A free weekend miraculously appeared in the middle of April, and I suggested to Maggie that it was time to make our pilgrimage to Monticello. When Maggie learned that the Metro’s Red Line would be chopped up into not two but three separate chunks over the weekend making travel in town a hassle at best, we figured it was karma that we should arrange to be away.
The last time I was at Monticello, I was entering fifth grade, and it was part of a family vacation that included DC, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg. Needless to say, I don’t remember much. My Beloved Husband’s memories of Monticello are much more graphic since they involve his mother carrying her infant granddaughter in her arms. Alas, while they were on the tour in Thomas Jefferson’s library, the baby pooped volcanicly, the diaper failed to contain the emissions, and my mother-in-law wore the results. The family left the tour rather precipitously at that point to attempt a clean-up of all parties.
My first impression of Monticello on this trip was that it was smaller than I remembered, which probably isn’t surprising. We entered the house through the public entrance, which sports a weather vane on top of the portico. Rather than going out in the weather to take a reading for his twice daily weather diary, Jefferson had a bright idea and devised a system in which the vane was also connected to a plate in the ceiling of the portico beneath it so that if it was raining, anyone could simply stand under the arch and collect the same information.
The front hall sported souvenirs representing all the continents known at Jefferson’s time. I especially liked the large map that showed Georgia extending all the way to the Mississippi River and the pair of elk horns that had been brought back by Lewis and Clark. In the corner was one of the few things I remembered from my previous trip, and that was Jefferson’s intricate clock, that he designed himself. He had an idea to use the clock to keep track not only of the time but also of the day of the week. The clock itself had three hands, including one for the seconds, and it was attached to an intricate pulley system that moved a set of cannon balls down a series of signs saying, Sunday, Monday, etc.. He had miscalculated slightly in his design so that only Sunday through Friday fit on the first floor. Undismayed, Jefferson solved the problem by cutting a hole in the floor and allowing the balls to fall through the floor into the basement on Saturday.
Jefferson’s library was uneventful compared to my husband’s experience, but it was still delightful. Jefferson’s original collection of over 6000 volumes had over-filled the space leaving only a narrow path through the space and books stacked to the ceiling. He eventually needed money and sold his collection to be the start of the Library of Congress, but he still managed to amass 1600 books again before he died.
I liked Jefferson’s study as well, but then again, I think the concept of a devoted work space in my house sounds wonderful. I immediately spotted Jefferson’s “polygraph,” which he created from his idea to link two pens together so that while he wrote with one, the second would make a fair quality copy. He also carried out his idea of a revolving book stand that would hold up to five books open at a time. It reminded me of how I use multiple windows on my computer to achieve the same effect of cross-referencing several sources for a single project.
In the dining room, which is in the northeast corner of the house, all of the windows each have two sets of class, which was Jefferson’s idea that mimics our current double paned glass. That room was striking because of its orange-yellow paint, the signature color of chrome yellow. Chrome yellow was one of the first synthetic pigments that was widely available and presented far more vibrant color than pigments derived from natural sources. Maggie, a chemical engineer, and I both knew that because it contains both lead and chromium, it is particularly toxic as well, so Maggie advised me not to lick the walls.
One of my original impressions of Jefferson was that he was an enormously inventive and creative man. It was on this trip that I started to think about what that might have meant for the people living around him. I could just imagine how many times he would announce, “I have an idea!” and that the mental response of the household would be, “Here we go again.” For example, Jefferson felt that broad graceful staircases were a waste of space in the house, so he designed two very narrow staircases to access the upper floors. Jefferson, himself, slept on the first floor, so he rarely had to navigate the small passages, but I had to imagine that the women in their voluminous skirts had less charitable thoughts about the layout. In the huge ice house, they would cut ice from the farm ponds in the winter and then pack it in straw and sawdust to keep it over the summer. There was still a fair amount of melting, so the water needed to be drawn off regularly. Jefferson had devised a bucket and pulley system to meet the need, but it did not seem to be implemented. I read that as, “I have an idea!…” that didn’t work.
It was a glorious day for a visit since the tulips were putting on a spectacular spring show for us. Our guide mentioned that in Jefferson’s time, there were no pretty pictures attached to bags of bulbs, and the names such as, “Queen of Sheba” or “Marcus Aurelius” were not particularly descriptive. Jefferson’s daughters would monitor the blooms in the spring and write to their father describing the blossoms of each type of bulb.
One idea that I know my Beloved Husband would embrace were the extensive vegetable gardens that were planted to help feed the household, although I can only imagine the amount of work involved in maintaining the plants. For my part, I liked the idea of the glassed-in room in the middle of the garden that seemed perfect to read on a summer afternoon. Since Jefferson’s comment to John Adams, “I cannot live without books,” was emblazoned on numerous items in the bookstore, I suspect that Jefferson agreed that that was one of better ideas.