Home > History of Wine > “Marked on the cork”: The identification of James Madison’s wine

“Marked on the cork”: The identification of James Madison’s wine


The Treaty of Ghent marked the end of the War of 1812 which was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain.  The treaty was signed on December 24, 1814, just several months after invading British forces burned the Capitol and President’s House.  Amongst the losses from the burning was the destruction of James Madison’s presidential wine cellar.

President James Madison’s wine orders continued to be shipped after the burning.  One shipment of wine was sent immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.  It consisted of a box, presumably of Bordeaux wine.[1]  This box was placed onboard the U.S. schooner Transit which famously bore a copy of the Treaty of Ghent escorted by Christopher Hughes Jr.  Christopher Hughes Jr. was carrying one of three copies of the treaty that were redundantly sent back to Washington, DC, for signing by Congress.

James Madison's Montpelier.  c. 1914. Image from Wikimedia.

James Madison’s Montpelier. c. 1914. Image from Wikimedia.

The box of wine never made it to President James Madison for it was drunk aboard the schooner.  It was subsequently replaced with wine Christopher Hughes Jr. purchased in Bordeaux.  I suspect he needed extra wine to celebrate the end of war during the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  It would not be by accident that Christopher Hughes Jr. was involved with the consumption of President James Madison’s box of wine.  Christopher Hughes Jr. would have known what he was drinking the President’s wine because the box would have been marked to identify both the shipper of the wine and the recipient.

Wine was kept in “Secure Storage”. Cellar floor plan from James Madison’s Montpelier. URL: http://www.montpelier.org/

The wines of James Madison were transported and stored in both wooden casks and bottles.  His wine was ordered both within America and from Europe.  In both cases the long journey involved stages of transit and storage, both of which could involve loss from theft, adulteration, or damage.  James Madison was aware of this danger and even took the time to write James Monroe to secure his wine against “every species of casualty by land as well as by water”.[2]  The packaging and marking of the wine thus depended upon the container.

A cask of wine contains a hole for filling and draining the wine.  The hole is sealed with a bung or stopper which meant that a thief could pry open the bung to access the wine.  In one instance a cask of James Madison’s wine was drained then “filled up with Water” by seamen.[3]  To prevent such theft James Madison wrote to his father in 1792 that a cask was to be placed inside a wood case to “secure it against fraud”.[4] James Madison continued to employ casing for his casks of fine wine.  His 1807 order of “finest old Madeira wine” involved an extra charge of £1 20s. for each of the cases.[5]  To secure the wine from damage these “strong” casks were “trimmed with twelve iron hoops each”.[6]   While James Madison typically cased his casks his order of two hogsheads of “old Cantenac wine” were placed in “double casks”.[7]  This involved removing the head of a larger, empty cask then slipping the cask of wine inside and padding it, perhaps with straw.

Wine in bottle was shipped in wood boxes.  The boxes held different numbers of bottles no doubt partially dependent upon the bottle being a pint, quart, or flask.  One box of old “Rhenish Wine” contained 60 bottles.[8]  Another shipment that year involved cases of both 30 and 36 bottles.[9]  Improperly packed cases resulted in broken bottles.

Crop of brand from bill of lading. [6]

Crop of brand from bill of lading. [6]

Casks, bottles, and boxes were not marked with paper labels as they are now.  To identify the casks and boxes they would bear both brands and marks.  Together this would distinguish individual wines within a single order as well as the order from the property of others.  Thus the previously mentioned 1807 order of “finest old Madeira wine” was branded with “MYW CO:” for the shipper Murdoch, Yuille, Wardrop & Co. and marked with “JM” for James Madison.  A combined order of Sherry for both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison was marked on the casks and cases with “PX” for President Thomas Jefferson and “M” for James Madison.[10]  The same letter did indicate that “the Young Gentleman” who cased the casks did not look at the marks thus “the Case must therefore be removed from one before it Can be discovered to whom each belongs.”  A later order of “old Madeira wine” involved two casks and one quarter-cask all of which were cased.  The casks were not only marked “JM” and branded “IL Cathcart” but painted.[11] Unfortunately, there is no indication of color!

The Marks for James Madison's cases of white wine and 1798 Ch. Haut-Brion red wine.

The Marks for James Madison’s cases of white wine and 1798 Ch. Haut-Brion red wine.

Wine bottles were marked by other means.  When an order of Madeira in pipes was bottled for both James Madison and James Munroe, a string was tied around James Munroe’s bottles.[12]  It was noted that the dregs of the Madeira from the bottom of the pipes were in bottles that were “corked in the common Way.”  It is possible these bottles only had the corks driven in whereas the other bottles had the corks sealed with wax.  We know James Madison was familiar with wax for his 1802 “white Hermitage wine, Cortillon” bore yellow wax seals.[13]  In one order, the bottles of “Old Chateau Margaux” were “marked with a wafer on the bottom of the bottle.”[14]  It is possible this mark refers to wafer seals that were typically used to seal letters.  They were made from a paste that was often colored, dried, and cut into a circle.  Once wet it could be applied to a surface, in this case the bottom of a wine bottle.  Being that the wines were old the corks could have already been sealed with wax so the wafer was used to distinguish James Madison’s order.  Unfortunately, there are no related documents at Chateau Margaux so we do not know if this was a common or uncommon practice.[15]

It is noted that in the same order the 73 bottles of Clos de Vougeot were “marked on the cork”.  This order took place in 1811 and is a fantastic description because it is the earliest reference I can find to the marking of corks for bottles of wine in America.  From my Murder & Thieves series we know that private individuals were marking their corks as far back as 1762 in London.  The only other early American reference I am aware dates to 1844.[16]

James Madison wine bottle seal. Images from James Madison’s Montpelier. URL: http://www.montpelier.org/

When it came to drinking Madeira, James Madison preferred to drink from a bottle rather than straight from the cask.[17] He would have bottled his wine in the cellar of Montpelier, his Virginia home, or at the President’s House.  These bottles would be stored for some time including one parcel that spent 18 months in his garret at Montpelier.[18]  Archaeological excavations have revealed bottle fragments both from Mount Pleasant, the first Madison family home at Montpelier, and around the second family home, the Montpelier mansion.  James Madison’s father, James Madison Sr., used wine bottles that had personalized glass seals on them.  Some of the seals bore his initials and others his name.  James Madison used wine bottle seals as well.

Unfortunately, we do not know how James Madison organized his bottles.  There are no surviving orders for wine bottles, corks, and sealing wax nor descriptions of how he marked his bottles.  Wine bottle seals were useful in distinguishing privately bottled wine from that which was purchased in bottle.  So it is possible James Madison employed various methods such as color coded wax, chalk marks on bottles, and even tags tied on with strings to identify his own bottled wine.


[1] “To James Madison from William Lee, 6 September 1815,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-4638, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[2] “From James Madison to James Monroe, 20 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0163, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801 and supplement 22 January 1778–9 August 1795, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991, pp. 254–255.
[3] “To James Madison from William Jarvis, 25 February 1809,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-4069, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[4] “From James Madison to James Madison, Sr., 17 April 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0262, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 14, 6 April 1791 – 16 March 1793, ed. Robert A. Rutland and Thomas A. Mason. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983, pp. 290–291.
[5] “To James Madison from Murdoch Yuille Wardrop and Company, 10 January 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-1271, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[6] The James Madison Papers. Murdock,Yuille, Wardrop & Co. to James Madison, January 10, 1807. Bill of lading and copy included. URL: http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mjm/09/0400/0452d.jpg
[7] The James Madison Papers.  William Lee to James Madison, October 4, 1807. Includes two bills of lading and invoices. URL: http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mjm/09/1000/1064d.jpg
[8] “To James Madison from Frederick Jacob Wichelhausen, 4 April 1804 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-07-02-0009, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 7, 2 April–31 August 1804, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Ellen J. Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, and Jeanne Kerr Cross. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005, pp. 4–5.
[9] “To James Madison from William Lee, 20 June 1804 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-07-02-0356, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 7, 2 April–31 August 1804, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Ellen J. Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, and Jeanne Kerr Cross. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005, pp. 344–345.  For the bill of lading see: The James Madison Papers. Robert Hatton, June 19, 1804. Two bills of lading and copy, wine & copper shipments. URL: http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mjm/08/0300/0355d.jpg
[10] “To James Madison from Chandler Price, 14 December 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-08-02-0399, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 8, 1 September 1804 – 31 January 1805 and supplement 1776 – 23 June 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 378.
[11] The James Madison Papers.  James Leander Cathcart to James Madison, August 13, 1810. Invoice and Bill of lading. URL: http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mjm/12/0500/0539d.jpg
[12] “To James Madison from James Yard, 28 October 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0277, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801 and supplement 22 January 1778–9 August 1795, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991, pp. 429–430.
[13] “To James Madison from Stephen Cathalan, Jr., 5 November 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-1043, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[14] “Account with Joel Barlow, 12 June 1811 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-03-02-0395, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 3 November 1810–4 November 1811, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 340.
[15] Per email from Johana Loubet, External Relations Manager, Chateau Margaux. October 21, 2014.
[16] Date: Wednesday, September 11, 1844      Paper: Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA)   Page: 3
[17] “From James Madison to Francis Corbin, 28 May 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-01-02-0051, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1817 – 31 January 1820, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 52–53.
[18] “From James Madison to Isaac Hite, 15 December 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-08-02-0403, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 8, 1 September 1804 – 31 January 1805 and supplement 1776 – 23 June 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 381.

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