What's In A Name?

Let's start with the fact that it is confusing to have so many different names: Dolly, Dolley, even Dorothy and Dorothea. If you go to your local library you will find books on both Dolly Madison and Dolley Madison. Some of her biographers insisted that her given name was Dorothea, others wrote that it was really Dorothy - although generally in their book titles they bowed to the convention of Dolly.

Her original name was Dolley Payne, then Dolley Payne Todd, and finally Dolley Payne Madison. She usually signed her letters: D P Madison. But her first book-length biographer, Lucia B. Cutts, entitled her 1886 book The Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison, and set the pattern of spelling her name "Dolly." Lucia B. Cutts was DPM's grand-niece, so it seemed logical that however she spelled her great-aunt's name must be correct. By 1896 Maud Wilder Goodwin entitled her biography Dolly Madison, but explained to the reader that DPM really had been named "Dorothea in honor of Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, daughter of Nathaniel West Dandridge, and grand-daughter of the long remembered Governor Alexander Spotswood." Thus "Dolly" was consigned to a "nickname," not a Christian name. In 1909 Ella Kent Barnard published a book devoted to DPM's Quaker background entitled Dorothy Payne, Quakeress; a side-light upon the career of "Dolly" Madison. But in 1914 Allen C. Clark, who was then president of the Columbia Historical Society, published Life and Letters of Dolly Madison, and reverted to the assertion that DPM's real name was Dorothea after Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, although "Dorothea was quickly changed to Dolly."

Thus Dolley became known as Dolly, and by the early 20th century products began to be named "Dolly." Soon there was Dolly Madison Ice Cream and a Dolly Madison Dairy. There were companies producing Dolly Madison luggage, Dolly Madison hats, and Dolly Madison shoes. By the mid 1950s the Encyclopedia Britannica called her Dorothy; the Encyclopedia Americana referred to her as Dolly; and the Reader's Encyclopedia said she was Dorothea. Although the encyclopedic biographer of James Madison, Irving Brant, claimed she was really named Dolley as early as 1950, no one listened.

And then in 1958 the Smithsonian added Dolley Madison's 1809 inaugural gown to its first ladies exhibit. Margaret Brown Klapthor, then associate curator of history at the Smithsonian, believed that the correct spelling of DPM's name was Dolley, but to make sure she contacted the newly-established Papers of James Madison. Was her name Dolly - or Dolley? The staff of the Papers answered resoundingly that Mrs. Madison spelled her name with an "e." The news was important enough in 1958 to make the front page of The New York Times on April 13, and it was noted as well in the April 21 issue of Time Magazine.

New York Times

The Papers of James Madison had settled the issue. Their scholarship was irrefutable, and since then biographers and scholars have spelled her name with an "e." The business world, however, had established their products with copyright and registered their names with trade marks and created their reputations with the use of the name "Dolly." They were not about to change their spelling with the times. And so today we have Dolley Madison the historic figure and Dolly Madison the product name.
Dolly Madison Bakery TrademarkDolly Madison Milk Caps

This leaves us with the question: what's in a name? There is the story of historical accuracy triumphing over legend. But that simply leaves us with the problem of why the myth of "Dolly" arose in the first place.

Her early years are shrouded in mystery and the many blanks have been filled with myths, oral histories, and family legends - some of which were of her own making. In August 1834, she wrote a friend who had been commissioned to write a biographical sketch of her: "My family were all Virginians except myself, who was born on a visit of one year to an Uncle." Eager to be included among the first families of Virginia, Mrs. Madison explained that "their families on both sides, were among the most respectable citizens of the state." The truth is that the Payne family had moved to North Carolina, and that her next oldest brother, William Temple Payne, had been born there too. But DPM wanted to belong to one of Virginia's finest families, and so as she reconstructed her past.

The story of her name is part of that tale. The name "Dolley" is not refined. It was perhaps even a bit silly and girlish and certainly had neither stature nor elegance. So like the story of her birth, her name too was changed. Biographers could not simply refer to her as Mrs. Madison -- they had to tell about the childhood of DPM. They needed a childhood name. But they could, and did, turn the problem into an opportunity. Her niece, Mary E. E. Cutts, first did so in the fragmentary memoir she wrote before her own death in 1854. She explained simply that "the subject of this memoir" was "named Dorothy in compliment to her mother's aunt Mrs. John Henry." But, Ms. Cutts went on, "as she grew up the name was growing out of fashion, so she ever afterwards wrote it Dolley and so she was called." Thus, while Mary E. E. Cutts did not change the spelling of her aunt's name, she did create the myth of Dorothy (or Dorothea). Lucia B. Cutts then took Mary E. E. Cutts memoirs, and cut, bowdlerized, and edited the text into her own published biography. In the process she changed Dolley's name to Dolly. And so it remained until 1958.

Woven into a name are many pictures. There is the portrait of a woman who wanted to be a fine Virginia lady, and not the daughter of a failed planter who manumitted his slaves, moved his family to Philadelphia, and failed again, only this time as a starch merchant. There is the impression of her descendants, who like their ancestor, wished her to have an illustrious, even noble, past. There is the image of her biographers, who like members of the Payne family, desired Mrs. Madison to be great, and believed that a "correct" genealogy would add luster to her name. Contemporary scholars tend often to be interested in the process of the invention - and reinvention - of self, and this story is certainly illustrative of that process. But it contains as well another tale -- the importance of getting the facts correct.