Thomas Jefferson sold his extensive collection of books to the nation in 1815 to replace the congressional library destroyed when the British burned the United States Capitol the previous year. Famously declaring that “I cannot live without books,” he quickly began ordering replacements of titles that were particularly important to him. Despite repeated attempts, however, one title escaped him: a work by John Baxter published in London ca. 1796–1801 and entitled A new and impartial History of England, From the most Early Period of Genuine Historical Evidence to the Present Important and Alarming Crisis.
How do we know what Monticello looked like during Jefferson’s time? Monticello has been called one of the best-documented plantations, and the same goes for the house interior; we are lucky to have a wealth of correspondence, visitor accounts, and even diagrams from Jefferson’s time. Today, we take for granted all of these rich sources and records that help us in our work. But back in the early 20th century, the situation was far different. For Women’s History Month, it feels appropriate to honor Marie Kimball, the woman who first rediscovered these sources and helped to make Monticello what it is today.
Music was an important part of life for enslaved people at Monticello, and particular individuals, like Eston Hemings, within this society were noted for their artistic talents. For many enslaved people at plantations throughout the United States, music making was a way to strengthen family and community ties, resist oppression, entertain one another, and express thoughts and emotions about the past, present, and future.
In Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, the holidays at Monticello were a time for family gatherings, visiting friends, settling accounts and planning for the new year. For Monticello’s enslaved community, the holiday season was a time for reunion and a possible respite from labor on the Plantation.
Writing to fellow architect Benjamin Labtrobe seven months after retiring from the presidency, Jefferson described Monticello as his "essay in architecture." Always balancing practicality with beauty, Jefferson noted his essay "has been so much subordinated to the law of convenience, & affected also by the circumstance of change in the original design, that it is liable to some unfavorable & just criticisms."
Most exterior shutters today are eye-pleasing accents, decorative but not functional. But for Thomas Jefferson, shutters provided shade from what he described as "the constant, beaming, almost vertical sun of Virginia" while permitting airflow from summer breezes. They also protected the expensive window glass from storms and swung open, Jefferson’s words, "on hinges as in the winter we want both the light & the warmth of the sun."
Adding a dome to one’s house was unheard-of in America during Jefferson’s time. Domes are complicated to engineer and construct, and when Jefferson brought the idea back from his stint in Europe in the 1780s, it may have seemed an impossible folly.
Jefferson’s more scientific side is on full display at Monticello in a treasure-trove of timekeeping devices ranging from sundials to gongs, to various types of clocks.
Despite thousands of surviving documents, LMonticello’s curators have only recently fully understood Jefferson’s comprehensive system for drafting and organizing his correspondence. These eight original objects served as components or tools that Jefferson used to arrange incoming letters, respond to them, often after “elaborate research,” copy his own letters, and organize everything for easy retrieval – even decades later. Jefferson’s Cabinet and Library were the hub of his reading and writing activities.
Exciting news! Monticello recently received a grant from the Americana Foundation to preserve Jefferson’s Great Clock.
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902