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Dining with the Washingtons

April 3, 2014

Chatelaine 1948.128
Photograph by Andrew Davis

In July of 1797 Hannah Prescott dined at Mount Vernon seated between Martha and George Washington. After the meal, Mrs. Washington gave Hannah the gift of a chatelaine and the story of a lifetime. Hannah believed Mrs. Washington commissioned the chatelaine from a London jeweler for her favorite niece, Frances Bassett. Named for “castellans,” the people who ran medieval castles, chatelaines were functional jewelry for women. They held everything from scissors to pocket dictionaries suspended from their chains. The chatelaine and its story came to Historic New England in 1948.

Fanny Bassett arrived at Mount Vernon in 1784 and promptly fell in love with George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington. Fanny and George married the next year and remained at Mount Vernon until his death in 1793. Fanny succumbed to tuberculosis in 1796. 

Why was Hannah Prescott invited to dinner at Mount Vernon and given such a personal gift? The story remains tantalizingly difficult to verify. It seems possible that Martha ordered the chatelaine for Fanny after her husband’s death in 1793, but no evidence of it survives. The chatelaine is marked with only Hannah’s initials on the back. In 1795 Hannah Spalding married Abel Prescott, a Revolutionary War veteran distantly related to Bunker Hill hero Colonel William Prescott. Hannah’s tale taps into a deep fascination with Washington and his family, a constant in American cultural history that peaked in the Colonial Revival when Americans celebrated our nation’s birth and its historical roots.

This is just one example of the thousands of personal stories that survive thanks to the preservation of historic jewelry. Explore Historic New England's collection.

 
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Dining with the Washingtons