Archaeologists excavating a midden heap (i.e., historical trash pile) on Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia estate, found small pieces of what they thought were bone sewing bobbins. Upon closer inspection they revealed themselves to be the toppers of pawns in an ivory chess set, a set that saw Founding Fathers Madison and Thomas Jefferson play marathon games against each other.
The two fragments provided researchers with enough detail to identify the exact kind of set they came from.
Montpelier officials consulted with chess scholars to determine the style of set that produced the small fragments, which were found in a trash pit. The officials concluded that Madison’s set had red pieces based on three surviving pieces at Tudor Place, a historic home in Georgetown. The pieces purportedly belonged to Madison and are said to have been given to him by Benjamin Franklin, Hastings said. Those pieces are white and red.
With the style identified, Montpelier officials set out to find an appropriate specimen.
“We got very lucky in our ability to find this set as quickly as we did, once we confirmed what we wanted,” Hastings said.
“You might, if you were very clever, and if you were online a lot looking at major auctions, you might find two or three [such sets] a year,” she said. “They’re not exceedingly rare but they’re not very common either.”
When the identical 18th century white and red ivory chess set set came up for auction in London, Montpelier curators were able to buy it. Once they navigated the masses of paperwork needed to import ivory into the United States, they shipped the chess set to the estate and put it on display in the Montpelier Drawing Room. The total cost, from set to shipping to fees, came out to $2,800, which is a steal, if you ask me.
Montpelier curators have been working assiduously to recreate the original furnishings and interiors from Madison’s time. The estate had been in the family since the early 1700s. James Madison retired there after his second term as president of the United States in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1836. His vivacious wife Dolley, widely considered the first First Lady who defined the role for future President’s wives, sold the property in 1844.
The wealthy du Pont family bought it in 1901 and built onto it extensively, although Marion du Pont did at least take care to preserve the core of the estate in historically appropriate condition. She willed it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation after her death in 1983. In 2003, the Trust undertook a full renovation, returning Montpelier to its 1820 appearance. That restoration was completed in 2008, but curators are constantly looking for furniture, wallpaper, game tables, anything that either was in the house in Madison’s day or could well have been.
The chess set, site of what Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge described as regular four hour games between the third and fourth Presidents, is thus as important to the history of the estate as it is charming.