Claudia Swain

Claudia Swain's entanglement with local history began in her hometown of Norfolk, VA. Asked to write the history of her high school, Claudia discovered the dusty but always fascinating allure of regional history. She continued her newfound interest as an intern with the National Park Service, working on the Glen Echo Oral History Project. With each successive topic, Claudia gets drawn in deeper -- and her friends get even more tired of listening to her go on and on about it.

Posts by Claudia Swain

Kate Chase c. 1861 (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Kate Chase: Washington's 19th Century Supreme

In the second half of the 19th century, Kate Chase (1840-1899) was known the country over as the most beautiful and influential woman there ever was in Washington. She occupied the most powerful position in Washington society that a woman could hold, and held sway far beyond her gender. A National Tribune article from 1898, a year before her death, called her life the history of the Civil war itself, stating:

"No one woman had more to do with influencing the movements on the military and the political chessboard than she, and it was her influence largely that kept McClellan at the head of the military.”

Plaque describing defunct Washington City Canal. (Photo by Matthew Bisanz used via GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rise and Fall of the Washington City Canal

Just within sight of the Washington Monument is a little stone house not open to the public. Used for National Park Service storage today, this house is the last remnant of one of the biggest mistakes in municipal planning in the District’s history: the Washington City Canal.

The canal was first conceived of by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He envisioned something grand like, well, the Grand Canal at Versailles. George Washington thought the canal was a good idea because it would increase commerce by bringing goods directly into the city center.

But, right from the beginning, the proposed canal was plagued with problems.

In her later years, socialite Marian Campbell Gouverneur wrote a memoir, which provides an interesting glimpse into early Washington. (Photo source: Project Gutenberg)

Impressions of Washington: Marian Campbell Gouvernuer, 1845

Marian Campbell Gouvernuer was a New Yorker who made her life in Washington in the second half of the 19th century. Her memoir As I Remember covers a period of eighty years, much of it taking place in Washington, but of particular interest is the chapter describing Gouvernuer’s first visit to Washington in 1845.

Gouvernuer gives a snapshot of the capital in very distinct time of the city — still a young city and still immersed in that peculiar institution of slavery. This description, especially concerning the haphazard city planning, falls well in line with previous Impressions of Washington we've posted on the blog. She also gives an enlightening summary of the commercial life in Washington.

The Oldest Profession in Washington

Hookers Division, located in the area around the White House, was one of Washington's major Red Light Districts in the 19th century. (Source: Library of Congress)

Not to cast any doubt on the virtue of our historical statesman, but for the latter half of the 1800s, at least two major red light districts were right in the center of D.C., even “within sight of the White House.”

One of the most notorious of these was Hooker’s Division, on the west end of the federal triangle and right on the National Mall. With the White House to the north, the Capital to the east, and the business district within walking distance, it was pretty perfectly positioned.  The area got its name during the Civil War, when Union General Hooker moved everything seedy in the capital to a choice few spots. The name also at least partially arose from how often Hooker’s men visited the district (hint: a lot). The Evening Star had this to say of Hooker’s Division in 1863:

There are at present, more houses of this character [ill-repute], by ten times, in the city than have ever existed here before, and loose characters can now be counted by the thousands.

Photograph of William Howard Russell

Impressions of Washington: William Howard Russell, 1861

William Howard Russell (1820 – 1907) was a reporter for The Times of the UK and he is considered the first war correspondent. In 1861, this intrepid reporter was sent to our very own capital to cover the Civil War. He recorded his arrival in his diary, which was later published and remains available to see exactly what this Irishman thought of Washington. Spoiler alert, he quite liked it!

March 25, 1861

I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left, stretching out in colonnaded porticoes, and long flanks of windowed masonry, and surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol. To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.

Don Agustin de Iturbide y Green

Georgetown University's Imperial Prince

Georgetown University has some pretty prestigious professors. But did you know the school once had an imperial prince on their staff? Don Agustin de Iturbide y Green, with a name as weighty as the Infanta, taught Spanish and French at Georgetown near the end of the 19th century. How did Don Agustin, the heir to two emperors, end up in elbow pads? It’s sort of a long story, which takes us from Georgetown to Mexico to France and back.

The Rosedale estate in Georgetown was the grand home of Alice Green, granddaughter of Revolutionary War General Uriah Forrest and great-granddaughter of Maryland Governor George Plater. This belle was basically American royalty, which was great for when she married Don Angel Maria de Iturbide y Huarte, the exiled prince of the Mexican imperial line and a student at Georgetown University. By the time the lovebirds met and wed, Angel’s father, Agustin the First, had been deposed and executed. Although Alice’s husband and their son, Agustin, had a technical claim to the throne, few suspected that Agustin I’s nine-month rule would bring his descendants anything.

Impressions of Washington: Frances Few, 1808

Development of Pierre L'Enfant's Plan for the City of Washington was still in its infancy when Frances Few visited Washington in the early 1800s.

Frances Few, of a prominent New York family, spent the winter of 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C. with her aunt. She had a lot to say! Initially, Few was very pleased with the city and its parties. But as the 19-year-old’s stay wore on, she was decidedly less impressed with the city and its politics. 

Elizabeth Keckley rose from slave to the Lincoln White House thanks to her supreme skill as a dressmaker. Her autobiography provides one of the most powerful accounts of the First Family's personal lives. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.

In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves.  From her autobiography:

With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.

In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.

Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.

November 30, 1861 entry in Maximilian Hartman's diary

Impressions of Washington: Union Soldier Maximilian Hartman, 1861

As you might remember from Nathanial Hawthorne’s impressions of Washington, the D.C. area was full of soldiers during the Civil War. Luckily for us, we can actually read an account from one of the soldiers thanks to the diary of Maximilian Hartman. A German tailor, Hartman immigrated to the U.S. to live with his brother in Pennsylvania. In 1861, both brothers joined up with the Union Army and headed south, eventually being stationed in Washington.

While many others from the time period had lambasted the capital city as a backwater, Hartman was quite impressed.

An 1898 portrait of the Infanta by Giovanni Boldini. What, did you think we were going to post a picture of the scandlous dress? This is a family blog! Also, we couldn't find ANY. (Source: Wikicommons)

An Infanta goes to Washington

Scandals have plagued Washington D.C. pretty much since when it was built. The society pages of the1890s, however, dished some of the juciest gossip- easily done when royalty were still common and the bicycle had just been invented.

One particularly sensational event, taking place in 1893, was the visit of a Spanish Princess to the US. Her manner and dress shocked the D.C. elites and left them talking for a long time.

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