Most Americans today expect a certain amount of festivity on their birthdays, or at least feel a little disappointed if the festivity doesn’t materialize. What’s a birthday without a few presents, a special meal, maybe a party, a nice stack of birthday cards (or a long list of Facebook posts to scroll through), and general permission to use “It’s my birthday!” as excuse for any and all treats and indulgences?
Birthdays in the Madisons’ time were not quite so festive. Birthday meals, gifts, and cakes were far from universal. Before the advent of printed greeting cards, the most common way to acknowledge a birthday was in a letter, as we’ll see in some examples from the Montpelier Research Database.
Adults in the 18th century took note of their birthdays, but didn’t always indulge in celebrations. For example, Landon Carter, a wealthy planter in Virginia’s Northern Neck, wrote in his diary on August 18, 1771: “It is my birthday, in which I am now 61 years old, and as to health, very well, the Lord be praised.” In March 1772, he wrote, “I was invited to dine with Captain Beale yesterday, being his birthday.” In 1774 Carter wrote, “God be praised that I have seen this my 64th birthday,” adding that “as it was my 64th birthday I received the compliments of most of my better sort of neighbors around me.”1Diary of Col. Landon Carter, entries for August 18, 1771; March 30-31, 1772; and August 18, 1774; The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jan., 1905), pp. 157-164, and Vol. 14, No. 4 (Apr., 1906), pp. 246-253, accessed May 4, 2020, http://www.jstor.org. For Carter, a birthday was a time for thankful reflection, along with well wishes from friends. Although Carter didn’t mention birthday dinners for himself, he didn’t seem to think it surprising for Captain Beale to celebrate a birthday with friends at dinner.
We have only one 18th-century mention of James Madison Sr., the President’s father, acknowledging a birthday. Like Carter, Madison Sr. took his birthday as an opportunity to reflect. In April 1793, as both Madison Sr. and his cousin Joseph Chew approached their 70th birthdays – the Biblical “three score and ten” given as the norm for the human lifespan2“The days of our years are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Psalm 90:10, King James version. – Madison Sr. offered his cousin a particularly somber reflection:
The 7th & 8th of April is at hand; if we are permitted to see it, let us reflect that we then have run a race of threescore years & ten, & that the awful day of our dissolution is fast approaching – may it make a due impression on our minds, and let the reflection excite us to improve the rest of our [time] and to make the [best preparation] in our power for it.3 James Madison Sr. to Joseph Chew, February 19, 1793, Madison papers, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 26460, Montpelier Research Database.
Thinking about impending death may not be the most cheerful way to approach a milestone birthday, but if it makes you resolve to live a better life, then it’s probably better than buying a sports car (or carriage).
James Madison Sr. took his 70th birthday as a sign that time is fleeting. This original clock face once watched over Madison Sr.’s days. After descending in a branch of the family, the clockworks have now returned to Nelly Madison’s sitting room. Photo by Jenniffer Powers, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.
Cakes and Parties
American birthday celebrations gradually became more festive in the 19th century. Parties and cakes became more common, particularly for children. In the summer of 1811 Margaret Bayard Smith, the Madisons’ friend from Washington, DC, had a party for her young daughter Susan, with children and adults attending. As Margaret described it, a family friend provided “pine apples, oranges, cakes, sugar plumbs nuts figs &c &c adorn’d with the gayest flowers and lilies in abundance; to which elegant repast (for such it really was) I added nothing but ice-creams.” After the piano was moved to the piazza, “the birth day cake crown’d with lilies and roses” was placed on the table, “and we drank punch, and eat cake, till they all felt in a good humour for dancing.” Margaret also noted with appreciation that Lucretia Hart Clay, wife of Senator Henry Clay, “bought Susan a handsome present on her birth-day.”4Gaillard Hunt (editor) and Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 88, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 121, Montpelier Research Database.
Not every 19th-century child’s birthday was celebrated as lavishly as Susan Smith’s. Judith Francis Walker Aglionby, born in Madison county, Virginia, in 1821, didn’t have a birthday cake until her tenth birthday, when she was living with her aunt in Orange county. She recalled years later: “It was here also that l had my first birthday cake. Aunt Patsy said to me, ‘Fannie, if you are living ten years from now, remember me and this day.’ Ten years later, March 25th, 1841, I spent with her so happily, and we talked over the other birthday, a decade ago.”5Recollections of the Aglionbys and Walkers, etc., by Judith Francis Aglionby, Montpelier Research Files, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Orange County, Virginia, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 25933, Montpelier Research Database.
Some scholars have noted a rise in birthday cakes and gifts beginning in the 1830s (Judith’s 1831 birthday cake fits nicely into that trend), with birthdays becoming more universally celebrated in the 1890s.6James M. Volo and Dorothy Denneen Volo, Family Life in 19th-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007); Daniel Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 98. Interestingly, it’s also in the 1830s that birthday wishes begin to appear in the surviving correspondence of James and Dolley Madison. The retired President, aged 79, sent this wish to his friend and sometime business agent James Maury on Maury’s 84th birthday in 1830:
I will not my friend, in the Spanish fashion, wish you may live a thousand years, but you have my best wishes that your remaining ones whatever be their number, may experience all the blessings congenial with them.7James Madison to James Maury, December 10, 1830, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 18874, Montpelier Research Database.
We don’t know how Maury celebrated his birthday that year, but in 1838 his daughter Ann wrote to Dolley that “we have celebrated Papa’s birthday … We had a very agreeable dinner party & the old gentleman himself was in excellent spirits.”8Ann Maury to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, February 12, 1838 with Postscript from Ann Maury, February 17, 1838, box 3, Papers of Notable Virginia Families, MS 2988, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 26664, Montpelier Research Database.
James B. Longacre drew this portrait of James Madison in 1833, three years after Madison sent James Maury a cordial birthday wish. Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site.
Most of the birthday greetings in Montpelier Research Database were written to James Madison at Montpelier in the 1830s, or to the widowed Dolley Madison in Washington, DC in the 1840s. The writers celebrated James and Dolley’s long lives and wished health and happiness for them in their remaining years. James Taylor, a distant cousin who had visited Montpelier prior to James Madison’s 80th birthday, sent these hopeful thoughts:
I think about this time you have arrived at your four score years. I congratulate you that from appearances when I had the pleasure of seeing you, your strength of body & mind, you may live Many years to enjoy life, be a comfort to your family & friends, and a light to the rising generations.9James Taylor to James Madison, March 13, 1831, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 18925, Montpelier Research Database.
Gifts and Greetings
Dolley had her own share of effusive greetings on her 76th birthday, as well as several birthday gifts. Ellen O’Neale Cutts, the wife of Dolley’s nephew Richard D. Cutts, wrote fondly:
Accept the accompanying lamp shade and frame as a birth day offering, but give to my affection a greater value than the actual worth of the gift, believeing that I would that every blessing may greet you, on many returns of this occaision, with health, prosperity and happiness.10Ellen Elizabeth O’Neale Cutts to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, May 20, 1844, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 30337, Montpelier Research Database.
Dolley replied fondly, “I thank you from my heart dearest Ellen for the kind wishes breathed so sweetly for me … The shade for my candle is lovely & I accept it as a thing that will throw a soft light on all my night annoyances.” Ellen’s children apparently send gifts as well, since Dolley added, “Kiss my sweet children and tell them that I shall write each of them to-morrow—to assure them how I prize their presents and their love.”11 Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Ellen Elizabeth O’Neale Cutts, May 20, 1844, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004, accessed May 8, 2020, MRD-S 30336, Montpelier Research Database.
Dolley radiates the same health and happiness Ellen Cutts wished for her on her 1844 birthday in this portrait by William Elwell, painted in 1848. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Dolley’s friends John Canfield Spencer and Elizabeth Smith Spencer sent a bottle of “choice old Sherry” with these gallant greetings on that same 1844 birthday:
Allow us to express our fervent prayers for as many returns of the same anniversary as shall bring you happiness, and that to the last they may be crowned with blessings like those you have scattered on all around you, giving you that peace and comfort here which are a foretaste of the joys reserved for ‘the pure in heart.’12John Canfield Spencer to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, May 20, 1844, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 30340, Montpelier Research Database.
Dolley’s niece and companion Annie Payne gave Dolley this Bible in 1845, inscribed “For my dear Aunt on her birth-day.” Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust historic site.
Dolley’s 80th birthday in 1848 was marked with an unintentional birthday gift. Congress finally purchased the second part of her husband’s papers for $25,000, having previously purchased the bulk of his papers for $30,000 in 1837. Dolley’s friend Sophia Wager Plitt wrote happily:
Will you allow me dear Mrs. Madison to be among the many friends to congratulate you upon the pleasing news from Congress which came to you upon your birth-day? I am sure you will, and I kiss you in thought, and dear Annie too…13 Sophia Wager Plitt to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, May 23, , Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 29931, Montpelier Research Database.
Another friend, Sarah O. Brinley, echoed the sentiments:
It affords me an ampler pleasure to add my sympathy with the multitude of your friends upon the return of your recent memorable Birth Day. The Senate & House have reflected honour upon themselves by writing in a generous & noble sentiment, that not only secures to them the thanks of the Country, but I trust dear Madam will for many years shed peace & comfort upon the coming of your interesting life.14 Sarah O. Brinley to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, May 27, 1848, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 29525, Montpelier Research Database.
Not only did Dolley’s friends sent notes on her 1848 birthday, many stopped by her house on Lafayette Square to extend their congratulations. The Baltimore Sun reported, “how gratifying is it to visit the venerated and admired representative of the earlier and, perhaps, better age of the republic. Mrs. Madison received the visits and congratulations of her very numerous friends on the occasion of her birth day. That her days have been long in the land and full of usefulness and honor, is truly a subject of congratulations.”15 Eliab Kingman,”Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore MD), May 22, 1848, The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004, accessed May 4, 2020, MRD-S 47613, Montpelier Research Database.
Twenty More Birthdays
As it is your birthday I send you the long desired Cupid & hope you will prize it as much for the copyist’s sake as for the design … I hope twenty more birthdays may dawn upon you beautifully as this.
— Mary Cutts to Dolley Madison, May 2016Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, May 20 n.y., Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2020, MRD-S 29905, Montpelier Research Database.
Dolley was probably in her 70s when niece Mary Cutts penned that charming birthday wish, enclosed with Mary’s own drawing of Cupid. Somehow the note is even more appealing for the fact that it’s undated – the wish seems to always extend out another twenty years in perpetuity. And happily for James and Dolley Madison, their birthdays (March 16 and May 20) will always be recognized and celebrated at Montpelier, far into the future!
Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian
Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for her colleagues’ birthday cards.