Jefferson's Dumbbell Weights

Artist/Maker: Unknown

Created: 1812

Origin/Purchase: America, possibly Monticello

Materials: lead

Dimensions: L: 8.9 (3 1/2 in.); D: 6.7 (2 5/8 in.); Wt: 4 lb. 5 oz.

Location: Cabinet

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Virginia and Nicholas Trist; by descent to Harry Randolph Burke; (1): by descent to Gordon Trist Burke; by purchase to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1968; (2): by descent to Mrs. Martina Graham Creger; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2019.

Accession Number: 1961-37-22

Historical Notes: In 1819, Jefferson remarked in a letter that a "stiff wrist, the consequence of an earlier dislocation, makes writing both slow and painful."[1] In Paris in 1786, he had fallen and dislocated his right wrist.[2] The injury took many months to heal, and in later years, pain and stiffness in the joint returned to trouble him. A fall from the steps to one of Monticello's terraces in 1822 resulted in a broken bone or dislocation in his other wrist, which further disabled him.[3] He wrote to Robert Mills in March 1826:

[M]y own health is quite broken down. for the last 10 mo. I have been mostly confined to the house .... The disloc[atio]n of both my wrists has so far injured the use of my hands that I can write but slowly & laboriously.[4]

Feeling obligated to carry on much correspondence, Jefferson sought devices to ease his pain and make the many hours spent at his writing table more comfortable. About ten years before the injury to his left arm occurred, he apparently acquired two small lead dumbbells and used them to strengthen and exercise his right wrist. The crude lead forms were probably made at Monticello. Both are marked in block letters "THOMAS JEFFERSON" on the end. One also has "DUMBELL" around the edge, and "1812 MONTICELLO VA." on the opposite end.

Accompanying the dumbbell is a one-inch-wide leather strap fastened with a large brass button. Its presumed purpose was to give extra support to Jefferson's wrist. The red woolen and linen cushion has three pairs of loops on the bottom by which it could be securely tied to the arm of a chair. Perhaps fastened to the writing arm of the revolving Windsor Chair where he often worked, it provided a comfortable rest for his arm.

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 431


Podcast: Thomas Jefferson's Two Very Bad, No Good Days

Late in life, on either side of his 80th birthday, Thomas Jefferson had two bad falls. Both were serious, and one was life-threatening. And both provide glimpses into Jefferson’s character and into the many roles his family, his friends, and his enslaved domestic servants played in his life.


  1. ^ Jefferson to Vine Utley, March 21, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 14:156-58. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Malone, Jefferson, 2:73.
  3. ^ Randolph, Domestic Life382. At different times, Jefferson refers to this injury as either a dislocation or a broken bone.
  4. ^ Jefferson to Mills, March 3, 1826, Copley Newspapers Incorporated, James S. Copley Library, La Jolla, CA. Polygraph copy at Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.