Friday, December 13, 2013

“The Prettyest in America:” Accounts of the OSC

Much like their accounts of the city discussed in last week's blog post, delegates of Congress had much to say about their new seat at the Maryland State House. Due to a lack of surviving pictorial evidence from the eighteenth century, these descriptions serve as valuable evidence for determining the appearance of the Old Senate Chamber in 1783.

Opinions on the State House were generally favorable, even from those delegates who were unimpressed with the entertainments of Annapolis. David Howell of Rhode Island, who looked unfavorably on the lack of a church in the city, said of the State House, “The State House & the House assigned for the President are spacious & eligantly finished, far exceeding those buildings in Philadelphia.”[1] Charles DeWitt, a delegate from New York, similarly described the State House in a letter to his son as, “the most superb, it is thought, in any of the United States.”[2]

Conceptual sketch of the State House c.1859. Drawn by Elizabeth Ridout, 1954, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1444-01-20.

The delegates found that the State House was situated in the center of the active city. David Howell wrote of horse races that could be seen out of a window in the back-room, while one of New Jersey's delegates, Samuel Dick, complained of other distractions:
“My station at the Northwest Window of the Congress Room is not favourable to such a strict adherence to this Important Subjects as it Merits...That Young Lady with the Crimson...and that with the Green,..another blast and...the colour of her Garters walk this Windy Day on purpose to distract my attention.”[3]
Perhaps Hugh Williamson of North Carolina best summed up the views of the delegates when he wrote, “The State House here is certainly an elegant Building. The Room we are to sit in is perhaps the prettyest in America.”[4] 

While these portrayals of the State House all seem vague and lack descriptions of specific items like desks and curtains, they still share a great deal of information. Samuel Dick’s seat at the northwest window, for instance, helps researchers to determine the seating arrangement in the Old Senate Chamber while Congress was in session. The multitude of descriptions of the State House as an elegant building, guide the furnishing research for the renovated room to a Senate Chamber that was likely at the height of fashion in 1783 in order to meet with the tastes of the delegates. Small details and guidelines such as these help us to design the room as closely as possible to how it looked on December 23, 1783 when Washington resigned.

Next week, we will be beginning coverage of Washington’s resignation and the events surrounding it that occurred two hundred and thirty years ago!

[1] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. David Howell to William Greene, 24 December 1783, p.225.
[2] Ibid. Charles DeWitt to Gerret DeWitt, 13 Apr 1784, p.516.
[3] Ibid. Samuel Dick to William Ellery, 15 July 1784, p.721.
[4] Ibid. Hugh Williamson to William Blount, 28 November 1783, p.166.

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