The Best Chamber

A Room with Many Roles

Although it may not appear so at first glance, this room was a work space. 

In the late 1700s and early 1800s of the Federal Period, women used bedchambers like this one as a work space where they planned menus, stored precious foodstuffs, dispersed medicines, sorted household linens, and birthed and reared children.  Women of the household—free and enslaved—worked to keep the house running smoothly all year.   

The female head of house usually kept household keys and accounts.  From her desk in this chamber, she could write and keep records as well as oversee the activities inside the house and in the gardens and work yards. 

The Best Chamber (Photo: Jennifer Heffner, East 27 Creative)

The large, bowed windows in the Best Chamber would have given the woman of the house a means for surveilling the working urban farm at Dumbarton House, including the labor of enslaved people and servants in and outside of the house.

The Urban Farm

This oil on wood painting by Peter Waddell envisions what the land around Dumbarton House looked like in the early Federal period. The painting is reproduced in the window of the Best Chamber to depict the view from this room.  

Account books detailing the household finances were sometimes kept in the bedchamber in a desk's locked drawer for safekeeping.


“Jane counted her Cash on hand this morning, & debts outstanding for butter etc. this week, and it stands at about 19 pounds of butter.”

Jane worked for the Nourse Family when they lived at Dumbarton House and was familiar with this roomShe kept records of dairy sales, performed kitchen tasks and sewed. It is unclear if Jane was enslaved or paid for her labor, but surviving documents indicate she was a key part of running this household. Descriptions of her contributions to the household are found in surviving written documents, including a letter from 1796 from Maria to Joseph Nourse: “please to give Jane half a pack of young small french beans to pickle before you come away…

Silhouette of a woman, William Bache, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of Sarah Bache Bloise, S/NPG.2022.184.647

Phoebe Morris

This portrait by Charles Wilson Peale hangs above the mantel in the Best Chamber. It depicts Phoebe Morris, whose sister married Charles Josephus Nourse, the son of Joseph and Maria Nourse. Oil on canvas, 1796, 2016.008. Purchase/partial gift of the Rose Williams Miller Estate.

Summer Scenario

“Your Black berry jam was made yesterday, for I this morning perceived it in one corner of your chamber.”

Summer weather impacted the household and those who worked in this room. Workers toiling in domestic tasks might have been directed to take down heavy curtains or pull up woolen carpets and remove fireplace equipment no longer needed in the warmth of summer.  

The cook and her assistants preserved, potted, pickled or dried the fresh fruits and vegetables from the gardens and orchards to prepare the household for the colder seasons of the year. The blackberry jam placed in the corner of this chamber in August 1804 was likely made under the direction of Dinah, the skilled cook enslaved by the Nourse family. Cookery books of the period included recipes for jams made from the summer’s bounty – stored in ‘earthen or china cups, or gallipots’ and layered with white paper covering – to be enjoyed when fresh fruits and vegetables were no longer available.  

These reproduction gallipots bring to life Joseph Nourse’s letter to Maria about jam in her chamber. The basket was handmade by a professional willow basket weaver. The scenario in its entirety evokes the bounties of summer, as well as the Best Chamber as a place to store valuable items.

American Cookery

American Cookery was the first known cookbook to be published in the United States. Written by Amelia Simmons in 1796, the publication marked a turning point for American-style food that differed from British traditions. The page seen here shows a recipe for pumpkin pie. 

A Closer Look at the Bedstead

The Best Chamber often contained the most expensive bed with curtains, bedding, and a decorative corniceIn 1826, when Samuel Whitall lived here, there were “Seven beds & bedsteads with beding (sic) and curtains…” at Dumbarton House. The expense of beds was found not just in their wooden frame, but more so in their expanse of textiles and the labor of sewing and upkeeping their many componentsCotton dimity fabric, like the kind used in the curtains on this bed, was a popular choice for bedhangings in the period. 

The designs of the handsewn textiles in the Best Chamber are from period design books. 


Generally, the more intricate the patterns and colors in wallpaper, the higher the cost. Thus, wallpapers, such as this one, would have served as both a decorative feature and a demonstration of wealth. 

The wallpaper in the Best Chamber was block printed in three colors. The design is Bixby Vine and Drapery, which was used in the sitting room at Bixby House, a Federal period home in Massachusetts. The trim was decoupaged in the mitered corners to create seamless design.