The Fashion of America's Founding Mother: An Original Piece of a Famous Dress Worn by Martha Washington, Other Portions of Which Reside at Mount Vernon

This piece belonged to the daughter of Warren G. Harding and Nan Britton, and has never before been offered for sale

With the possible exception of Jacqueline Kennedy, no first lady's garments have been so extensively studied and copied than those of Martha Washington. She was America's Founding Mother, and the wife of the great General George Washington.  Books are dedicated to her attire, and exhibits have been built around it, both at art museums, the Smithsonian, and at Mount Vernon, which is attempting to re-assemble the garments she wore.  Women getting married today can read a book or visit multiple sites about what Martha would have worn. 

Descendants of Martha cherished these garments and they were passed down through the Custis family. Although Martha had no children with George, she had four children with her first husband, Daniel Parker Custis.  Much of the Washington estate, in fact, has passed through this family.  Among the well known artifacts this family retained were a few articles of clothing worn by Martha.  In February 1932, a Washington area newspaper covered one of these remaining pieces, owned by Nancy Gibbs, who had received it from her mother, Martha Custis Peter, both of whom were heirs to the Custis family treasures.  This article describes a silk dress of "excellent quality" that "was cut from one of Martha Washington's finest dresses."  It also notes that she had decided to take one piece of the dress and sell it to a "wealthy collector for $100," so likely the fabric was split then, with her brother James Henderson Peter getting a portion as well. Mr. Peter had a winter home in Miami Beach, Florida, and his neighbor and friend was the noted philanthropist Alden Freeman. Freeman built and lived in the home now notorious as the Versacci Mansion. Peter gifted a piece of the fabric to Freeman, around the same time as his sister Nancy donated another piece of the same fabric to Mount Vernon, where it resides today.

Nan Britton became famous for her widely publicized affair with Warren Harding, an affair that ended with the birth of Elizabeth Ann, their secret love child.  Harding purportedly paid support money to Britton, but never met the child.  When Harding died, failing to get any support out of the Harding estate, she wrote a best-selling book, The President's Daughter, dedicated "to all unwed mothers, and to their innocent children whose fathers are usually not known to the world." It recounted the specific logistics of the affair in great detail and is the first "tell-all" book, a sensation in its time that, according to John Dean, of Watergate fame but also a Harding biographer, did more to define Harding's legacy than anything else.  Britton failed to get multiple publishing companies interested in the story and eventually, in 1927, self published it.   Britton wrote that she visited Harding at the White House in 1923, surprising him with the news that their 3-year-old daughter was sitting on a park bench in Lafayette Square, visible from the second-floor window, but he refused to look. When Harding took office in 1921, Britton's sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Scott Willits, adopted Elizabeth Ann for appearance's sake.  The account of Britton and her daughter Elizabeth was widely believed (Harding's chief aide George Christian confirmed the story), and it attracted much sympathy and even indignation (which magnified when Harding's will took no care of his little daughter). It also brought publicity to the plight of unwed mothers generally.

Just a few years after her book was published and a few months after the article showcasing the Martha Washington dress appeared, Nan Britton received a letter from Freeman (original included here), along with the original beautiful silk fragment from Mrs. Washington's dress. The letter reads, in small part, "This is a piece of the brocade which the widow Martha Dandridge Custis wore… This little souvenir has special interest at this time as February 23, 1932 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of our first President and the Father of our Country.  I wish here to record my admiration and respect for the character of a perfect mother, Nan Britton, and for her united, devoted and loyal family…. I want to record also my affection and admiration for that clever and precocious child the daughter of our 29th President, Elizabeth Ann Harding.  I trust that her mother will pass this bit of broached on to this lovely child, whose love is the solace, consolation and reward for the suffering and aguish through which this wonderful mother has passed in her efforts to secure justice not only for President Harding's daughter but for all other wronged and disinherited children of unmarried mothers…"

Sold here is the original piece of silk cloth from the dress held in the article, most of the rest of which is now at Mount Vernon, this being the only other piece we could find not in an institution, and perhaps the only opportunity for a collector to own a piece of one of Martha Washington's renowned dresses.  Included is the original correspondence from Alden Freeman sending the piece to Britton.

This piece comes directly from a Harding / Nan Britton descendant and has never before been offered for sale.

Our since thanks to the people at Mount Vernon, who helped us greatly in our research.