In his time out of the public spotlight, Jefferson pursued an astonishing array of interests, from math and the natural sciences to classical history and Native American culture. He loved new technologies and often improved on items already in existence, such as the copying machine known as the polygraph.
He read in six languages besides English, including Greek and Latin, and amassed one of early America’s greatest libraries, keeping nearly 1,000 volumes at Poplar Forest alone.
While staying at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson kept a schedule very similar to the one he had kept most of his life when he was not a public servant. He awakened before dawn, took an early breakfast, and planned for the day. He spent his mornings horseback riding, reading, or writing. Jefferson maintained a library at Poplar Forest of more than 1,000 books in a variety of languages. Aesop, Virgil, Homer, Plato, Moliere, and Shakespeare were a few of the authors whose works were found in Jefferson’s Poplar Forest library. He also kept a portable polygraph in the parlor that he used to make copies of the letters and documents that he wrote. Some of the letters Jefferson wrote from Poplar Forest pertained to his business operations. He also wrote to family and friends.
Dinner was usually between three and four o’clock. He dined with his family when they accompanied him. He also occasionally invited neighbors to join him for a meal. Neighbors often brought gifts of food such as asparagus, cider, homemade cheese, fruits, cakes, and even bear cub meat for the table. Sometimes Jefferson bought chickens or turkeys from his enslaved workers. Jefferson spent late afternoons talking with family members or strolling around the property.
His granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia Randolph visited Poplar Forest regularly from 1816-1823. Jefferson wrote that “about twilight of the evening, we sally out with the owls and bats and take our evening exercise on the terras,” referring the flat roof of the wing. After tea in the early evening, Jefferson might read before retiring at ten.
A letter by his granddaughter Ellen to author Henry S. Randall in 1856 is considered by many to be one of the most detailed first-person accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s daily life at Poplar Forest.