Defining Motherhood Through Objects

Christening Gown, 1986.12A-B

Within the archives and collections of Wilton House Museum rests a delicate gesture of maternal care and affection, a hand-made christening gown.  Made reminiscent of the sack gown style popular in the mid-1700s, the religious object is made of silk, satin, and cotton.  The most likely candidate for the construction of this special piece is Mary Scott Randolph.  Her husband was Brett Randolph I of Warwick Plantation, first cousin of William Randolph III of Wilton House.  The couple had at least three children, all of whom probably wore this gown.  Objects like this garment open a window into the nature of motherhood at that period in time.  Women shared responsibilities within the home, and these duties depended on one’s position in society.  In less affluent families than the Randolphs, the wife cooked, cleaned, sewed, and even could be responsible for finding ways to bringing in supplemental income. 

The plantation mistress could often be entrusted with running logistical elements of the plantation, such as planning meals, basic education, and preliminary healthcare.  In the event of the death of her husband, the plantation mistress could take over the running of plantation, which happened twice at Wilton House.  These tasks consumed much of her time, leaving little for personal moments with her children. When she did see them, it would often be in the context of religious observance, instruction, or discipline.  The notion of a mother as caretaker existed, but the reality of there being only so many hours in a day interfered with practical one-on-one times to express affection to individual children. This responsibility, then, usually fell to enslaved African-American women who were required by white plantation mistresses to nurse and care for these children in addition to their own- a form of exploitation that came to shape the relationship between white women and the slave trade in the American South.

This busy schedule existed for women who survived to see their children grow.  Though maternal mortality averaged between 1-1.5%, disease and injury took many mothers from their children early.  In fact William Randolph IIII of Wilton House lost his mother when he was only one month old.  In this light, objects like the Randolph christening gown serve as a proof of existence for many women across the social strata, not just to posterity, but to their own children.  Whether living and absent by virtue of obligation, or deceased, mothers proved their affection through objects.

Lacking any personal reflections from the mothers who called Wilton home, objects like the christening gown remain to speak of their owners’ lives and realities. 

Want to learn more? Check out these sources!

Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity by Marilyn Francus

Midwifery and Childbirth in America by Judith Rooks

The Plantation Mistress by Catherine Clinton

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Wilton House Museum Blog Announcement

An Open Door into one of Virginia’s Historic Homes

Nestled against the James River, in the back of a quiet neighborhood, sits a red-doored, brick house, similar to many one may have passed driving down West Cary Street.  Save for an unobtrusive sign right off the road, one may not even know of its presence.  This site, however, contains over 250 years of history, covering six families, multiple war-time occupations, and two counties.

It saw the rise and fall of the landed gentry in the colonies, the birth of a new country, the realities of generational slavery, and itself received new purpose when the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased it in 1932.  Wilton even traveled over 15 miles from, “World’s End” to the heart of Virginia, standing today in its capital city of Richmond.  Wilton now serves as a historic house museum, engaging with the full extent of its history for any and all who wish to cross its threshold.

With the relaunch of the Wilton House Museum Blog, you receive an open invitation to catch a glimpse of all that lives behind that large red door.  Here, you can learn about material objects, the enslaved communities of the area, American history, day-to-day life across the 18th and 19th century, and so much more.  For those individuals who remember our old blog, “Found in the Collection,” there will be posts which revisit those articles, pulled “From the Vault.”  The blog will have information about upcoming events at the museum as well, such as “Plays in the Passage,” concerts, and lectures.  Interested in what you see on the blog? Come visit the museum, and take a tour inside the house, or learn about the landscaping of the grounds with our downloadable Grounds & Architecture audio tour.

Please accept this humble invitation to walk through the open door, and immerse yourself in history and culture, at Wilton House Museum.


215 S. Wilton Road, Richmond,VA, 23226

Wilton House Museum opens Tuesdays-Fridays at 10:00 am, Sundays at 1:00 pm, with the last tour entering the buildings at 3:45 pm every day. The museum is closed on Mondays.


Here is our first post

Jefferson and the Creation of an American Architecture

Textiles for the American Home, 1720 – 1820

Collecting American Antiques

Curious & Curiouser

Gatsby Afternoon Picnic

Art Under the Microscope