Alexandria in 1812

Alexandria in 1812


A well-dressed gentleman's outdoor attire, circa 1812-1814. From "Journal Des Dames et Des Modes" published in Paris from 1797-1839


A fashionable lady's walking dress, circa 1812-1814. From "The Lady's Magazine" published in Great Britain from 1770-1837

This is the second of a series of articles telling how Alexandrians were affected some 200 years ago by the War of 1812. For an earlier article in this series, go to alexandriagazette.c….

In June 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain and the War of 1812 began, what was Alexandria like?

Main Sources

Alexandria Gazette; “Virginia Silversmiths” by Catherine B. Hollan; “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” by Daniel Pool; “Fashion in Costume: 1200-2000” by Joan Nunn; “Pen Portraits” by T. Michael Miller; “Sights and Sounds of Alexandria in 1800” by Jim Munson.

Alexandria then was part of the District of Columbia and had been since 1801. In the 1810 census, its population was only 7,227 (68 percent white, 12 percent free black, and 20 percent enslaved blacks). In comparison, the population of Washington proper was 8,208, only about a thousand more than Alexandria’s. (Georgetown was a separate town, population 4,948.)

According to maps developed from 1810 tax lists, the developed area of Alexandria extended no farther north than Pendleton Street and no farther south than Jefferson Street, a 12-block area. From the Potomac River it extended west to West Street on the south side of Cameron Street and only to Fayette Street on the north side of Cameron.

Some Alexandrians lived in brick homes, but most lived in small wooden houses. When they wanted to go somewhere, they rode over dirt or cobblestone streets on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages, coaches, or wagons, or they walked.

An Alexandrian walking along King Street, would have heard horses’ shod hooves striking cobblestones and the rattle of carriages and wagons. He or she would have smelled chimney smoke from coal and wood fires while walking past buildings whose first floors housed retail stores and top floors enclosed the living quarters of the stores’ owners.

For example, walking toward the river along the north side of King Street between St. Asaph and Pitt Streets (the area now dominated by the city courthouse), an Alexandrian would have passed two three-story brick buildings built close to the sidewalk.

The first floor of the first building was occupied by John Withers & Company selling “British, French, India, Russia and American GOODS,” as advertised in the Alexandria Gazette.

The second building was the slightly larger store and home of silversmith Adam Lynn, Jr. Here on the first floor Lynn maintained a combination jewelry and hardware store where he sold such goods as tea trays, swords, nails, watch chains, scissors, saddles, and earrings.

As our walker proceeded down King Street, he or she might have encountered several well-dressed Alexandria men and women. This was a period of revolution in fashion. In 1812 a well-dressed man no longer wore the artificial powdered wigs, knee britches, stockings, and shoes with bright buckles of George Washington. Instead he dressed in long pants tucked into boots that rose to just below his knees. His coat was double- or single-breasted and solid colored. Its front was cut straight across along the waistline, and in back, it was cut into two tails that hung down to his knees. Under his coat, he wore a waistcoat (vest) that was of a different color or pattern from the outer coat, and his throat was wrapped high in a silk or muslin neckcloth. An elegant top hat completed his fashionable image.

Similarly, a well-dressed woman no longer wore side hoops or bum rolls to make her skirt look fuller. She wore instead a gown or frock made of soft muslin “cinched up high just under the breasts to suggest a high waist,” according to historian Daniel Pool. From the high waist (in the new Empire fashion) the gown hung straight down following the natural contours of her body to her shoe tops. Walking outdoors, she would have worn a fashionable bonnet tied under her chin.

Walking past these well-dressed men and women, our Alexandrian soon would have reached the corner of Pitt and King Streets. Directly across Pitt Street, he or she would have seen the popular Washington Tavern at the spot now occupied by the Monaco Hotel. High up at the corner of the tavern was affixed a swinging sign with a likeness of General Washington on horseback painted on each side. On one side Washington rode a bay and on the other a dark gray. The tavern served meals and drinks, rented rooms, and provided a stable and forage for horses. As our Alexandrian crossed Pitt Street, he would have caught the dank smell of the stable mixed with the enticing aroma of coffee and tobacco.

If our walker continued down King Street, he or she would have come to the center of Alexandria’s commerce, the harbor. There, commodious warehouses stored tobacco, flour, wheat, ship’s bread, and other commodities waiting for shipment to American seacoast towns, the West Indies, and Europe. (One such warehouse, the Fitzgerald Warehouse, still stands at 100-104 South Union Street. It now houses a Starbucks and The Virginia Shop.)

There also were wharves that stretched out into the Potomac River from the town’s shore, where ships were made secure with strong ropes. The wharves smelled of stagnant water and emitted the sharp tang of tar from ships’ riggings. The week in June when war was declared, the Alexandria Gazette reported that 15 ships recently had arrived in port and were tied to the wharves, including the brigs Rising Sun from Cuba and Hunter from Portugal, plus the schooner Three Sallys from New York and the sloop Montezuma from Norfolk.

That month in 1812, Alexandria presented a peaceful scene. Our walker and other Alexandrians, however, must have been uneasy about what this new war meant for them. Would ships still be able to enter and depart from their harbor and do business with distant trading partners? Could their town itself be secure from the powerful British army and British navy?