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