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Created: c. 1812
Origin/Purchase: America, possibly Monticello
Materials: wool, linen
Dimensions: 3.8 × 24.1 × 12.1 (1 1/2 × 9 1/2 × 4 3/4 in.)
Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Thomas Jefferson Randolph; by descent to Margaret Randolph Taylor and Olivia Alexander Taylor; by purchase to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1983
Accession Number: 1983-14-34
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. months I have been mostly confined to the house. ... the dislocation of both my wrists has so far injured the use of my hands, that I can write but slowly and 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
- 1. Jefferson to Vine Utley, March 21, 1819, in L&B, 15:187. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 2. Malone, Jefferson, 2:73.
- 3. Randolph, Domestic Life, 382. At different times, Jefferson referred to this injury as either a dislocation or a broken bone.
- 4. Jefferson to Robert Mills, March 3, 1826, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.