Abigail Adams and Charles Dickens: Georgetown’s Changing Face

Being perhaps a bit off the beam, but also not willing to wait an hour for a bus ride to go about a dozen blocks, I decided to walk home from the office yesterday despite a heat index of 115F (that’s 46.1 centigrade for my non-American readers.) Upon arriving at the manse, I was grateful that previous centuries of Georgetowners had planted large old trees, and built shady porticoes for me to walk under, thereby avoid being in the full-on, baking light of the afternoon sun. However, much as today’s Georgetown prides itself on being a gracious and sophisticated enclave in the capital, it tends to sweep under the rug some of the more disdainful assessments of its past.

When First Lady Abigail Adams arrived in Washington in November 1800 to take up residence at the White House, she did not look favorably upon either Georgetown or its inhabitants. As the nearest provider of provisions and household needs to the new Executive Mansion, she would have to be visiting Georgetown or dealing with Georgetowners on a regular basis. She wrote to a friend:

“I have been to Georgetown and felt all that [a friend] described when she was a resident there. It is the very dirtiest hole I ever saw for a place of any trade, or respectability of inhabitants…There must be a worse place than even Georgetown, that I would not reside in for three Months.”

This may seem a strange assessment, for in my own experience I have met many people who would not mind residing in Georgetown for three years or more, let alone three months. It is possible that, in the bleak end of autumn, and having to leave her comfortable home in well-established Philadelphia, Mrs. Adams approached her new digs with some prejudice. And the portions of Georgetown below what is now M Street were always a bit seedy, since this part of the village was once an active port and manufacturing area

However, things had improved quite a bit by the time Charles Dickens paid a visit several decades later, in the spring of 1842:

“At Georgetown, in the suburbs, there is a Jesuit College; delightfully situated, and, so far as I had an opportunity of seeing, well-managed. Many persons who are not members of the Romish Church, avail themselves, I believe, of these institutions, and of the advantageous opportunities they afford for the education of their children. The heights of this neighbourhood, above the Potomac River, are very picturesque: and are free, I should conceive, from some of the insalubrities of Washington. The air, at that elevation, was quite cool and refreshing, when in the city it was burning hot.”

Today of course, Georgetowners tend to focus on the more glamorous aspects of life here, forgetting that this was not always a posh enclave. That it is now, apart from certain aspects of the commercial district, is to its credit. However comparing the accounts of Abigail Adams and Charles Dickens is interesting and illustrative, for it does show us what a remarkable transformation the village underwent in a comparatively short period of time.

Cox’ Row in Georgetown,
Built post-Adams/pre-Dickens

3 thoughts on “Abigail Adams and Charles Dickens: Georgetown’s Changing Face

  1. Well, when Mrs. Adams was in town, the DC area was still being built from the malarial swamp. I bet the White House was sitting in the center of a mud mound until the landscaping slowly grew in place. I would expect the housing to be shacks, the roads dirt and mud, the new citizens mostly transient and of shady character as the city’s society had yet to be created: everything to be expected of a painfully newborn city, whether in 1800 or 2010. From what I read about St. Petersburg (Russia), it was built from a worse environment (swamp, plus frostbite!), and was a misery pit for years until it was refined, and is now a pearl. One of the toniest parts of Chicago, Streeterville, was created by a Mr. Streeter pouring garbage into the lake until his portion grew and grew. The original lakefront is to the WEST of where the hoi poloi now live and shop, upon the old landfill composed of 1860-1920 trash.


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