George Washington was America’s first president, making his wife, Martha, the original First Lady. But she didn’t go by that title at the time. The first woman to receive that title was Washington D.C.’s most successful hostess, Dolley (Payne) Madison (1768-1849), wife of James Madison, the fourth president.
Dolley was born into a Quaker family who valued their religion over most everything else. She did not have a formal education. Instead, she learned domestic skills like food storage, needlework, and household management. In 1783, Mr. Payne, her father, emancipated his slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia, exposing Dolley to a much more cosmopolitan life than she had ever known. Unfortunately, Payne could not pay his debts and the Quakers expelled him from their group.
In 1790, honoring her father’s wishes, Dolley married fellow Quaker John Todd Jr. The couple had two boys, Payne and William, but a yellow fever epidemic went through the area, and she lost her husband and youngest son William.
James Madison was a Virginia representative at the time and was in Philadelphia attending sessions of Congress when he caught notice of the young widow living near his boardinghouse. A shy man, he had a senator arrange an introduction with her. Dolley reportedly told her best friend that “the great little Madison has asked … to see me this evening.” Madison was 17 years older than her and an Episcopalian to boot, but the two were married on September 15, 1794. Margaret Bayard Smith, a chronicler of the early times in Washington social life, wrote, “She looked a Queen … It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.”
The introduction to political society began for Dolley in 1801, after Madison was appointed secretary of the state. During those eight years, she served as co-host for President Thomas Jefferson’s receptions and helped establish decorum with foreign dignitaries, including chiefs of the indigenous peoples. She also helped create fundraising for the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Dolley is also credited with making ice cream extremely popular among elite politicians. Although the first parlor opened in 1790, the delicacy had been enjoyed in Europe for a long time. To make the dessert back then, blocks of ice had to be kept on straw and shaved before adding the other ingredients for the various flavors. Ice cream during Dolley’s time was also different. For example, she preferred oyster ice cream to other flavors.
During the War of 1812, Madison and his cabinet fled the city as the British invaded and started setting fire to the city. Dolley, however, remained behind at the White House to help remove important documents and valuables, including a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The White House was burned, along with much of Washington D.C., during the invasion, but Dolley felt it was important to continue entertaining and networking. This action is reported to having influence Congress to vote against moving the capital back to Philadelphia.
Dolley lived to be 81 years old and is credited for setting the standards for every first lady to follow in her footsteps.