Molly Waterbury's Dress in the DAR Museum Exhibition: One Gown, Seven Generations

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
December 18, 2015

The opening reception for “Remembering the American Revolution: 1776-1890” the DAR Museum’s exhibit for the 125th anniversary year, was the setting for a mini-family reunion. A dress worn to George Washington’s 1789 inaugural ball by Molly Waterbury, daughter of Brigadier General David Waterbury, is on view in the exhibit. Many of you may recognize the dress (recently donated by Waterbury descendants) from its appearance in the 2015 DAR calendar, when it was featured in February, on a manikin with 1789-style hair and accessories.

The donors attended our opening reception in October. They were delighted to see their family heirloom displayed prominently in the exhibit. From left to right below are Betsy Behre Thompson, Leigh Thompson Copin, Gretchen Behre Marr, John E. Behre Jr., and Ashley Behre Jackson.Mrs. Young, Mrs. Rehnberg, and Museum Director and Chief Curator Heidi Campbell-Shoaf welcomed the family and enjoyed talking with them at the reception.

The family, who descend from Waterbury’s son William (Molly died unmarried in 1795), have a longstanding tradition regarding the dress, which has been their own way of “Remembering the Revolution.” Each girl in the family would wear the dress long enough to have her photo taken in it, and these photos were framed and treasured in the family.

In 1929, Katherine Ella Vail wore the dress (along with a Colonial-style wig and other accessories) at age 10 at a DAR tea. In 1953, Katherine’s daughter Elizabeth Behre wore the dress with a new reproduction petticoat made of satin and trimmed with antique lace (which was also donated to the Museum). In 1983, three cousins took turns for their photo shoot: Katharine’s daughter Leigh, and her nieces Gretchen and Ashley Behre. All of these photos are reproduced in the exhibit; the donors are the models from 1953 and 1983.

In 2011, the family decided that as much as they loved their tradition and treasured their family heirloom, it was time to entrust the dress and its accessories to a Museum. Fortunately for us, they decided there was no more appropriate place than the DAR Museum. The dress was donated along with its petticoat, and some early 19th century men’s garments which probably belonged to Molly Waterbury’s brother or nephew. (The vintage fichu and sleeve ruffles seen in the photos, which were not original to the dress, have been saved, but were removed for this exhibit, as we wanted to show the dress in its original 1789 style.)

When planning the current exhibit, it was clear that Molly Waterbury’s dress was a stellar example of how one family remembered the revolution, not only by saving the dress, but by allowing each successive generation to experience her own connection with the dress (boys got a chance to wear the shirt, waistcoat, and trousers, to commemorate family history in their turn).

Having the Behre family at the DAR Museum for the reception brings the commemoration full circle, as they are once again able to “Remember the American Revolution,” and their genealogical ties to it.

Learn more about “Remembering the American Revolution: 1776-1890” here: www.dar.org/RAR

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