Overview

District of Columbia, 1835.
Published by T. G. Bradford, Boston.

Historically, the District of Columbia consisted of three separate communities — Alexandria, Georgetown, and Washington City — each founded at different times and by different groups of people.

The port of Alexandria was established around 1749 in northern Virginia, an area settled primarily by Scots. In the late eighteenth century, members of the Religious Society of Friends moved to Alexandria from Pennsylvania and Maryland. Georgetown, originally part of the Province of Maryland, was incorporated in 1751 at the fall line of the Potomac River and flourished as a tobacco port. Members of the Roman Catholic faith were drawn to the area by the establishment of the first Catholic college on the western edge of town.

In 1791, Washington City was created out of swamp, farmland, and wilderness at the confluence of two rivers and within the new special district designated to serve as the permanent national capital. Beginning in 1800, federal government employees and others seeking their patronage relocated from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia.

At the turn of the nineteenth century the combined population of the District of Columbia stood at barely eleven thousand, unevenly divided with 4,971 persons in Alexandria, 3,210 in Washington City, and 2,993 in Georgetown. Only a decade later the population had increased significantly, and the size of Washington City exceeded that of the more established communities within the District.

“Prospect of Georgetown from the Tenleytown Road,” painted by Rebecca Wistar Morris Nourse, ca. 1820.
Dumbarton House, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Washington, D.C., DH92.4.

In the eighteenth century, Alexandria and Georgetown had settled populations that derived their growth and mercantile wealth from flourishing tobacco ports. The Potomac River brought the towns together and provided a conduit for trade goods and people. Later, the river created a natural barrier, especially when Georgetown became enveloped in the movement of people, commerce, and influence toward the adjacent federal city. By the nineteenth century Alexandria and Georgetown had become economic and philosophical rivals, leading up to the 1847 severing of the area originally ceded by Virginia–Alexandria and Alexandria County.

Alexandria and Georgetown had stable merchant and artisan classes that could adequately provide their children with a proper education. The towns also attracted, usually as boarding students, sons and daughters of the landed gentry from rural areas where populations were too small to support schools. Quakers from northern Virginia and from across the Potomac River joined their urban cousins in attending Alexandria schools. Wealthy Catholic families in southern Maryland patronized schools in Georgetown. The service industry necessary to provision the seasonal, transient, and predominantly male society of federal Washington soon required schools of its own. One observer commented:

No monotony here, every season, nay every week and month brings change and variety. New faces, new interests, new objects of every kind, in politics, fashions, works of art and nature. . . . When lo, Congress adjourns, the curtain drops, the drama is over, all is quiet, not to say solitary. . . . In April we retire from all bustle and society [and] go into the country.

“A Glimpse of the Capitol,” painted by William Douglas MacLeod, ca. 1844.
Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington D.C.

Although the District of Columbia is a small geographic area–conceived as a ten-mile square and depicted on maps up until 1847 as a diamond on point–the population was diverse, and teachers of needlework within the District drew on several different sampler traditions for their inspiration. Unlike New England with its deep-rooted families, early town formation, established schools, and needle instruction dating back to the seventeenth century, the District lacked long-standing traditions. But with the new federal era came a growing demand for cultural accomplishments for the area’s young ladies. Teachers, newly relocated, taught designs from their own cultural backgrounds or introduced the new classicism popular in Philadelphia or the more formulaic Quaker designs from England, Pennsylvania, and New York.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, interest in needlework education for young women in the District gradually waned, as it did elsewhere in the United States. During the 1820s, the components of female education were questioned and debated. With the exception of Catholic schools, instruction in advanced needlework soon gave way to more academic subjects, allowing “Columbia’s daughters” to receive an education suitable to their emerging role as women in the New Republic.