Arts Digest

Lee-Fendall House Exhibits the Life of Alexandria’s Earliest Progressive Women

An 1897 photo taken at Colonial Beach, Virginia, where early Lee-Fendall resident Maude Downham dressed up for a day at the beach. This damaged tintype was restored for the exhibit by Alexandria’s RitaRestores.
(Photos: Rita Mattia.)

Meet Some of Alexandria’s Earliest Progressive Women

By Rita Mattia

ALEXANDRIA,VA- Women’s History Month may have just ended, but you can still celebrate in style by combining a lunch outing in Old Town with a very engaging new exhibit at the Lee-Fendall House.

Young ladies were encouraged to stay healthy and fit; these wooden dumbbells are part of the Lee-Fendall House collection.

A New Woman: Life in Progressive Era Alexandria, 1890-1920 not only tells how local ladies were comporting themselves on their new bicycles — in hilarious detail — the exhibit features a “cycling costume” that includes yards and yards of linen fabric and not much in the way of Spandex.

Ladies were expected to wear this sort of “costume” while touring the countryside on their bicycles. This example is on load from The Maymont Foundation in Richmond.

“We’ve focused on an era in which some very forward-thinking women were living here at the Lee-Fendall House,” says Amanda Roper, Manager of Education and Public Programs. “At this exhibit, you’ll see what a young woman might have pasted in her scrapbooks and what she and her friends were doing to stay fit. These were not women who spent a lot of time sitting around. In fact, one traveled the country as a stage performer!”

“Stereo” entertainment had a very different meaning a century ago. Amanda Roper — who curated this exhibit — poses here with a stero-optican viewer.

The Lee-Fendall House is on Oronoco Street at the corner of North Washington Street. It was built in 1785 to house the family of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and was home to many other equally interesting families in the centuries to follow. Hours of operation are Wednesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. on Sundays. For more information call 703-548-1789 or visit online at

The “boater” hat was all the rage at the turn of the last century. This early photo shows early Lee-Fendall resident Maude Downham sporting hers.

This exhibit is on display through the summer.

Mary Wadland

Mary Wadland is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Zebra Press, founded by her in 2010. Originally from Delray Beach, Florida, Mary is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA and has lived and worked in the Alexandria publishing community since 1987.

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