April ’13

Dolley Madison – “Doyenne of Frozen Desserts”


Although “Father of the Constitution” James Madison was rightfully famous as the Fourth President of the United States, more Americans are familiar with his wife, Dolley Todd Madison, First Lady extraordinaire and Ice Cream hostess.  This observation speaks volumes about the love of America’s favorite dessert, particularly over political matters, where favorite flavor trumps favored party.

The Philadelphia Connection


Dolley Payne, born in 1768 on a Quaker settlement in North Carolina, moved to Philadelphia with her family after the Revolution in 1783. Dolley enjoyed the lifestyle of a stunning socialite, and caught the attention of Quaker lawyer John Todd at a ballroom dance. The couple shared their quaint brick home at Fourth & Walnut Sts, near Independence Hall, with their two sons and Dolley’s younger sister.  Dolley was a spirited entertainer, preparing succulent meals using the freshest of ingredients purchased from the nearby High Street market.  The gaiety of their bustling lives in the nation’s first capital didn’t last long, however. Dolley became a young widow and mournful mother after losing John Todd and son William Temple to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.

Dolley met James Madison within a year after the tragedy; legend has it that third vice-president Aaron Burr, who once boarded at her mother’s house, introduced the unlikely pair.  Madison was seventeen years older than Dolley, perhaps a bit stiff to match Dolley’s vivaciousness at first.  Madison was also a slave owner, a direct contradiction to Dolley’s Quaker roots.  Despite their differences, Madison eventually wooed Dolley, and the couple wed in Charles Town, West Virginia, in 1794. After residing on Spruce Street in Philadelphia for three years, the Madisons relocated to Montpelier, his family’s Virginia estate.


The First Lady

In 1801, newly inaugurated Thomas Jefferson appointed James Madison as JeffersonRecipeSecretary of State. The Madisons moved to the Washington D.C., where they quickly became part of the city’s elite social circle. During the administration, Dolley undertook furnishing the White House with architect Benjamin Latrobe and was intimately involved in hosting social gatherings for the widowed President Jefferson and her husband.  Her flair for exquisite entertaining flourished during this time; cabinet members and diplomats were honored to be invited to White House parties to sample ice cream crafted by Presidential chefs under Dolley’s direction. One such “receipt,” in Jefferson’s own hand, can be found in the Library of Congress, and calls for “2 bottles of good cream, 6 yolks of eggs, ½ lb. sugar…a stick of Vanilla” to be made in a sorbetiere, an early style of ice cream freezer of French origin.

She became known for her exquisite social graces, lively conversation and enthusiasm for hosting great parties, her social prowess said to boost Madison’s popularity. A guest captured the animated ambiance:

“After tea was served, several guests played chess while another group preferred cards,’picking each other’s pockets in this genteel manner.’  The remainder of the guests mingled and enjoyed the refreshments:  ice cream, cake, cordials, punch, jellies, candied sugar, raisins, almonds and fruit.”


In 1808, Madison became the 4th President after defeating Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.  Dolley Todd Madison set the tone as the nation’s First Lady, mastering the art of evening enchantment in the White House drawing rooms, offering military music and enticing refreshments, including coffee, tea, cakes and ice cream to the eager citizens.   A crush of visitors descended on the executive mansion to meet the Madisons on New Year’s Day: “The reception rooms became so hot that women appeared grotesquely disfigured as their rouge and pearl-powder ran down their cheeks with perspiration.”  {image of first White House Ice Cream delivery}

Second Inaugural Ball – March 1813 – Two-Hundred Years Ago

The democratizing of the office was hard work for both host and hostess, as witnessed by one observer at Madison’s second inauguration in March, 1813:

“The major part of the respectable citizens offered their congratulations, ate his ice creams and bonbons, drank his Madeira, made their bow and retired, leaving him fatigued beyond measure with the incessant bending to which his politeness urged him.”

It was at this very White House reception that Dolley Madison gained national prominence as the great democratizer of ice cream.  Previous to this point, ice cream was a dessert reserved only for the elite, as ice was an ephemeral commodity.  Sorbetieres were expensive to procure and generally owned only by the wealthy or commercial catering firms.  By opening up the doors to the White House and serving ice cream, cakes and sweets, Americans from all walks of life sampled foods that they might not otherwise have tasted.  “A contemporary account of a Madison dinner party noted,

Mrs. Madison always entertains with Grace and Charm, but last night there was a sparkle in her eye that set astir an Air of Expectancy among her Guests.  …a table set with French china and English silver, laden with good things to eat, and in the centre high on a silver platter, a large, shining dome of pink ice cream.’ ”

fancyicesThe pink ice cream was most likely a concoction of stored strawberry preserves drawn from the White House pantry; strawberry ice cream soon became a beloved flavor, equal in popularity to Vanilla and Lemon.  The first recorded ice cream recipe in the Colonies comes from 1744 at a banquet for Maryland’s Royal Governor Thomas Bladen in neighboring Annapolis, Maryland where “some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously.”

Dolley Madison – Popular Culture Icon

Dolly’s grand-niece premiered the first full-length biography of her esteemed aunt in 1886: The Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison featured her streamlined moniker. A new biography of Dolly’s fascinating social and political career was issued every decade; in 1909, Dorothy Payne, Quakeress; a side-light upon the career of “Dolly” Madison, substantiating her image as a virtuous example for American women.  The 1920s and the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia brought the American Colonial Revival into full blossom.  Dolly’s legacy served to guide to the modern women, coupling the spirit of energy and progress with old-fashioned homemaking.  By the middle 20th century, Dolly’s name was used to brand hats, shoes, luggage and of course, sweets and ice cream.  The Dolly Madison Ice Cream Company, based out of Baltimore, used a colonial-style silhouette portrait of Dolly superimposed on moderne Art Deco signs and menus gracing soda fountains and luncheonettes throughout America in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Full Circle

DollyMadisonBlog 1DollyMadisonBlog


The Todd House at 4th & Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, once privy to Dolly’s delectable homemade ice cream, was fittingly converted to a lunch counter during the Depression.  Large signage emblazoned upon the 18th-century facade proclaimed irresistible attractions: Air-Conditioned Luncheonette, Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison Ice Cream.  Eighty years later, the National Park Service has restored the building to its original appearance and is interpreting the life of Dolley Payne Todd Madison, the First Lady of America.

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*Much material, including quotes and passages used in this Web-log were borrowed from Chocolate, Strawberry and Vanilla:  A History of American Ice Cream by Anne Cooper Funderburg (Bowling Green University Press:  1995).  Thank you to Ms. Funderburg for her scholarly research and publication.

The Franklin Fountain would also like to thank Julie Corredato for her invaluable editing and writing assistance with this edition of the Web-log.


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One Response to April ’13

  1. Martha Cox says:

    Always enjoy your Franklin Fountain newsletter – this one especially interesting with all the historical information . Tonight I just finished reading First Ladies by Margaret Truman and she includes Dolley.