an example of someone who embodied the principles of what many considered to be a ‘golden age’. As well as being an art and architectural movement, people dressed in colonial costumes and held ‘Martha Washington’ tea parties.
Did you know?
Martha and George Washington did not have children together, but raised Martha’s children from her previous marriage, and two grandchildren. Martha outlived all four of her children.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.