Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dolley Madison

First Lady: Indomitable Dolley
Dolley Madison was the first President’s wife to truly earn the title, First Lady. She was younger and loved to entertain. She was known as Madame Hospitality and even after she left the White House she managed to dominate the social scene in Washington.

Dolley was born May 20, 1768 in North Carolina then moved to Virginia where she grew up on a plantation. Later, her father moved them to Pennsylvania in 1783. Dolley married, but tragedy struck and her husband and son died in a cholera epidemic in 1793. A widow at age 25, she met James Madison in Philadelphia where he served in the Continental Congress. Although seventeen years her senior, Madison proposed and Dolley accepted. They married September 15, 1794.

Despite her gay and low-cut clothes, she won people over with her charm and good humor. She wasn’t a beauty by today’s standards, but she radiated cheerfulness. She was an innovator who didn’t like the intimate social gatherings like Jefferson before her. She had a style of her own and enjoyed having masses of people in for dinner, lawn parties, teas, dances, luncheons as well as state dinners. Her mantra: “The more the merrier.” However she did give smaller dinner parties with a skill that combined groups of intimate friends with distinguished guests who happened to be in town. Other First Ladies may have had parties, but they were not in the same class as hers.

This is the Madison China pattern that was used for official state dinners at the White House. Most people are surprised when they see it because it doesn't reflect the true nature of Dolley, and it bears no evidence of the Presidential seal or anything else pertaining to being President of the United States.

Dolley loved the holidays and was the one who instituted the custom of Easter Egg Rolling on the White House lawn. New Year’s day was another big event at the White House.

The White House was burned on August 14, 1814, and Dolley did all she could to save as much of the contents as possible. That may be her most memorable legacy. Even after they moved to smaller quarters at Taylor House for the repairs, Dolley stilled entertained until the end of Madison’s term in 1817.

Despite the years that have passed, the legend of Dolley continues. No one can deny that she set a style that other First Ladies through the years have tried to emulate, but hardly the same success.

Pictured here, her first inaugural dress was one of my favorites at the Smithsonian exhibit. It is a pale yellow satin that set off Dolley’s coloring to perfection. 

Sadly, few records were kept of the meals she served or of her favorite foods. Some few choice recipes were recorded, and they were few considering the amount of entertaining she did.

 One other bit of history, even though she was no longer First Lady, Dolley was the chronologically earliest to be photographed. This photo may be seen at the Greensboro Historical Museum.   

Martha Rogers is a free-lance writer and was named Writer of the Year at the Texas Christian Writers Conference in 2009 and writes a weekly devotional for ACFW. Martha and her husband Rex live in Houston where they enjoy spending time with their grandchildren. She is a member of several writing groups.  A former Home Economics teacher, Martha loves to cook and experimenting with recipes and loves scrapbooking when she has time. She has written two series, Winds Across the Prairie and Seasons of the Heart as well as several other novels and novellas. Love Stays True, the first book in her new series, The Homeward Journey, released in May, 2013 and book 2, Love Finds Faith, in February 2014.

Do you enjoy entertaining? What kind of party do you most enjoy having? Answer the question with your comments for an opportunity to win a copy of Love Finds Faith.


  1. I love hosting a small get together, like for a Bible study but for the most part people prefer, and even ask that I please not cook! Which is fine. I have a few special dishes and treats that I pull out for special occaisions. I always going to a fun themed party (i.e. sockhop, 80's, Italian, Thai, sushi, pajama jammy jam, etc.)
    kam110476 (at)gmail (dot)com

  2. Dolly Madison was certainly " the hostess with the mostest". I can just see people getting ready to attend her wonderful affairs. Besides hosting family birthday dinners now and then and an occasional baby shower, I don't entertain much. I was always one that would rather go to the other fellows house than stay at my own.

    Great post!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  3. Go Dolley! She sounds like the perfect wife to a President - able and willing to handle big dinners and socializing. I just read about the burning of the White House last night. I love that she had a hand in saving items.
    I myself am NOT an entertainer or hostess. I get headaches. I think I'm too introverted for it.
    lattebooks at hotmail dot com

  4. Wonderful post, Martha. Dolley was a truly fascinating woman. Thank you!

  5. Martha, It was interesting learning about Dolley. I had no idea she was responsible for saving things after the fire at the White House. Her inaugural gown looks lovely.
    I do not like to entertain except for small out door gatherings with family and friends. I do like small get togethers for Christmas.
    Thank you for the post.

  6. Thanks for stopping by. Dolley is a lady after my own heart. I love giving parties and have two every December. I love decorating and coming up with themes for parties and love to cook for them. I found a lot more fascinating facts about her on various websites with her biography. Check them out. They're really interesting.

  7. Hi, Martha! Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating post about Dolley Madison. I enjoy presidential history, as well as visiting presidential homes. Several years ago, we visited the Madison's home, Montpelier. There was some reconstruction work being done on the Mansion at that time, and I would love to go back and visit again. The home and grounds are beautiful!

    I do enjoy entertaining. I especially enjoy hosting parties with a theme. The 50s style birthday party I hosted for my mother a few years ago was one of my favorites! It was such fun!!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

    1. That's wonderful. My sons and their wives gave me a '50's party on my 60th birthday and it was really a lot of fun. One daughter-in-law even made me a black felt skirt with a pink poodle on it to wear for the party.

  8. Great post, Martha. Dolley is one of my favorite First Ladies, and definitely a hostess after my own heart--not to mention that her "low cut dresses" known as the Empire style during the Regency overseas, were all the rage at the time. She was simply being fashionable. Since I love the Regency, I can't help being fascinated with Dolley, the American answer to the English regency woman. I also love to entertain, and like you, December is my favorite time to throw a nice big get together. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I like having tea parties...they are so fun and simple way to get people together. truckredford(at)gmail(Dot)com

  10. I enjoy casual parties or dinners with a buffet and a relaxed atmosphere.
    worthy2bpraised at gmail dot com

  11. An interesting post on Dolly Madison. Thank-you! I have seen the china display in the White House China room. It is all so beautiful. sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com