White House Women's History

White House Wednesday | Behind the Stanchions | Dressing Room


 

By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist

There are two small rooms on White House of the Confederacy tours into which large groups simply cannot fit. Tours walk through one of them, the Library. The other is Varina Davis’ Dressing Room. Too small for traffic and with no way to pass through, the room offers visitors a quick peek as they move on to the next stop along the tour.

So what is a Dressing Room anyway?

Webster’s tells us that a dressing room is “a room used chiefly for dressing.” Okay, but this room was a bit more than that for Varina Davis.

This small space was Mrs. Davis’ private space in the house. Jefferson Davis had his Home Office as well as the Library for his use as private space if necessary. Mrs. Davis needed her space as well. Varina Davis took her duties as the lady of the house seriously; this small room provided a place where she could be herself. She need not worry about government officials and military officers here.

The Dressing room is where she dressed and prepared to meet each day. It also is where she read, sewed, shared tea with family and friends, and, in many ways, simply relaxed and rested. You needed to be a good friend or family member to spend time with Mrs. Davis in this room.

Varina’s mother lived in the house for a while during the war, as did her sister. It is not difficult to imagine Varina in this space, showing off her latest sewing project to her mother and sister or sharing a cup of tea with Mary Chesnut.

Betsy was another person whom we can guess spent time with Mrs. Davis in the Dressing Room. Betsy was Mrs. Davis’ lady’s maid. In a 1905 letter disputing the assertion that Elizabeth Van Lew successfully planted a spy in the Confederate White House, Varina wrote of Betsy, “My maid was an ignorant girl born and brought up on our own plantation.” Betsy was not so ignorant after all, because she successfully made her escape from the Davises, running away on January 8, 1864.

One of the objects in this room is a writing table we know belonged to the Davises. Varina may well have spent time here, honing her writing skills. Writing became an important part of Varina’s life, offering her something of a late in life career. After Jefferson Davis’ death she moved to New York City and wrote for the New York World newspaper. She also wrote her memoirs, which were very popular in the postwar years.

As visitors peek into Varina Davis’ Dressing Room, they see a variety of period and Davis original objects meant to convey the feeling of this space. We hope we accomplish this in every room of the house. As visitors look, we’d like them to imagine Varina sewing a uniform for Jeff Jr. or Joe, writing a letter, or laughing with her mother and sister about what a guest (or her husband) did at the last party – all part of Varina’s life at the White House of the Confederacy.