Mabel Bent and the first First Lady…

Indulge us – we digress over a slice of wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp.

Sulgrave Manor, Oxfordshire, UK (Wikipedia)

Sulgrave Manor is a modest Tudor house not far from Oxford (UK), built in 1539 for the wool merchant Lawrence Washington, a direct ancestor of George Washington, the future first President of the United States. The house was sold out of the family in 1659 and gradually substantial alterations were made as it became home to a succession of tenant farmers. The old manor was at last rescued from dereliction in 1914 after being purchased by the Anglo-American Peace Centenary Committee as part of the commemorations of the Treaty of Ghent, which established peace of sorts between Britain and the USA in 1814. The house and gardens were restored by arts and crafts architect Sir Reginald Blomfield and eventually opened to the public in 1921. In the same year, the Sulgrave Manor Board (now Sulgrave Manor Trust) was established to preserve the estate for the public and promote its historic and symbolic role in Anglo-American relations. It is open as a museum (with luck, reopening to the public from 20 July 2020).

Letter from Mabel Bent of 23 February 1925 to the Sulgrave Manor Board (rights: Sulgrave Manor Trust).

Meanwhile, by the mid 1920s, Mabel Bent, impressive widow of the explorer Theodore Bent (1852-1897), was nearing the end of her own travels and disposing of some of her most significant and prized possessions. Presumably knowing of the great Washington work at Sulgrave, Mabel sent the Board a packet with a letter (dated 23 February 1925 and addressed from her London home, 13 Great Cumberland Place, W1); it would have arrived out of the blue, containing an amazing object-the subject of this digression. The letter reads:

Dear Sir

This bit of Mrs. Washington’s wedding dress was given to me in Florence by Mrs. Elizabeth Dickenson Rice Bianciardi from Boston, in 1878. Mrs. Bianciardi was born Rice and her mother’s name was Dickenson. Mrs. Bianciardi told me that Mrs. Washington had given it to her mother. It was cut from a larger piece.   

Yours faithfully

Mabel V. A. Bent

Framed fragment of Martha Washington’s wedding dress presented to Sulgrave Manor in 1925 by Mabel Bent (rights: Sulgrave Manor)

And this ‘bit of Mrs. Washington’s wedding dress’, was thus wrapped up, together with a small unlabelled photo (see below) and two US half penny coins (now lost), and posted off to Sulgrave, where it remains – one of the star exhibits of the museum, neat in its frame, and protected from the light by its own small, theatrical curtain. (All the Sulgrave Manor information and images have been most kindly provided by Laura Waters, House & Collections Manager.) Presumably the fragment was mounted at Sulgrave, as the frame’s inset caption infers: “Fragment of Mrs George Washington’s wedding dress (1759), of a fabric woven in silk and silver. Given to Mrs Theodore Bent in Florence, in 1878, by Mrs Bianciardi, whose mother had it from Mrs Washington. Presented to Sulgrave Manor by Mrs Theodore Bent in 1925.”

Martha Washington (wikipedia)

Martha Custis (née Dandridge, 1731 (?) – 1802), famously married (age 27) George Washington (26) on 6 January 1759, at the White House plantation. According to the Mount Vernon website “Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, accomplished, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him. After his half-brother Lawrence and his widow died, Washington would inherit Mount Vernon, a beautiful 2000-acre estate located high above the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.”

Title-page to the US edition of H. Clifford Smith’s “Sulgrave Manor” (archive.org)

It seems that the first publication of Mabel Bent’s involvement as a footnote in American history is recorded in “Sulgrave Manor and the Washingtons. A History and Guide to the Tudor Home of George Washington’s ancestors” (Jonathan Cape: London, 1933), a fine and charmingly illustrated account of the manor by H. Clifford Smith F.S.A; on pages 135-6 we discover: “A relic of Mrs. Washington consists of a small fragment of her wedding-dress, presented in 1925 by Mrs. Theodore Bent. It was given to Mrs. Bent when in Florence, in 1878, by Mrs. Bianciardi, whose mother had received it from Mrs. Washington herself.”

Title-page from Theodore’s 1881 biography of Garibaldi (archive.org)

And Mabel in Florence in 1878? No riddle. Theodore and Mabel were married in southern Ireland in August 1877 and embarked on a (very) extended honeymoon to Italy thereafter. Theodore had read modern history at Oxford and felt inspired to begin a trio of monographs on aspects of the ‘Risorgimento’, including a biography of Garibaldi – not much consulted today if truth be told. The Bents, thus, and of independent means, made frequent Italian trips over a number of years in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Florence, of course, was on their itinerary, and, in 1878, Mabel must have become close enough to Mrs Elizabeth Bianciardi of Boston (more on her in a moment) such that the latter would give the former a special keepsake – a fragment of Martha Washington’s wedding dress, ‘woven in silk and silver’. (And seemingly no question of any sale, the Bents were great acquirers of costumes on their travels; Elizabeth must have retained a larger piece, as the last line of Mabel’s letter suggests.)

Caleb Rice (1792-1873) of Springfield, Massachusetts, the father of Elizabeth Bianciardi (archive.org)

Not ‘Dickenson’ as Mabel wrote, Elizabeth Dickerson Rice Bianciardi (1833–1886), was in the last few years of her shortish life (she died at 52 or 53) when she met Theodore and Mabel Bent in Florence in 1878. A quick search through a family history (“Conway, Mass., and the Rice Family” by Edwin Botts Rice (1909, New York) reveals a few details, including that she was the daughter of Caleb Rice (1792-1873) of Springfield, Massachusetts, and Marietta (Parsons) Stebbins (d. 1856). The equally arcane “Sketches of the old inhabitants and other citizens of old Springfield of the present century, and its historic mansions of ‘ye olden tyme’” by Charles Wells Chapin (1893, Springfield Press), provides us with a little extra,  in that  Caleb’s only surviving child was “Elizabeth D. Rice, who went abroad many years ago, and was married to Professor Carlo Bianciardi, [and] died at Vevay, Switzerland, January 2, 1886”.  And to instill pride and educate the younger generation, Charles H. Barrows wrote “The history of Springfield in Massachusetts, for the young; being also in some part the history of other towns and cities in the county of Hampden” (1921, The Connecticut Valley Historical Society); the entry for Caleb Rice tells children that “He had a daughter Elizabeth, who, when she grew to womanhood, went to Italy for study and married a citizen of that country. She wrote verses and, under her married name of Bianciardi, published a book called ‘At Home in Italy’” (page 133). A recent research paper by Joseph Carvalho III & Wayne E. Phaneuf – “Notable Women of Central and Western Massachusetts from the 1600s to today” – crosses the t’s and dots the i’s: “Elizabeth Dickerson Rice (b. 22 Apr 1835 in West Springfield, MA; d. January 2, 1886  in Vevey, District de la Riviera-Pays-d’Enhaut, Switzerland; buried in Park Street Cemetery, West Springfield, MA)”.

Elizabeth moved in literary circles in and around Florence and was herself a busy writer; both she and Theodore were working on their biographies of Garibaldi at the time (Elizabeth’s (1882) entitled “The Personal History of Garibaldi”): Florentine society would surely have had them gravitate towards each other. And Mabel came away with a piece of Martha Washington’s wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp. This fragment Mabel somehow kept safely (her London home was itself something of an ethnological museum, with curios from Africa, Arabia, the E Med, etc., etc.) for the next 50 years, and at the end of her life wanted to ensure its conservation – it was not to go to her acquisitive nieces – and where better in England than the home of Washington’s ancestors; and where you can see it still.

And of Mabel’s friend? The (controversial) Unz Review lists 15 articles by E.D.R. Bianciardi: ‘A Vintage Song’. The Century Magazine, October 1877, p. 852; ‘Siena – The City of the Winds’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1878, pp. 653-664; ‘The Village Church’. The Century Magazine, April 1880, p. 859; ‘Serenade’. The Century Magazine, September 1880, p. 732; ‘Luca Della Robbia and His School’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1880, pp. 692-698; ‘A Florentine Family in the Fifteenth Century’. The Atlantic Monthly, November 1881, pp. 672-681; ‘The Personal History of Garibaldi’. The Century Magazine, August 1882, pp. 495-502; ‘Life in Old Siena’. The Atlantic Monthly, June 1883, pp. 782-788; ‘Under the Olives’. The Century Magazine, August 1883, pp. 552-557; ‘Vallombrosa’. The Harpers Monthly, August 1883, pp. 347-353; ‘Dum Vivimus, Vivamus’. The Century Magazine, January 1884, p. 418; ‘The Haunts of Galileo’. The Atlantic Monthly, July 1884, pp. 91-98; ‘A Lovers’ Pilgrimage’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1884, pp. 659-670; ‘A Pisan Winter’. The Atlantic Monthly, March 1884, pp. 320-331; ‘The Warrior’s Quest’. The Harpers Monthly, September 1884, p. 584.

In addition there is a short series of books, including “At Home in Italy” (1885), and a collection of (sentimental) verse. Academic and enquiring  in nature, a fair example of her style can be found here: ‘A Florentine Family in the Fifteenth Century’.  Further research is required in terms of how she married and moved to Florence – the Bianciardi family is one of note.  As for ‘Professor Carlo Bianciardi’, we must keep looking; it would be romantic to learn that Elizabeth left America to marry the actor/dancer who pops up with that name. (Any photos would be most welcome – if you have any info to share, please contact us.)

West front of the Mansion at Mount Vernon (wikipedia)

Returning to the slice of wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp, given by Bianciardi to Bent, and by Bent to Sulgrave, it seems appropriate to leave the last words to the Washingtons’ spiritual home, Mount Vernon, VA, and Amanda Isaac, Associate Curator (George Washington’s Mount Vernon/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, personal communication, June 2020):

Fragment of Martha Washington’s wedding dress presented to Sulgrave Manor in 1925 by Mabel Bent (rights: Sulgrave Manor)

“The fragment appears to be of the same type as several in our collection, that is, a cream color ribbed silk woven with very flat think strips of metal plate (likely tarnished silver), of the type of fabric known as “silver tissue” in the eighteenth century. According to Martha Washington’s granddaughters (Eliza Parke Custis Law (1776-1831), Martha Custis Peter (1777-1854), and Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852)), the fragments were cut from the petticoat of the gown she wore at her marriage to George Washington on January 6, 1759… We do not know what Mrs. Washington’s full wedding outfit looked like, though the grandchildren described it as a gown of yellow damask, with a silver petticoat, and purple silk and silver trimmed shoes. The purple and silver shoes do survive, and are quite rare in the American context… Likewise, the silver tissue fragments are extraordinary, and one of the few provenanced examples of this type of costly fabric being used by the British colonists. All together, Mrs. Washington’s wedding ensemble bespoke her position as a leading member of the colonial gentry.

“It is wonderful to know about this particular example and the exchange between Mrs. Bianciardi and Mrs. Bent… [We] do wish we could track down Mrs. Bianciardi’s mother, Mrs. Rice. It is most likely that the fragment was distributed by one of the grandchildren mentioned above, and that Mrs. Rice received it from one of them, or from an intermediary who had received it from the grandchildren.”

The fragment was obviously much valued by the Bents, and in July 1893 exhibited it at a prestigious event in London. This from The Gentlewoman of 8 July 1893, page 53: “The summer sale of the Ladies’ Working Guild was opened on Wednesday [5 July 1893] by H.R.H. the Princess Beatrice, at 35, Dover-street, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith. The loan exhibition, held under the presidency of the Princess Frederica included… [from] Mrs. Theodore Bent a very fine lappet in needle point, and Mr. Theodore Bent a little piece of George Washington’s wife’s wedding gown, and a curious painting on wood of Allah, the face not painted in as being too holy to depict…”

“A romanticized portrait of Mrs. Washington… published in the mid-nineteenth century” (rights: Sulgrave Manor)

And there is a postscript… Remember the little anonymous photo Mabel also sent to Sulgrave in 1925? Amanda informs us that it “is a romanticized portrait of Mrs. Washington that was published in the mid-nineteenth century”.

And with that, this digression ends, well, nearly – for, as a coda, in one of those serendipitous flashes, it happened that a female descendant of Mabel’s brother Robert Hall-Dare (1840-1876), married a direct descendant of the Washington family from Sulgrave Manor – Elsie Washington.