Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Society Quilts, Shopping & Anna Maria Thornton

This chintz quilt came to the Museum at Michigan State University
with the story that it was made by Abigail Adams,
 although there is little evidence.
Read more here:

“Sat 26th Fine day – Mrs. Seaton sent us some fine pears in return for some figs – I went to see Mrs. Tayloe, Custis, Rush, - & Adams. Mrs. [Louisa Catherine] Adams showed me how to do the border of the Quilt....” (possibly in the 1840s) Dairy of Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (1775?-1865)

In the 1840s everybody was making quilts including Washington's society ladies. We also have a few surviving early quilts from the upper class. Anna Maria Thornton's diary mentions quilting help from her neighbor Mrs. John Quincy Adams, but we have no record of any surviving quilts from any of the ladies Anna Maria mentioned above.

Maria Hester Monroe,
 daughter of President James Monroe is supposed to have stopped
adding to this hexagon mosaic in the early 1830s
when her father was dying. It's now in the
 collection of the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Anna Maria kept a diary from 1798 to 1865.  Published entries from 1800 give us a picture of life in brand new Washington City. She wrote of an unsuccessful shopping trip in the nation's capitol:

"—Went to a shop in New Jersey avenue, to look for some black Chintz.—A poor little Store—there are too few inhabitants for any business to be carried on extensively.—"

An optimistic view of Washington in 1800

Only the entries for 1800 have been published, although you might find the microfilms of the diaries in your library. It's a shame all her entries are not available in print or on line. One reason may be that official summaries of her papers at the Library of Congress tend to be dismissive:
"Wife of architect William Thornton. Diaries and notebooks primarily describing social life in Washington, D.C., with extensive detail about housekeeping and expense matters."

Anna Maria, watercolor by her husband

But her life and records reveal more than the surface. We view the Federal period and England's corresponding Regency era backwards through a Victorian lens, which often renders real life invisible. The story of Anna Maria and her mother is rather long, so to entertain you while you read it I've inserted some shopping tips--- new reproduction prints for period quilts.

Shopping: Kaye England has a 2012 botanical chintz
& coordinating stripe.

Nothing is quite what it seems, beginning with a mysterious birthdate and birthplace. The 1860 census lists Anna Maria's birthplace as "unknown", but she is presumed to have been born in England in 1775. Her mother showed up with a French name in Philadelphia in the 1770s, possibly with this infant in utero or in hand. The American Revolution was just beginning and the first few years of Madame Brodeau's residence were under British military occupation, an exellent place to reinvent oneself.

In late 1775 Robert Morris and Benjamin Franklin placed a public notice in the Pennyslvania Gazette: "Mrs. Brodeau, from England, Takes this Method of acquainting her Friends and the Public in general, that she has opened a Boarding School, in Walnut-street, near the Corner of Fourth-street, where young Ladies will be genteely boarded, and taught to read and speak the French and English Language, the Tambour, Embroidery, and every Kind of useful and ornamental Needle-Work..."

Shopping: Metropolitan Fair, my latest Moda
collection is Civil War era,
but these scribble prints, also called seaweed
 or coral prints were classic in the early 19th century too.

According to her daughter's obituary Madame brought letters of introduction "to the first people of that city from persons of the highest distinction in England, [Her school] was liberally patronized as she was a very accomplished woman, of elegant manners, and a perfect encyclopedia in all that pertained to English life and society." According to newspaperman Benjamin Perley Poore, Mrs. Brodeau "displayed great ability as a teacher." Betty Ring in her study of schoolgirl samplers noted the "well-established boarding school for girls kept by Ann Brodeau," who had 27 females living in her household on Laurell Court listed in the 1790 census.  That year George Washington considered sending his niece Harriott Washington to Mrs. Brodeau's but thought the terms, "(especially the Board) appear to be high. ...Mrs Brodeau was I understand once of Mr. Morris's family; this may occasion a prediliction in that quarter." Washington was making a little joke about Morris's wealth and inability to hold on to it.

Dr. William Thornton 1759-1828
Portrait by Gilbert Stuart 1804

On October 13, 1790 Dr. William Thornton, about 30 years old, married the younger Anna Brodeau, then fifteen. Thornton was also an emigrant, born in the West Indies of a Quaker family, with a medical education from Scotland and England. He did not care for doctoring and found his calling in architectural design, winning a competition to design the Philadelphia Library Company's new hall in 1789.

Thornton's first building The Philadelphia Library Company
 shows the classical look he was known for.

After their marriage the Thorntons spent two years in Tortola visiting his family. Like most well-to-do Barbadians, the Thornton's money was based on slavery and sugar, a Quaker contradiction. Thornton's sympathy lay with the slaves but his ideas for manumission and transportation back to Africa excited no interest in the West Indies. The couple returned to the United States in late 1792.

In 1793 George Washington accepted Thornton's design for the nation's new capitol building and the following year the Doctor moved to Washington taking Anna and her mother. Anna's diaries record her husband's architectural career, designing homes for the elite. Among his commissions: John Tayloe's Octagon House and Thomas and Martha Custis Peter's Tudor Place. Yet he never made a living from architecture, an economic need President Jefferson addressed by appointing him superintendent of the Patent Office in 1802.

Benjamin Latrobe's plan for the Capitol
superseded Thornton's design,
causing bad blood between them.
The dome, rotunda and two wings were
Thornton's ideas, however.

Anna Maria's diaries also record her unofficial work as the architect's assistant. She was his draftsman translating ideas into drawings and maps.

 "I was employed in altering & making circles on a map to shew the distances from the Capitol and President's House after one which Dr T— had done at the Office—In the evening I was netting on a Shawl. —Mr Middleton brought home a little table & Dr T's rulers.—"

 Anna Maria's painting of the Madison's Montpelier in Virginia

"I began to copy on a larger Scale the elevation & ground plan of the House.—Mr Middleton sent home a Ruler, Frames for the Window blinds—and a thread winder.—"

The Thorntons lively social life included friends and neighbors among the wealthy and the influential, entertained with flair in their home at 1331 F Street NW. The house next door was home to Dolley and James Madison and later John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. Anna Maria's musical talents were in demand at the President's House and elsewhere. Diarist William Dunlap summarized their charms, " His company was a complete antidote to dullness....The Doctor draws very well but he writes abominably. His lady paints very prettily & is an accomplished woman." (Dunlap must have read the Doctor's unpublished romance novels.)

Shopping: Most of Jo Morton's repros are Civil-War era or
 later but these foulards with seaweed details
 are enough like early
 Indiennes to be quite useful.

The Doctor bred race horses on their Maryland farm and experimented with steam ships.  His reputation as a temperamental eccentric explains feuds with capitol co-designer Benjamin Henry Latrobe and fellow engineer Robert Fulton. He was also remembered as bad with money (no bar to social status at the time.) Despite Tortola plantation income and a federal salary he was always in debt with preferred investments in thoroughbreds, local race tracks and North Carolina gold mines.

Anna and William had no children and shared their home with Mrs. Brodeau and several slaves. In the 1800 census three are listed. Thornton's Quaker upbringing did not prohibit him from keeping slaves and spending the money from slavery's sugar plantations. But he remained interested in the slave's welfare, working for colonization societies that advocated relocation back to Africa.

After William Thornton died in 1828 at about 70 years of age, Anna Marie was shocked to find he had willed his house [legally not their house] to the American Colonization Society. (There is some diagreement as to whether this is true.) While she might live there until her death she could not sell it to pay his debts. During particularly difficult financial stretches she and her mother rented smaller quarters and leased the house or parts of it. At some point she sold it to Dr. Thomas Miller who permitted her to board there.

In 1865 the Sanitary Commission offices were at 1333 F St. NW.
The house to the right may be the Thorntons.

In summer 1835, Anna Maria, her 88-year-old mother, slaves Maria Bowen and 18-year-old John Arthur were among those living at the F Street house. One hot night a drunken Arthur broke into Anna Maria's bedroom with an ax. His mother stopped the attack. Arthur ran away but was soon captured. The assault was national news, exactly the kind of retribution every slave owner feared. A  civil disturbance targeted free blacks. Arthur Bowen, sentenced to hang, was spared by Anna Maria Thornton's pleas to President Andrew Jackson. Instead of being imprisoned he was sold in 1836.

News in the Salem Massachusetts Gazette, 1835

Ann Brodeau (?-1836)
"A perfect encyclopedia in all that
pertained to English life and society"

Shopping: Quilting Treasures has a chintz
with a fancy machine ground
& a coordinating panel print.

The elder Anna Brodeau died in 1836, leaving Anna Maria without family. She lived in Washington until her death at 90 after the Civil War. Virginia Miller who lived with her as a child wrote a memoir in 1914:

"I would say she was quite small, whether that was due to her being an old lady or not I do not know, but as I remember her she was very short. She always wore dainty white caps and the hair which showed in front was brown. She had beautiful big brown eyes, keen yet soft, wore a simple black dress with a little white shawl thrown round her shoulders. Her hearing, eyesight, mind and memory were good to the very last and she was always alive and interested in whatever concerned her friends and in the current news of the day... Many times I had heard Mrs. Thornton speak of her husband having invented the first steamboat and her grief over the little recognition his talents and services had ever obtained...."
Anna Maria died in August, 1865, remembered well enough that her obituary was reprinted nationwide, although she would not have been pleased and might very well have been surprised to read it. Beginning with the erroneous assertion that she died at 100, it goes on to say:
"A correspondent of the New York Express says: Mrs. Thornton was a daughter of the unfortunate Dr. William Dodd (a Chaplain of George the Third,) who was executed for forgery, in London, in 1777. His widow and daughter emigrated to Philadelphia soon after that sad event, under the feigned name of Brodeau...It is believed that Mrs Thornton never knew that she was the daughter of Dr. Dodd. Dr. Thornton was, however, aware of the fact, having, probably, been Informed of it by her mother before his marriage. He disclosed it some years afterward to Col. Bomford, with whom he was very Intimate, and through Col. Bomford it became known to other friends of the Thorntons."
What a blabbermouth! George Bomford (1780–1848) was indeed good friends with the Doctor. 
In 1865 Americans would have recalled England's Reverend Dodd and his hanging. His poetry books were sold into the 19th century. Described by a contemporary as "a voluminous writer, and possessed considerable abilities, with little judgment and much vanity," Dodd was badly in debt in the 1770s. Rather than ignoring red ink as the rest of Georgian London did, he forged a bond to pay off his creditors. The penalty was execution. Friend Samuel Johnson defended Dodd, taking his pleas of innocence as gospel with the famous line: "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

One of Dodd's minor crimes was marriage to "the daughter of a servant woman, which was not considered a good match by his friends," according to a biography. Another says, "He hastily united himself on the 15th of April, 1751, with Miss Mary Perkins, daughter of one of the domestics of Sir John Dolben." Friends attributed Dodd's downfall to Mary Perkins Dodd's luxurious tastes but they remained married until his death. At his trial he pleaded for mercy not for himself but for his future widow.
"I have a wife, my Lords, who for 27 years has lived an unparalleled example of conjugal attachment and fidelity, and whose behaviour during this trying scene would draw tears of approbation, I am sure, from even the most inhuman." He made no mention of future orphans.

Was Ann Boudreau this same Mary Perkins Dodd? Unlikely, as contemporary biographies say that "Dodd was buried at Cowley, Middlesex. His widow lived in great misery at Ilford in Essex, and died on 24 July 1784."
Perhaps Anna Maria was, as they used to say, a natural daughter of William Dodd.

Shopping: French General's Chateau Rouge from Moda
has a bird print in madder-like reds and browns.

Gordon S. Brown has used Anna Maria's papers and her husband's to create a portrait of early Washington in Incidental Architect: William Thornton and the Cultural Life of Early Washignton D.C. 1794-1828. See a Google preview here:

Washington's historian Allen C. Clark used the same papers to write a biography of the couple in 1914. Read it here:

Read a biography of William Dodd here

Shopping: The elusive swag print
 from Blue Hill Fabrics. It's the perfect border.


Rosemary Youngs said...

Really enjoyed the informative post. Definitely cannot wait for Saturday mornings to start again.

WoolenSails said...

I really like how those materials look in a hexagon quilt.


sewprimitive karen said...

Wow. What good stories. Thank you for mentioning the Chintz Medallion line. I'm so glad that I have some of that last one, the swag print.

tlunsford said...

Wonderful read! Love this website as much as the Civil War one :)
Is there a way to email Barbara directly with a question?