On Saturday, on a whim, we drove down to Monticello to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson. One of the many things I like about living in this area is the rich history. We can drive north to battlefields at Gettysburg, or we can drive south and visit the unique home of Thomas Jefferson. So on Saturday, we gathered up the kids and hit the road at 9 am. Google Maps told us the trip would take 3 hours on Interstate 95. It suggested taking Route 29, which would take only a little over 2 hours. It failed to mention the beautiful farm country we would pass through.
None of us had been to Monticello before, and I was particularly excited about it. I love history, and have a special place for American history. Within that special place is a niche reserved for colonial history, which I adore above almost all else, perhaps because I was living in New England when introduced to that history in school.
Wandering the grounds of Monticello was a treat. The weather was perfect, the skies clear, and as we walked the grounds, I kept thinking to myself: Jefferson walked here. He walked here. I remembered a similar feeling I had once, a decade earlier. I was walking on the campus of William and Mary, and happened to be reading a biography of Jefferson at the time, when it occurred to me that I was walking past the very dorm that the biographer said Jefferson stayed in while at the school.
We had a tour of the house. Our guide took us through it and I was amazed my Jefferson’s attention to detail. Jefferson was, like Benjamin Franklin, a lifehacker. The clock he made that mounts the front door made it easy to tell the day of the week. While standing beneath the portico, you could look up and see the wind direction marked on the ceiling, by a clever mechanical connection to the weathervane on the roof.
Jefferson’s “book room” made me green with envy. The shelves were full of books (at the time he sold his collection to start the Library of Congress, he’d amassed 7,000 of them). The books in the room were all the same titles and editions that Jefferson had in his collection. In two glass cases were book that Jefferson was known to have handled himself.
Jefferson had even considered that books get moved, and made it easy to do so. Each shelf was an independent unit that could be removed. A board could be be nailed over the opening without removing the books, and the box could be placed in a wagon for transport.
There were other clever touches to the house. Pocket beds kept the rooms spacious. Jefferson had a pocket bed between his study and his sitting room, so that he could get out of bed and start working right away. He had a revolving door in the dining room with trays for food to make the transport of food to the table quick and efficient. He had wine dummy’s built into the sides of the fireplace. He used narrow staircases to conserve space.
At the end of the tour I asked the guide if she knew of anyone who had seen Monticello and decided to replicate it for their own home. In fact, she had. She told me about someone in Pennsylvania who had done just that. It makes sense. It is a house designed for a reader and a writer. It is a house designed by an early lifehacker.
Jefferson was a lifehacker in other ways. He wrote more than 19,000 letters, and used1 a device that allowed him to write one letter, and automatically make a second copy. It is for this reason, apparently, that we know as much as we do about his life. He also invented a revolving bookstand which could hold 5 open books at once. Try switching that quickly between 5 books on a Kindle!
The trip reminded me that I eventually want to get through Dumas Malone‘s 6-volume biography of Jefferson someday. Six books on Jefferson! That biography would not fit on Jefferson’s clever bookstand in its entirety.
For more pictures of our trip to Monticello, check out the pictures on Google Photos.
- But did not invent. ↩