Mary Randolph

Mary Randolph: A Chesterfield County Role Model for Women of the 19th Century

Nancy Carter Crump

The government of a family bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation. The contents of the Treasury must be known, and great care taken to keep the expenditures from being equal to the receipts. A regular system must be introduced into each department, which may be modified until matured, and should then pass into inviolable law. The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules: "Let every thing be done at the proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use."

So began Mary Randolph's preface to The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook that became so popular it has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1824.

Born in 1762 at Ampthill, her grandfather's Chesterfield County plantation, now the site of the Dupont Company (the house itself was dismantled and moved to Richmond in 1929), Mary Randolph was a member of the Virginia elite, with roots extending back to the colony's formative years. As the eldest child of Thomas Mann and Ann Cary Randolph of Tuckahoe in Goochland County, she grew up surrounded with all the wealth and comforts enjoyed by other members of her class. She and her numerous siblings were tutored by Peter Jefferson, father of the nation's fourth president, to whom she was related by both blood and marriage.

Along with her formal education, Mary was trained in the proper household management expected of upper-class women of the time, women who were brought up to supervise large manor houses with surrounding support buildings and numerous servants. While women then were relegated to secondary positions within the family hierarchy, they were in truth the mainspring that kept the household running. These women had enormous responsibilities as well as formidable knowledge, part of which was an awareness of food preparation and elegant entertaining. This knowledge would sustain Mary Randolph throughout her adult life.

In 1780, Mary married a cousin, David Meade Randolph, and they settled in Chesterfield County near Bermuda Hundred at Presquile, a 750-acre plantation that was part of the Randolph family's extensive property along the James River. While David Randolph saw to the cultivation of his plantation, gaining a reputation as "the best farmer in the country," as well as a noted inventor, Mary assumed a conventional role, supervising the household, entertaining their many guests and acquiring a reputation as a lively hostess who set an exquisite table. While living at Presquile, Mary bore four sons.

Over time, life at Presquile, situated along the swamp lands of the James, proved difficult. According to a contemporary source, the swamps produced noxious fumes that brought on "frequent and dangerous diseases. Mr. Randolph is himself very sickly, and his young and amiable wife has not enjoyed one month of good health since she first came to live on this plantation." By 1798, the family had moved to Richmond, where they built a house, christened "Moldavia" (a combination of their two given names) by a friend. Presquile was sold out of the Randolph family three years later.

Richmond welcomed the young couple. Mary, already well known for her accomplishments, "charming manners, and ... masculine mind," quickly established a reputation as one of the city's leading hostesses. As the United States marshal of Virginia under two administrations (that of George Washington and John Adams), David gained attention as an outspoken Federalist, and Moldavia became a center for Federalist society. The Randolphs entertained lavishly. With Mary's knowledge of fine food and entertaining, invitations to dine at the Randolphs' table were coveted.

Mary's skills as hostess and cook were so well known, in fact, that they were brought to the attention of Gabriel Prosser, a slave who in 1800 attempted an unsuccessful revolt in northern Henrico County and Richmond. Supposedly, his plans included wiping out as much of the area's white population as possible, but according to local legend, Mary Randolph would have been spared to serve as Prosser's queen - and his cook! Perhaps this is when she acquired the nickname, "Queen Molly," by which she was affectionately known to her friends.

Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800 marked the end of David Meade Randolph's career as federal marshal. The two men were on opposite sides of the political fence and Jefferson removed Randolph from office immediately after his inauguration. This, along with business reversals, caused a rapid decline in the Randolphs' fortunes and by 1802, they had listed Moldavia for sale.

Within a few years, their financial situation had become critical, and Mary stepped in. She was determined to see her family taken care of, and took what was then a highly unorthodox step for an upper-class woman. In March, 1808, an advertisement appeared in The Richmond Virginia Gazette: "Mrs. RANDOLPH Has established a Boarding House in Cary Street, for the accommodation of Ladies and Gentlemen. She has comfortable chambers, and a stable well supplied for a few Horses." Putting her abilities as a hostess together with her knowledge of good food and elegant presentation, Mary achieved instant success. The Randolphs' boarding house was considered a place where "wit, humor, and good-fellowship prevailed, but excess rarely."

By 1819, the Randolphs had given up their business enterprise and moved to Washington, where they lived with one of their sons. There, Mary Randolph decided to compile her culinary knowledge to paper, and in 1824, her book, The Virginia Housewife, was published. It won immediate success: a second addition followed within a year, and Mary was preparing yet another when she died in January, 1828.

With Mary's advanced culinary knowledge, her splendid recipes, and detailed advice to housewives, the book remained a standby, going into many editions throughout the 19th century. It continues to appear in facsimile even today.

While The Virginia Housewife is seen by some as a quaint reminder of culinary traditions long gone by, the book is viewed by today's social historians as an important historical document in which dining habits of the Virginia elite can be examined. As noted culinary historian, Karen Hess, wrote, "The most influential American cookbook of the 19th century was The Virginia Housewife ... There are those who regard it as the finest book ever to have come out of the American kitchen, and a case may be made for considering it to be the earliest full-blown American cookbook. [it] may be said to document the cookery of the early days of our republic."

Chesterfield County can take pride in claiming Mary Randolph as a native daughter, an exemplary woman, and role model. Her courage and determination, her willingness to step off her pedestal to see that her family survived, and her ability to plunge into the world of business, mark her as a pioneer and role model to those who followed.