New Perspectives on Domestic Life at Monticello

BY ELIZABETH V. CHEW

West front of Monticello. Photograph by Mary Porter.

When Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) retired from the presidency in 1809 and returned to Monticello to live year-round for the first time since 1796, his domestic world was expansive and complex. His wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (1748–1782), had been dead for nearly twenty-seven years, but his oldest daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. (1768–1828), and their eleven children joined the Monticello household, as did Jefferson’s sister Anna Marks (1755–1828), and, eventually, a grandson-in-law, his grandmother, and three great-grandchildren.1

Monticello was famous for its hospitality and cuisine. The obligation to entertain the flow of visitors—both invited and unexpected—could be overwhelming. Family letters indicate that the Jefferson household entertained a near constant round of relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and even national and international celebrities. Martha Jefferson Randolph described a particularly busy week in late summer 1825:

I…invited the two families to dinner, expecting 1 carriage full of ladies and perhaps 3 gentlemen behind say 8 persons, there came 2 carriages full of ladies and children, and 4 gentlemen on horseback 12 persons, besides 4 others unexpected which with your aunt Cary’s family Made 20 persons to dinner in the dining room and 11 children & boys in My sitting room 31 persons in all. two days after, Monday we had another invited party, and Thursday another. every day but one some person more than the family, and Saturday…another dinner party, 4 in the same week.2

Fig. 1: View of the Monticello dining room with its former Wedgwood blue walls. Photograph by Robert C. Lautman. Fig. 2: The newly repainted and refurbished dining room at Monticello. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

Monticello’s dining room was the center of conviviality in the house. An elegant neoclassical space, the dining room was an eighteen-foot cube with a skylight, Doric entablature featuring alternating rosettes and bucrania (ox skulls) in the metopes of the frieze, a large triple sash window overlooking the west lawn, and an adjoining semi-octagonal alcove called the tea room.3 Paint analysis recently concluded by Susan Buck indicates that the first pigment on top of the lime-washed plaster walls was chrome yellow. Chrome yellow—lead chromate—was capable of producing an intense yellow paint impossible to achieve with any other pigments. This extremely fashionable and expensive pigment, first available commercially in the United States in 1812, cost thirty-three times the price of white lead paint.4

The dining room walls, painted Wedgwood blue since 1936 on the basis of a misreading of evidence in the era before scientific paint analysis (Fig. 1), were repainted chrome yellow in February 2010. At the same time, Monticello’s curators concluded a reevaluation of the furnishings in order to ensure that the entire dining room reflected the latest research. As a result, Monticello visitors now see a brilliant space where architecture, fine and decorative arts, and Jefferson’s renowned labor-saving devices together conjure the ambience in which excellent food and free-flowing conversation delighted his family’s many guests (Fig. 2).

Recent reintroductions to the room include a French carpet and serving table. While living in Paris as America’s minister to France from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson made notes of available types of carpets and their respective costs. It seems likely that he chose an Abbeville carpet, a French wool carpet with a velvety pile woven in strips like an English Wilton, instead of a much higher-priced Aubusson.5 Working with carpet historian Sarah B. Sherrill and designer Ralph Harvard, Monticello’s curators commissioned a floral carpet with a scroll border based on French carpet patterns of the late 1770s and early 1780s (Fig. 3).6

Fig. 3: View showing floral carpet with scroll border and serving table with carved bracket supports. On the serving table are ceramic and silver objects from the Monticello collection. The green shell edge pearlware, on loan from Colonial Williamsburg, represents the types of wares most commonly used for dining at the end of Jefferson’s life. The adjoining tea room could function as an overflow dining space, but also served as a sitting room and space for taking tea. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

When Jefferson returned from Paris in 1789, eighty-six crates of belongings followed him home. A list of the contents of the crates prepared by a professional packer, or emballeur, named Grevin enumerates the furnishings Jefferson purchased for his Paris residence. Much of Jefferson’s French furniture has been on view at Monticello for decades but one item, a three-piece marble serving table, has never been accounted for.7 Grevin described the three component parts of the object as “deux portent qui portait le marbre de la salle á manger” and, in another case, “un marbre.”8 Sometimes attached to the dining room walls of French houses, these marble topped tables supported by carved marble or wooden legs or brackets (table d’applique) could be used during dinner service and for display of family silver or other prized possessions.9 Monticello curators commissioned a faux-marble serving table with carved bracket supports from Harrison Higgins of Richmond, Virginia, based on a period prototype by Georges Jacob that sold at Sotheby’s, Paris in 2006. The brackets of the new piece contain volutes with rosettes and have paw feet (see figure 3).

Fig. 4: West wall of the dining room with pedimented window and works of art. Photograph by Sequoia Design.

Fig. 6: Monticello’s revolving serving door. Photograph by Carol Highsmith.


Fig. 5: J. C. Stadler (active early nineteenth century), after William Roberts, Natural Bridge, 1808. Colored aquatint. Jefferson’s views of Natural Bridge and Harper’s Ferry were paintings by William Roberts, given to him by the artist during his presidency. This aquatint was made after Jefferson’s now unlocated painting. Photograph by Edward Owen.
One dinner topic Jefferson favored, according to young Bostonian George Ticknor who visited in 1815, was “the antiquities of his native state.”10 One of Jefferson’s favorite Virginia antiquities was certainly Natural Bridge, the celebrated land formation located some ninety miles southwest of Monticello that he purchased in 1774. A catalogue of Jefferson’s art collection that he compiled around 1815 reveals that clustered together on his dining room walls, most likely on either side of the pedimented triple sash window facing the west lawn, were prints and paintings affording views of Natural Bridge, the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers’ Ferry, Niagara Falls from both the American and Canadian sides, New Orleans, and Coalbrookdale Bridge (Figs. 4, 5).11 The latter, a feat of human engineering and a marvel of the Industrial Revolution, was the world’s first cast iron bridge, built over the Severn River Gorge near Coalbrookdale in the English Midlands in 1779. Jefferson no doubt arranged the constellation of pictures to make the most of the comparisons, celebrating both the wonders of nature and of human achievement. Between them the window framed a view of Jefferson’s carefully constructed mountain-top flower walk around his beautifully leveled west lawn.

Jefferson ensured a relaxed dining environment by reducing the formality of the dinner service and thereby the number of enslaved servants needed in the dining room. Using several labor-saving innovations, butler Burwell Colbert could oversee dinner assisted by only a few waiters.

Fig. 7: View of the dining room showing the reproduction sideboard standing in the alcove. The revolving serving door is at the end of alcove, to the left of the sideboard. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

A newly acquired sideboard provides insight into the function of this narrow space. It suggests that the alcove served not only to set off and highlight this large and handsome piece of furniture, but also as a backstage area from which Burwell Colbert mediated between the elite world of the diners and the quotidian world of the enslaved cooks leaving dishes of food on the other side of the revolving serving door.

Fig. 8: View of the Dining Room fireplace showing one side of the wine dumbwaiter. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

Fig. 9: Lower level of wine dumbwaiter in Monticello’s restored wine cellar. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

The first of these innovations, a revolving door with shelves—likely inspired by those used for communication with the outside world in cloistered Catholic monasteries and convents—was located at one end of an alcove on the east side of the dining room (Fig. 6). When Colbert rotated it, the door whisked platters of food or dirty dishes in or out of the room from or to the passageway outside, thus eliminating a need for direct interaction between the delivery and serving of food.

An abiding Monticello mystery has been the appearance and whereabouts of Jefferson’s sideboard, which a family document says stood in the alcove. A recently discovered Jefferson packing list provided valuable new evidence for the appearance and origin of the sideboard. It revealed that a sideboard was likely among the pieces of furniture Jefferson purchased from Thomas Burling in 1791 after arriving in New York to serve as George Washington’s Secretary of State. A sideboard was sold by Jefferson’s family at the dispersal sale following his death in 1826. Using as a model a mahogany with mahogany veneer and tulip poplar sideboard by Burling of the correct date and dimensions, now in a private collection, Monticello curators commissioned a reproduction sideboard from Richmond cabinetmaker Harrison Higgins, which now stands in the alcove (Fig. 7).

The second labor-saving devices were wine dumbwaiters, small pulley-driven elevators concealed on either side of the fireplace mantel (Fig. 8). These transported wine bottles from the wine cellar below, so no slave was required to bring the wine into the room (Fig. 9). Additionally, diners used pieces of furniture also called dumbwaiters, which were tiers of galleried shelves placed between chairs, to clear and reset their own places between courses (see figure 8). Jefferson had experienced these conveniences, uncommon in America, at the small informal dinner parties he favored in Paris.12 All three devices only reduced the number of slaves present in the dining room. Behind the scenes, however, a sizeable cast of enslaved workers, and the white women of the household, labored to make the proceedings look effortless.

During his five-year stay in Paris as American minister (1784–1789), Jefferson learned to enjoy French food and wine. After his return, Monticello’s enslaved cooks were always trained as French chefs. A slave named James Hemings had accompanied Jefferson to Paris and studied cooking and pastrymaking there. Hemings returned to Virginia with Jefferson and received his freedom after teaching his brother Peter the art of French cooking. As President, Jefferson employed a French chef, Etienne Lemaire, and ensured that two enslaved women from Monticello, Edith Fossett and Frances Hern, learned to cook from him.

Fig. 10: Monticello’s restored kitchen. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.

Fig. 11: Figures of (l–r) Priscilla Hemmings, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Burwell Colbert, and Israel Gillette, part of Crossroads: Domestic Work at Monticello, the new permanent installation located in the cellar level of Monticello. Photograph by Philip Beaurline.
Fossett and Hern were the principal chefs at Monticello during Jefferson’s retirement years. They and their assistants prepared the complex meals for many diners using the stew stoves and open hearth in Monticello’s kitchen along with the elaborate copper batterie de cuisine Jefferson shipped home from Paris (Fig. 10). To convey food to the revolving serving door, the cooks and their helpers transported it from the kitchen down a covered all-weather passage, which connected the kitchen and other work spaces, to the main block of the house. A basement room below the dining room served as a final warming and prep kitchen—known as an office in French houses—where the food was sauced and transferred to silver and ceramic serving dishes before being carried upstairs.

Surviving family recipe manuscripts tell us that Jefferson enjoyed braised meats like boeuf boulli or boeuf á la daube, with quantities of vegetables, many of them, such as blanched sea kale, grown in his large experimental garden.13 Recipes indicate that the family and their guests ate desserts like oeufs á la neige—snow eggs—or meringue in a bed of custard. Wine was served after the meal, in the English fashion, and included vintages from many of Jefferson’s favored French estates, including Château Lafite and Château Yquem.

Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph coordinated the many details of domestic management with enslaved butler Burwell Colbert. Regretting her own lack of preparation for her life as a plantation mistress, Randolph required her six daughters and oldest granddaughter to learn the necessary skills. By the time they were teenagers, they shared household responsibilities with their mother for a month at a time on a rotating basis. As housekeepers, the Randolph women descended the stairs to the cellar level of the house to consult with the cooks and plan menus, and to lock and unlock cellars containing foodstuffs, household supplies, and table wares. Managing the ware room, or food storage space, entailed keeping it stocked and organized, maintaining current knowledge of what was there, and distributing daily ingredients to the cooks. The room’s contents included sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and spices acquired from merchants in Richmond and raisins, Parmesan cheese, almonds, anchovies, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and “maccaroni,” Jefferson’s word for pasta, obtained from abroad. Martha Randolph described the long hours required to run the household, “I have literally not one quiet hour from 5 in the morning my usual hour of rising, till 10 at night, when we generally retire.”14

Under Martha Randolph’s direction, Burwell Colbert, who also carried the keys to locked spaces, oversaw all domestic work, upstairs and down. Downstairs, the central cellar space was a crossroads of activity. Here, enslaved domestic workers, Jefferson family members, slaves accompanying Monticello visitors, wagoners delivering supplies, and others crossed paths as they went about their daily tasks. Cooks Edith Fossett and Frances Hern and their assistants made frequent trips through the Passage to the Ice House and back. Housemaids carried water, laundry, and other supplies upstairs and brought soiled linen and waste water down. Teenage house boys, like Israel Gillette, carried firewood up and ashes down. Jefferson himself reportedly came down to the kitchen every eight days to wind the clock.

A new installation in the central cellar space—Crossroads: Domestic Work at Monticello—gives contemporary visitors a sense of the constant buzz of domestic activity that once pervaded Monticello, while life-sized figures introduce them to some of the people who worked to sustain the Jefferson household: enslaved butler Burwell Colbert; Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph; Priscilla Hemmings, enslaved nurse to Jefferson’s grandchildren; Israel Gillette, enslaved house servant; and enslaved house maid Betty Brown, shown sewing with ten-year-old Harriet Hemings, daughter of enslaved Sally Hemings (Fig. 11). Each figure is accompanied by archaeologically recovered objects representing items they may have worn or used. The exhibition contains four interactive components so that visitors can experience operating a model of the wine dumbwaiter, ringing and hearing the service bells activated in the parlor and Jefferson’s bedroom, ironing with a heavy iron, and unlocking a locked door.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation owns and operates Monticello. Call 434.984.9880 or visit www.monticello.org for information and to make reservations.

Elizabeth V. Chew is curator at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia.


1. At the end of Jefferson’s life, the Monticello household also included Nicholas Trist (1800–1874), husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Randolph (1801–1882); Trist’s grandmother, Elizabeth House Trist (ca. 1751–1828), an old friend of Jefferson’s with whose family he had lodged in Philadelphia during the Continental Congresses of 1782–1784; two children of deceased granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph Bankhead (1791–1826); and the infant daughter of Nicholas and Virginia Trist.

2. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Randolph Coolidge, September 18, 1825. Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge correspondence, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

3. The dining room entablature was inspired by Plate 5, page 30, of the 1766 edition of Roland Fréart de Chambray, Parallèle de l’architecture antique avec la modern (first published Paris, 1650). Jefferson’s copy with the inscription “Dining Room” above the plate survives at the Library of Congress.

4. See Rutherford J. Gettens and George L. Stout, Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia (New York: Dover Publications, 1966).

5. “Table of Costs for Carpeting and Calico,” 1784–89, Thomas Jefferson papers, Library of Congress.

6. See Sarah B. Sherrill, Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America (New York: Abbeville Press, 1996), plates 93 and 95.

7. Following Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, the majority of the Monticello furnishings were sold to pay his debts. Since the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased Monticello in 1923, many original Jefferson objects have been reacquired. The great majority of the furnishings on view in the Monticello house belonged to Jefferson and were used by him and his family. For the Monticello collections, see Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (New York: Abrams, 1993).

8. Two supports for the dining room marble and a piece of marble.

9. For a representative example, see Mark Girouard, Life in the French Country House (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. 143. Also see Le mobilier domestique (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1992), vol. I, 286–89.

10. For Ticknor’s account see Merrill D. Peterson, ed. Visitors to Monticello (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 61–66.

11. “Catalogue of Paintings at Monticello,” ca. 1815, Thomas Jefferson papers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

12. See Charles Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: Viking, 1966) 393–94.

13. For more on food and dining at Monticello, as well as Monticello recipes adapted for the modern kitchen, see Damon Lee Fowler, ed., Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance (Charlottesville, Va.: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2005).

14. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Randolph Coolidge, September 1, 1825, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge correspondence, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
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