Spot the Differences: Tools of the Trade

The end of the 2020 dig season at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm last October required we tidy up of all our tools used during the excavation.  We cleaned and stored away the multiple shovels, trowels, and wheel barrels used at the site and hauled the sifting screens back to the shed. We also securely covered the individual features and the overall site with tarp to protect them from the winter weather and roaming animals. The very last bit of cleaning was in the lab – sorting through all our toolboxes and restocking them for the next season.

Our photo illustrates the wide variety of tools we used every day in the field as we dug and recorded our findings. Can you spot fifteen differences between the two photos below? Click on each photo to enlarge it. The first photo is the original while the second photo has been altered in 15 ways.

Original photo
Altered photo

See what changes were made here.

“Dined at the City Tavern”

Christmas in the 18th century was celebrated quite differently than it is today. Unlike today, one of  the most important (and wildest) celebrations of the season took place on January 6th, or Epiphany. Also known as Twelfth Night, this holiday is more comparable to our present-day New Year’s celebrations in style and entertainment. Our stereotypical views of a supposedly refined time period perhaps conjure up images of classy champagne toasts and highly intellectual conversations. However, much like the Christmas season itself, 18th century parties and dinners any time of the year were actually quite different from that stereotype.

On September 14, 1787 George Washington wrote in his journal:

“Friday 14th.  Attended Convention. Dined at the City Tavern, at an entertainmt. given on my acct. by the City light Horse. Spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths.”

It appears he enjoyed a simple enough dinner at City Tavern in Philadelphia after a day of Constitutional planning, right? Washington was famous; certainly everywhere he went, people provided “an entertainment” in his honor. As you look more into this event, you find that Washington’s simple diary entries may not always reveal the whole story of what happened.

City Tavern as it appeared about 1800 from an engraving by William Birch. This print dates from 1850. Credit: New York Public Library.

In this entry, he notes the City Light Horse honoring him at the tavern. The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia was founded in 1774. They fought with General Washington throughout the war, including at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine.  They were part of the icy-cold crossing of the Delaware and the snow-covered winter at Valley Forge. In fact, although operating under a new name, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry remains intact today as a private military organization whose members all must serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Due to its close relationship with George Washington, the troop jumped at the chance to show him its appreciation at the tavern as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close. According to Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the bar tab sent to the City Light Horse remains in the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Archives. Here is the transcription of the bill:

Courtesy of Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

As you can see, the total comes to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence. According to the Bank of England, given inflation and changes over time, today this would be approximately £14,083 or around $18,471.

While that sticker price is shocking enough, as we inspect the bill a little more, we notice what all was purchased for the gathering. There are four separate categories on the bill. The bottom section is the fee for the musicians to play. The next section up lists 16 bottles of claret, 5 bottles of madeira, and 7 bowls of punch drunk by the 16 servants and musicians.  Next, comes a line for items broken at the gathering.

Finally, the top section of the bill deals with 55 guests, all men, who were the main party at City Tavern. The men ordered dinner and several different beverages. First, fifty-four bottles of madeira, probably Washington’s drink of choice. Throughout his life, Washington was said to favor this type of fortified wine from the Madeira islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and a frequent stop for merchant ships travelling between Europe and America in the 18th century. Many prominent families in America took a liking to the wine, as it was relatively easy to obtain. According to records at Mount Vernon, Washington ordered Madeira by the pipe, a large, elongated barrel that held about 126 gallons of wine. Often, he ordered multiple pipes at a time. Today, you can still purchase Madeira wine, but be cautious as it runs 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Similar to its brother, Port, Madeira is often used in cooking and is a staple of French cuisine today.

Next, the sixty bottles of Claret were a French-style wine also popular in America in the 18th century. While Madeira came in both sweet and dry varieties, Claret was typically a dry, dark red. Claret is not a fortified wine like Madeira, meaning it is lighter and only around 13-15 percent alcohol by volume.

The list notes that the gentlemen also consumed eight bottles of “Old Stock”, a term used for whiskey at the time. Perhaps throughout his time as General and President, nights like September 14, 1787 convinced Washington to create his own whiskey distillery later in life. By 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon was one of the most profitable in the country. During the colonial era, it was not customary to age whiskey. The spirits produced at Mount Vernon, as well as, that served at City Tavern were practically straight from the still.

Whiskey mash in the reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon. Credit: Elizabeth Hosier.

The porter, cider, and beer listed on the bill are all similar to the alcohols we call porter, cider, and beer today. Porter was a very popular style of beer in both England and America. In fact, the style was so popular, Washington had his own recipe for it to be produced at Mount Vernon.

Lastly, the list claims the gentlemen also went through seven large bowls of punch. Punch recipes varied from tavern to tavern and from house to house in colonial days, but they were typically rum or whiskey-based and often contained more than one type of alcohol. You can read much more about punch and how it was served here and about Mary Washington’s punch bowl here.

With all this drink flowing, we might conclude this was quite a raucous party, but these were rather typical evenings for the people of the 18th century. Keep in mind that water was not always drinkable due to bacteria, they didn’t always have access to fruit to make fresh juice, and certainly soda wasn’t around yet! They were left with few options: tea, coffee, or booze.

Washington returned to the Convention and by the end of the day after the party, the delegates had finished. Copies of the document were ordered, and just two days later, they signed the Constitution of the United States on Monday, September 17, 1787. Washington stated in his journal:

“The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

What happened that night at City Tavern? Unfortunately, no bill from this night survives to give us any clarification, but Washington provides a hint of just how much steam the delegates needed to blow off. The entry in his journal continued that he returned to his lodgings and:

“retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.”

Momentous work, indeed.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Making Eggnog

Eggnog is a staple drink during the holiday season. Historians debate the exact ancestry of eggnog but most agree that it originated from early medieval “posset”, a hot, milky, ale-like drink.  Eventually, expensive and rare ingredients like eggs, sherry, brandy and Madeira were added and the drink became the trademark of the upper class.

During the 18th century, eggnog found its way across the Atlantic to British North America.  However, since brandy and wine were heavily taxed, colonists substituted more cost-effective alcohol like rum, domestic whiskey, bourbon, and even home-made moonshine.  With access to inexpensive liquor and plenty of fresh eggs and dairy products, the popularity of eggnog soared in the colonies.

Given his connection to numerous myths, it is unsurprising that a “George Washington’s Eggnog Recipe” falsely claimed to be written by Washington himself circulates widely on the Internet.  As popular as the drink was in the 1700s, he certainly drank it and served it to others but “no recipe penned by Washington appears in George or Martha Washingtons’ papers nor in the cookbook that Martha inherited from her first marriage nor in her personal copy of The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, which was the most popular English cookbook in America in the latter half of the 18th century (published in 1747).”

Nevertheless, we decided to make an eggnog using this mythical Washington recipe.  Given the ingredients, I think you might understand why.  Moreover, although it originally dates from the 19th century, it certainly could have been made a century earlier.

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

This potent mixture creates a classic colonial eggnog. Purists who argue that store-bought versions can’t hold a candle to the homemade goodness will be quite satisfied.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

The Christmastime Escape of Stephen and Guile

“My Dear Brother, I wish you to give Howell some advice how to Proseed in regard to two Negroes that Runaway from me a few days before Christmas…”

With those words in the early spring of 1794, Betty Lewis informed her brother, George Washington, of a difficult situation.  She also provided us with a few clues about the identities of two more members of the enslaved community at Kenmore during the Lewis era, and a larger story of resistance and survival.

Betty wrote the letter quoted above from Kenmore on February 9, 1794.  By that time, Betty’s financial situation was precarious at best.  Her land was not producing a crop that could support her, her debts were mounting, and although all of her grown children were living on their own, she was caring for at least two grandchildren and one niece, all living under her roof.  Her youngest son, Howell (mentioned in the letter) actually lived on his own property in Frederick County, and handled much of his mother’s farming and land affairs on occasional visits to Kenmore.  Betty would only remain at Kenmore for another two years before moving to a small farmhouse outside of town, much to the relief of her children.  Her letter goes on to describe the runaway slaves as “the Principal hands on the Plantation,” and continues, “…the hole Crop I made the last year was thirty Barrils of Corn and a Hundred and tenn Bushels of Wheat, if I am so unfortunate as not to get them (the runaways) again, I have no chance to make any thing the insuing year.”

Who were these two men, and what can we learn about their situation? It turns out that the letter from Betty to George is only the first of several surviving documents connected to this story.  On March 25, 1794 – more than 3 months after the men ran away from Kenmore – Betty placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for their return.  The ad provides us with their names: Stephen and Guile.  Stephen’s name is not in any of the four original primary documents that began our Enslaved Community Project (click here to read more about these documents and our research into other members of the enslaved community), which tells us he was likely acquired by the Lewis family after Fielding Lewis’s death in 1781, and may have been rather new to the community at the time of his escape.  Guile, on the other hand, was listed in Fielding’s probate inventory as “Guyle” and valued at £50.  The 1782 Divvy List, written by Betty Lewis after her husband’s death to show which enslaved persons were to go to each of her children, shows that Guile was 9 years of age at that time (so he was approximately 21 years old at the time of his escape).  He had most likely been at Kenmore for his entire life. 

As is often the case with runaway slave advertisements, which were incredibly detailed, this document also provides the only physical descriptions that we have of any enslaved person at Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Stephen is said to be a “black fellow,” about 24 years old, around 5’8” tall, and could play the violin very well.  Betty also described him as “very impertinent and talkative.” Guile was said to have a “yellowish complexion,” about six feet tall and “large in proportion.”  He also had a long scar under his right eye Betty added that he had a “down look and very little to say.” Betty summed up her thoughts on the two men by saying Stephen “…is an artful fellow and I am inclined to think he has induced the other fellow Guile to accompany him.”[1]

Newspaper advertisement placed in the Virginia Gazette on March 25, 1794 by Betty Lewis offering a $20 reward for the returned of runaways Stephen and Guile.

Apparently sometime between writing to her brother in February about the escape, and placing the advertisement in March, Betty had learned a bit more about the two men’s plans.  In her letter to George, Betty speculates that they were most likely headed for Philadelphia, where they probably believed they could gain their freedom.  When Pennsylvania enacted The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, Philadelphia became a center of abolition and activism as well as a major hub for the Underground Railroad.  Many enslaved persons who made the risky decision to flee the South headed for Philadelphia, so Betty’s speculation was justified.  However, in her newspaper ad, Betty changed her opinion, and stated that she had, “reason to believe that they are on the way to Maryland, if not already there – Stephen was formerly the property of Mr. Sprigg, in the neighborhood of Annapolis, and may now be lurking about his negro quarters.”[2] How Betty came into this information is unknown, but it suggests that Stephen may have had a reason beyond freedom for running away.  By choosing to head for Maryland instead of Philadelphia, Stephen indicated that there might be something at his old home in Annapolis drawing him back, possibly a wife or other family members who he was separated from when he came to Kenmore.  The Mr. Sprigg mentioned in the advertisement was most likely Richard Sprigg of Strawberry Hill, near Annapolis.  He was an associate of George Washington’s and frequently corresponded with him, usually about breeding cocker spaniels and mules, and wildlife for game parks.  No apparent connection has been found between Sprigg and Betty Lewis, but evidently Betty acquired one of his enslaved workers. 

If you’ve been following along with the dates of these documents thus far, you might have noticed that a rather long period of time elapsed between the time the men supposedly ran away, and the time Betty first mentioned taking any action on the matter to her brother.  According to the newspaper ad, Stephen and Guile made their escape just before Christmas on December 20,1793.  Betty didn’t mention it to her brother for more than a month, on February 9.  That seems a long time to wait, when she was supposedly so concerned for the future of her property without the labor of the two men.  What could account for it?

There’s actually a fairly good chance that Betty wasn’t aware of the escape for quite some time after it had happened.  The Christmas season was a popular time among the colonial enslaved population to attempt escapes.  To understand why, we have to take a look at what exactly the Christmas season was like for enslaved communities.  First, it is important to understand that there was no one common practice or tradition for the Christmas season amongst the enslaved population in 18th century America.  Customs and rules varied greatly by region, by town, and even from one plantation to the next.  Generally speaking, most masters gave their workforce some time off during the holiday season.  In most written accounts from the period, it seems the amount of time varied between 1 day and a full week, with the most common allotment being 3 days.[3]  During that time, enslaved people were often granted unusual amounts of personal freedom.  They could sometimes be allowed to travel to visit friends or family members on neighboring farms, they could plan their own gatherings or celebrations, and they could take part in gift-giving and receiving, even with the master’s family.[4] 

However, time off wasn’t equally distributed between members of the same community.  Because of the winter season, field hands and manual laborers got the bulk of free time, as there was simply less for them to do at that time of year.  House slaves, however, saw their workload double and triple with the holiday influx of visitors, household preparations, meals, etc.  This was the case for people like Billy and Charlotte, two enslaved individuals at Kenmore who we’ve met in this post and this post.  As the household butler, Billy’s work was nearly unceasing during the season, overseeing all of the food procurement and preparations, taking care of the needs of any visitors staying in the house, and coordinating all of the arrangements for holiday parties and balls, including the culminating celebration on Twelfth Night.  Charlotte, a seamstress, was most likely inundated with making, remaking and repairing all the Lewis family clothing needed for the season’s many special occasions.  Other enslaved individuals at Kenmore known to us from this post and hired out to other farms or businesses, like the rope makers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph, could anticipate a return to Kenmore at the Christmas season.  Most of the agreements Betty Lewis and her sons made for the hiring out of their enslaved workers were for up to a year and often terminated at Christmastime.  For those workers, there might have been some joy in the prospect of returning to a familiar home, family and friends.

In Betty Lewis’s letter to her brother George, she refers to Stephen and Guile as the “principal hands” of her farming operation, indicating that they were not house slaves and therefore were probably among those granted more free time during the Christmas holiday of 1793.  Because of this free time, and because owners and overseers were otherwise occupied, Stephen and Guile may have had their best chance during the year to escape.  And because they weren’t expected back on the property or to be performing specific jobs for quite some time, their departure might go unnoticed, giving them a sizeable head start.  It may have been several weeks before Betty knew that she had lost two important assets to her income, and it was obviously several months before she had enough information to place an ad for their return in the newspaper.

So what became of Stephen and Guile? Did they make it to freedom in Philadelphia? Was Stephen reunited with family in Maryland? As it happens there is one more document in the Kenmore archives that may provide a clue as to how their story ends.  On June 4, 1793, about three months after Betty placed her ad in the Virginia Gazette for the return of Stephen and Guile, she entered into an agreement with her step son John Lewis.  According to a fragmented bill of sale written in John’s hand, he agreed to sell Betty two of his slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for the bargain price of £140.[5]

Fragmented bill of sale from John Lewis to Betty Lewis selling two slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for £140.

The two men were among a group of ten enslaved people originally gifted to John Lewis as a wedding present from his father many years earlier.  It is the only documented occasion on which Betty purchased any enslaved person following her husband’s death, and the only time such a purchase was made from one of her children, most likely indicating that it was a rare occurrence, perhaps made necessary by an emergency situation.  The timing of the transaction seems to suggest that John sold Reuben and Lewis to Betty to help her make up for the loss of Stephen and Guile.  Neither of the runaways’ names show up in the list of enslaved people sold at vendu following Betty Lewis’s death, and no further mention of the incident was made in Betty’s correspondence with her brother George.  Taken together, all of this evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Stephen and Guile were never recaptured, and they never returned to Kenmore.  Perhaps their Christmastime escape was a success.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations


[1] Advertisement, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon. 25 March 1794.  Copy in Kenmore Manuscript Collection, PH677.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. “The Time O’ All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South.” Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (1998): 265.

[4] Ibid, 263-88.

[5] Bill of sale, Lewis, John to Betty Lewis, 4 June 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 385.

Appearance is Everything: Mary Washington and Her Specialized Ceramics of Gentility – Some Seriously Fancy Dishes!

The story of Mary Ball Washington is one of overcoming a lifetime of adversity.  Often overshadowed by her larger than life son George, Mary’s place in history fluctuated from saint to shrew with many historians ignoring the obstacles she faced and overcame.  The archaeological record sheds light on some of the strategies Mary used to navigate her way through mid-18th century life as a widow while trying to maintain her own social status and that of her children.  Fragments of highly-specialized ceramics excavated at Ferry Farm, the plantation Mary called home for much of her life, speaks to her efforts.

Specialized dishes are those designed for a very specific job unlike, say, a bowl which is multi-purpose.  We have uncovered evidence of many dishes Mary owned that fulfilled single tasks.  These type of ceramics are a sign of gentility. Most households could not afford these items and likely did not possess the resources to make the food and drink that they were designed to hold. 

As the 18th century progressed, so did dining habits. Increasingly, people of means gravitated toward dinners with multiple courses of entrees, appetizers, beverages, and deserts. Previously, most meals consisted of large one-pot creations with multiple ingredients.  In order to pull course cooking off, one required the specialized dishes designed for serving multiple courses. 

One prime example of such specialized dishes from Ferry Farm is Mary’s elaborately decorated creamware sauce boats.  The sauce boats are a luxury in and of themselves. They’re highly decorated and were very fashionable at the time.  Not only were they expensive, but they showed that Mary had the refinement to serve her guests the fancy sauces being introduced into colonial cooking.  They also indicated that she had a trained kitchen staff of enslaved workers capable of executing these new and intricate recipes. You never thought a sauce boat could hold so much meaning, did you?

Portion of a highly-decorated creamware sauce boat that belonged to Mary Washington.

Fragments of an extremely fancy white salt glazed fruit dish are further examples of Mary’s calculated purchasing of dishes.  Previously written about here and here, this dish was meant to display fruit, another luxury in the 18th century. Being able to afford non-local or out-of-season fruit was a status symbol and necessitated the proper dish to proudly display the fruit.  To put the rarity of fruit in perspective, in colonial America, pineapples were so expensive you could rent one for display at parties in the holiday season because most people couldn’t afford to buy one outright.  While renting a fruit may seem ridiculous to modern readers, the action highlights just how important being seen to own certain items was during the colonial era. Of course, we still engage in this same behavior today, but just not with pineapples.

Fragments of a white salt-glazed fruit dish excavated at Ferry Farm and a complete example from the collection at Kenmore (above).

Ferry Farm archaeologists also excavated fragments of two creamware condiment dishes.  Once again, the ability to serve various condiments to dinner guests conveyed status.  Condiments could include relishes, dips, mustards, ketchups (mushroom ketchup being the preferred type), and pickled vegetables such as capers.  Castor sets were also a way to serve other condiments such as olive oil, vinegar, pepper, etc. Generally, these castor sets were only owned by well-to-do households in the colonial period. The base of a creamware castor was recovered at Ferry Farm.

Creamware castor base excavated at Ferry Farm.

The fact that so many of Mary’s specialized ceramics are made of creamware should also be noted.  Creamware was invented in 1762 and wasn’t the most expensive type of ceramic (that was porcelain) but it was highly fashionable.  Mary, as a widow with five children and a diminished income following her husband’s death, likely couldn’t afford much porcelain. She opted for the less expensive but still highly-desirable creamware, instead.

The Washington family went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to visiting friends, neighbors, and relatives.  At Ferry Farm, this burden fell solely on Mary after the death of her husband.  Her specialized ceramics served to illustrate her place within the gentry class despite her diminished income and refusal to remarry after being widowed.  Her goal was to remain independent while raising five children to be successful adults and members of the Virginia gentry class.  In doing so, she likely realized that the socioeconomic security of her children would ensure her own into the future as well. Consequently, it was important that Mary cultivate a refined household with appropriate table and teawares. Ceramic artifacts from Ferry Farm reveal a woman who carefully selected choice ceramics to perform very specific tasks, while at the same time not overextending her budget.  These ceramics contributed to her goal of remaining a part of the gentry class and teaching her children genteel habits so they could do the same. It was a task in which she overwhelmingly succeeded.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

We Really Dig History!: 2020 Excavation at Ferry Farm

After a delay of five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, archaeological excavations in the Washington house work yard at George Washington’s Ferry Farm got underway in mid-August and finished on October 30.  Despite the cancellation of a planned spring field school with archaeological students from the University of South Florida, a crew of four paid interns and two college students helped make up the labor difference and our work commenced.

Our 2020 project continued last year’s exploration of the Washington-era work yard.  This area located to the east of the house is where the everyday activities of a busy colonial household took place.  Permanent structures such as a kitchen, dairy, smokehouse, storage sheds, office, laundry, temporary workspaces, and landscape features like gardens were concentrated in this area near the house but out of view of the public eye and the formal riverfront side of the house. Evidence of these buildings and work areas, in conjunction with the trash generated from their associated daily activities, is of the utmost importance in our planned authentic recreation of Ferry Farm’s Washington-era landscape. 

Location of the 2019-2020 archaeological dig.

In addition to reopening the unfinished 2019 excavation site, we opened fourteen new 5 foot x 5 foot units directly north, revealing a total of 800 square feet. Our approach to excavating was the same as in previous years – remove the 20th century layers, then the 19th century layers, and so on, across the entire site, allowing us to view related features at the same time.

2019 and 2020 excavation site.
Visitors to the site interact with the excavators.

We uncovered numerous new features dating from the 20th century back into prehistoric Native American times. Modern gas and electric lines crisscrossed the site on their way to a now-demolished early 20th century house. They cut through multiple historic layers and sometimes through intact earlier features.  Eighteenth century features we excavated included a large, circular, flat-bottomed pit, 5 feet in diameter. The pit’s purpose is still under investigation. A 10-foot long linear feature, obviously related to last year’s still unknown Features 274 and 275, was also found just to their northwest, adding to their mystery.

Feature 285 – Historic large circular pit with a 5’ diameter
Feature 283 – Historic linear feature, similar to Features 274 and 275 found in 2019
2019 Features 274 and 275

An especially exciting discovery this year was uncovering a large post mold and post hole in the southern end of the site.  The posthole indicates the presence of a post-in-ground structure and excavations next year will try to reveal more of this building. Adding another outbuilding to the Washington landscape would be very exciting.

Feature 288 – Post mold and Posthole located at southern edge of the site

Hundreds of artifacts, of course, were collected during our three-month dig, including wig curler fragments, Native American projectile points, and Civil War bullets. We also found lots of historic ceramics and glass and architectural items, including this stoneware pot base fragment wrapped within a large tree root pictured below. 

Stoneware fragment encased within a root.
A sample of artifacts found one day ranging in age from the 21st century to the Prehistoric era.
One of eighteen wig curlers found during this year’s dig.

The upcoming winter months will be spent washing and cataloging all the artifacts recovered across the site, drawing the features and site maps, and writing reports. The site is securely covered for the season and will wait for us until the next dig starts, hopefully in the spring.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

How to Do Archaeology During a Pandemic

Like so many of you, in the middle of March this year, nearly all employees of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore began working from home and did not return to our offices for two and a half months.  We expected a lengthy time away and, as such, prepared as best we could for the change.  For some departments, the change mainly involved figuring out access to digital files but, since our jobs revolve around physical artifacts, we archaeologists had to do a little improvising.

The ‘wet lab’ where artifacts are washed before cataloging and analysis sits quietly unused at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

First, while it’s normally not a “best practice” to take artifacts home, we really had no choice if we were going to remain productive.  This meant I as archaeology lab supervisor and that Elyse and Judy, archaeology lab technicians , all had to create what essentially amounted to an a archaeology lab in each of our homes.  Elyse and Judy need space to wash, label, and catalogue artifacts while I needed space to analyze artifacts while simultaneously keeping them away from my extremely inquisitive preschooler! I mostly succeeded in that last task. Elyse actually enlisted the help of her older and amazing daughter June with washing artifacts.  As so many of us found out in 2020, working and parenting from home is not easy but Elyse and I adapted well, I think.

Elyse Adams, archaeology lab technician, and her daughter June wash artifacts at home.

It should also be noted, however, that keeping artifacts away from all of our many, many dogs and cats proved challenging as well.   While my cats were thrilled (well, as thrilled as cats can get, at least) that I was home all day, they were occasionally of the opinion that the Washington-era porcelain sherds I was researching looked much better on the floor.

Despite these challenges, we got the job done and eventually returned to the lab at Ferry Farm having accomplished quite a bit.

Life inside Ferry Farm’s archaeology lab looks quite different now, too, compared to this time in 2019. Since the lab is relatively close quarters, we instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule, spaced our work areas out as much as possible, and started taking temperatures every day.  Our beloved volunteers have not come back (Shout out to our volunteers! You guys are awesome!) because we needed to limit the number of people working in the lab to only myself, Elyse, and Judy.

One of the coolest features of our lab is the huge viewing window through which visitors could see real live archaeologists at work.  While Ferry Farm is now open to the public for tours, the visitor center remains closed and there’s no longer any inquisitive folks peering at us through the glass. It’s a surprisingly lonely feeling not to glance up from our work occasionally to see visitors watching what we’re doing.  We also put a temporary halt on lab tours that we do occasionally during special events or children’s camps at Ferry Farm.  Both of these changes are a bummer because we really liked the interaction we had with visitors. That being said, we’re optimistic that someday life will return to normal eventually and we’ll be able to share our lab with the public once again.  When that time does finally comes, please visit and check out the archaeology lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. We miss you!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

When a Spoon is More Than a Spoon: The Initialed Teaspoon of Betty Washington

One of the most exciting and important discoveries archaeologists have made at Ferry Farm is a pewter teaspoon baring the initials B.W.  It belonged to Betty Washington.  This spoon was part of a set that trained her to oversee the extremely important tea ceremony.

Serving tea in the 18th century was more than an act of providing a mid-afternoon refreshment or a small meal to family and guests.  Tea time, with its prescribed social behaviors and ritualistic customs of service, symbolized gentility and civility, and was an expression of social class.[1]  As an imported good, tea was initially an expensive commodity used only by the upper and middle classes of society.  In addition to the tea, a proper hostess also had to purchase the accouterments of the tea ceremony, such as teapots, cups and saucers, slop and sugar bowls, milk jugs, silverware, and a suitable tea table for presentation.  The cost of these accessories, as well as the time and decorous social habits needed to prepare, serve, and entertain family and guests, meant that the tea ceremony was more a custom of the elite leisure classes, who had the time and money to do such things. 

As a restricted custom, the tea ceremony transformed into an indicator of class and gentility, and consequently, its “social and cultural significance increased enormously.”[2]  Rules governing the behavior of the participants, including the host, family and guests, were understood by all and represented learned standards of civility. Politeness and courtesy were important, and deference was made to the hostess in terms of the pace and content of conversation.  Even the act of serving tea was ceremonial in nature. Seated at her tea table, the hostess made, poured, and distributed an individualized cup of tea for each guest, who received it in a gracious manner.  It was a “small personal ceremony” that “epitomized the giving that was at the heart of hospitality.”[3]

Two ladies and an officer seated at tea (1715) by unknown artist.
Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

The tea ceremony was a gendered activity almost exclusively performed by and associated with the women of the household, who selected the teaware that they used in the ceremony[4] A household’s leading female figure, often the wife or oldest daughter, predominantly oversaw the service of tea to family members and guests, emphasizing her position of authority within the household and the gathered social circle.  As such, women used the opportunity to express their gentility and respectability.[5]

Teatime also supplied a moment to maintain and cultivate important social ties within the community.[6]  Neighbors, business and political associates, and potential suitors met over a convivial small meal and discussed important matters.

Teatime was also an opportunity to teach the younger generation, especially girls, how to act and behave during this social encounter.[7] As a future wife in charge of her household, it was essential for women, such as Mary Washington’s daughter Betty, to know how to successfully conduct this unique social custom and be able to demonstrate her inclusion and influence in the community elite.[8]  Betty was trained in the art of tea making, as is evidenced by the archaeological presence of a pewter teaspoon bearing her initials at Ferry Farm.  Monogrammed just for Betty, the teaspoon was part of a beginners tea set used by a young lady to train for many future tea times to come.

Betty Washington Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s uncle Joseph Ball also sent her a silver tea set when she was a teenage girl, further enforcing her future role.[9]  The importance of properly entertaining guests with such tea equipage cannot be overstated, but in addition to this, Betty’s learning how to elegantly serve tea was a must for her prospects as the future wife of a well-off gentleman.  One can imagine a teenage Betty serving tea gracefully to her future husband, Fielding Lewis, having practiced diligently with her pewter and silver tea sets.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist


[1] Woodruff Smith, Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 173; Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 275.

[2] Smith, 172.

[3] Vickery, 273.

[4] Annie Gray, “‘The Proud Air of an Unwilling Slave’: Tea, Women and Domesticity, c.1700-1900,” in Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public, ed. Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood,  23-43 (New York: Springer, 2013), 28; Smith, 174.

[5] Smith, 173.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, 174.

[8] Laura Galke, “The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits, Northeast Historical Archaeology 38 (2009): 29-48.

[9] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of Eighteenth-Century Fredericksburg. (Fredericksburg, VA: The American History Publishing Company, 1998), 68.

More Than Meets the Eye: What Their Portraits Say About the Lewis Family

On walls of the Historic Kenmore’s drawing room hang two large portraits of a man and a woman.  The man is an older gentleman in a serene outdoor setting, looking quite dignified and sober in a brownish knee-length jacket, knee breeches and long waistcoat. His eyes rest on the portrait viewer, one hand on moss-covered rocks, the other on his hip, and his head turned slightly to his left.  Across the room, the woman sits at a slight profile with her head turned to her left to face the portrait viewer. She wears a billowing blue and white dress and holds two pink roses in her right hand while her left arm casually sits on a marble top table. She is indoors with what appear to be some drapes billowing behind her. The man and woman are Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, the owners of Kenmore.

Fielding and Betty’s portraits were commissioned by the couple and painted by prolific colonial artist John Wollaston in the 1750s.  On the surface, these paintings are just two genial portraits that provide us with visual records of the heads of the family. Through the subtle symbolism, however, they also tell a larger story of how Fielding and Betty wished to be portrayed publically to their contemporaries as well as to posterity.

Portraits first became a popular mode of expression for the aristocracy and the wealthy during the Renaissance.  These paintings were usually large scale affairs meant to be displayed and seen by the public.  The paintings depicted people with expensive goods, fine cloth, rare flowers, and exotic pets. Whether the portraits’ subjects actually owned these items was less important than the suggestion including the items made. In fact, these paintings were filled with symbolism–images, objects, or colors representing ideas and that allow the artist to go beyond the obvious to create links between otherwise different concepts.  A color can depict character, a flower personality and a fabric economic status.[1]

Through symbolism, portraits were used to reflect social status, wealth, success, power and cultural refinement.  A portrait’s details were integral to the story of the painting and many factors had to be taken into account.  Aspects such as artist, style, background, color, fabric, and accessories all needed to be discussed to create the portrayal desired by the patron.[2]

Centuries after the Renaissance, the importance of portraiture as a record of status and position in society had not changed and the custom had become more popular outside of the aristocracy as well as outside of Europe.  Even in faraway British North America, the wealth of the gentry, or upper class, desired portraits to show their status and position. Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, members of the gentry with a wealthy business in Atlantic World trade, were no exception. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis wanted to portray themselves as socially refined not only to cement their place in the community but to allow for a continued rise in their status.  Accordingly, they sat for portraits by John Wollaston.

Fielding Lewis (c. 1753-1758) by John Wollaston.

The most noticeable thing about Fielding’s portrait is the muted colors used in the background and in his clothing.  One of the most visually striking symbols in portraits was the colors used to represent the subject.  While color may not have inherent meaning, it can be made meaningful through context.  The colors in the background, clothing, and accessories all relate to the overall message or story being told by the artist. The browns, greens, and beiges in Fielding’s portrait create a natural and relaxed atmosphere.  The nature background is a stylized classical bucolic setting that helps strike a balance between Fielding’s muted clothing palette and the landscape setting.  The woodland glen signifies a natural sincerity that, when mixed with the brown and beige of his ensemble, creates the feeling of calmness, reliability, dependability and an earthy richness.  All of these traits are important for a successful merchant.  Fielding was telling visitors to his house that he was a person they could do business with and trust.[3]

Betty Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s portrait uses color, context, fabric and an accessory to illustrate her own geniality and her family’s affluence, for not only as a Lewis but as a Washington as well.  The background around Betty, who is at the center of the portrait, offers hints of this grandeur with brown walls and a heavy brown billowing curtain creating a frame of luxurious richness.  To add to the opulence, Betty is poised with her arm resting on an ornate Rococo-style marble top table with heavily carved gold legs.  The portrait conveys that she can afford such ornamental comforts.  Next to the table, Betty in her flowy blue and white satin dress with a pair of roses resting on her right knee is the focus.  Blue was a popular color for ladies and was common in many portraits painted by Wollaston. The color gives the sitter not only an air of peace and calmness but also of restraint and intelligence. The satin denotes a luxury and fashion available to only those with means. Meanwhile, the pink rose tells of Betty’s grace, beauty and gentility.  Overall, the portrait depicts a sophisticated and refined 18th century woman, a wife and mother who adds balance and depth to her husband’s trustworthiness and professionalism.[4]

Fielding and Betty did not stop with portraits of themselves.  About twenty years after sitting for John Wollaston, they commissioned famed painter Charles Willson Peale to produce several portraits of their offspring.  There are two in Kenmore’s collection.

John Lewis (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

One of these Peale portraits depicts John Lewis, the eldest son of Fielding and his first wife, Catharine who sits with one hand on his hip and one hand on a book.  The posture gives John a sense of self-assurance and capability.  Unlike his father’s subdued color palette, John’s jacket and waistcoat are an amazing red with gold detailing.  The red paired with the gold creates warmth but also projects a sense of power, strength and confidence.  The book in his the left hand gives an air of knowledge and awareness.

Fielding Lewis Jr (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

The second Peale portrait in the collection depcits Fielding Lewis Jr., the eldest son of Fielding and Betty, striking a very traditional pose with a hand tucked in his jacket and a slight tilt of the head.  The pose is welcoming, kind and is the embodiment of a thoughtful young gentleman.  Much like his father he chose a subdued color palette with an earthy reddish-brown jacket and goldish yellow waistcoat, which convey a sense of reliability, stability and affability.  The brown background adds a natural simplicity with soothing warmth.   Additionally, like his brother, there is a well-read book by his side indicating a sense of learning and mindfulness.  This portrait’s symbolism reflects the more aspirational messages in these paintings as Fielding, Jr. struggled with money problems for most of his life and even ended up in debtors’ prison.

Later portraits in Kenmore’s collection contain other fascinating symbolism that tells the stories of the paintings’ subjects. These portraits visually record family history or emphasize familial connections.

Eleanor Rosalie Tucker (1818) by unknown artist.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor Rosalie Tucker, the great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty, is painted in characteristic neoclassical style with direct lighting, soft features, rosy cheeks and a roundness of the face.  The white muslin gown gives the young girl a purity and serenity beyond her years.  The halo surrounding the sitter represents her delicacy and gives her an otherworldliness. This is appropriate as, sadly, she was painted for this portrait on her deathbed in 1818.

The Wallace Family (c. 1856-1862) by John Adams Elder. A loan courtesy of Mrs. W. Wallace Morton, Jr.

Finally, this portrait of the Wallace family painted in the mid-Victorian period is quite a unique painting in our collection with a fascinating twist to its symbolism.  The portrait has a traditional composition but at the center is a large leashed bird in mid-flight.  This bird is a rebus, a puzzle device used to visually depict words and/or phrases.  They are used extensively in heraldry to hint at the name of the bearer.  This painting’s bird rebus is attached to a young girl named Mary Byrd Wallace, the great, great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Portraits are sometimes the only visual representation we may have of a historic figure.  These portraits do more than capture a person’s appearance, however.  The wealthy and socially important also used portraits and their symbolism to emphasize their wealth and high status.  Portraits also visually recorded family history or emphasized familial connections.  For the Lewis family, like everything in their house and like their house itself, their portraits revealed how they saw themselves and, perhaps more importantly, how they wanted others to see them whether in the 18th or the 21st centuries.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] “Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and early 19th centuries”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003: 11

[2] Crown, Carol. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013: 150-151.

[3] Centeno, Carlos. “Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color,” July 6 2016. https://medium.com/@carlitocenteno/lose-the-color-symbolism-chart-the-unpredictable-meanings-of-color-edc81db6541e; “Faces of a New Nation,” 13

[4] “British and American Grand Master Portraits of the 1700s”, National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/british-and-american-grand-manner-portraits-of-the-1700s.html; Centeno; De la Tour, Charlotte. Le langage des fleurs, 1819: 58; Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, 1846: 248.