“Ya Basic”: Washington and “The Bread and Butter Ball”

It was in February 1760 that George and Martha attended a ball that fell short of his expectations. As he somewhat whimsically recorded in his diary, the tables lacked linen, beverages were watered down, and the food offered compared to basic prison fare. In today’s slang, George might characterize the uninspiring party as, “Ya Basic,” an insult meaning unadorned and simple. This blog post considers the origins of George’s refined taste, and the lofty heights to which his social expectations had risen by his late twenties. By this point in Washington’s life, he expected certain amenities and refreshments at such festivities, groomed as he was from childhood in graceful civility and elegant dress

In 1758, George’s careful attention to attire, good looks, and courtesy contributed significantly to winning the widow Martha Dandridge Custis’s attention. George was trained in etiquette from a young age. Under his mother Mary’s training at Ferry Farm, George read The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior and committed these winning guidelines for manners to memory.

Now, imagine it is mid-February 1760. George and Martha are beginning their second year of marriage. As a wealthy widow, Martha brought property and wealth to the union that propelled George to the upper tiers of Virginia colonial society overnight. Together, they had the resources to shape their Mount Vernon home and landscape to their liking. The mansion house at Mount Vernon was enlarged from its original footprint, but at this point in time was not yet expanded to its final (just over 11,000 square foot) size. The young couple set about purchasing household goods, food, and clothing that celebrated their prosperous position and growing influence in Virginia colonial society and that anticipated their continued social assent. George is about to turn 29 years old. The world is his oyster.

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An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph by Lemercier from a painting by Julius Brutus Steans, c. 1853, in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At a time when such items were luxuries, George’s parents furnished their Ferry Farm home with table linens and napkins (collectively known as napery) in abundance. We know this thanks to the survival of the 1743 probate inventory conducted at the death of Washington’s father, Augustine. Augustine’s inventory carefully enumerated that thirteen tablecloths protected their dining surfaces and over 30 napkins kept Washington family faces spotless. Many of the napkins were made from white linen, a high maintenance color choice. The family’s profuse employment of such fussy napkins was possible through the efforts of their enslaved workers: Lucy, Sue, Judy, Nan, Betty, Jenny, Phillis, and Hannah. At least some of these enslaved females frequently toiled at cleaning these indulgent white luxuries.

Linens on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

Section listing the family’s linens on the probate inventory done in 1743 following the death of Augustine Washington, George’s father.

Knowing how to use napkins and tablecloths was the focus of a number of guidelines included in The Rules of Civility, which were foundational lessons that George and his siblings practiced under their parents’ guidance. This childhood training allowed each of the Washingtons to wield their napkins and utensils with well-honed grace as adults. Polite behavior not only made a good impression, it dramatically increased social opportunities, and distinguished the Washingtons from ‘less polished’ colonists, most of whom lacked napery, forks, or the opportunity to practice refined etiquette.

The Washingtons’ Ferry Farm home enjoyed ample bed linen as well. Recorded in the 1743 probate inventory are multiple hand irons which Lucy and her enslaved allies employed to press the wrinkles from all of their high-maintenance bedding and table linen.

Bedclothes were a luxury that George took for granted prior to his travels to the mountains in the western portion of the Virginia colony during the spring of 1748. In an early example of his reaction upon encountering unexpected rusticity, Washington’s diary indicates that he and his companions stayed at Isaac Pennington’s, in present-day Berryville, Virginia. It was clearly the first time that George had encountered a mattress made from straw and which, furthermore, lacked sheets but did have “…only one thread bear blanket with double its weight of vermin such as Lice Fleas etc.”  The pragmatic Washington vowed to sleep outdoors by a campfire during his travels from that time forward.

The following night he stayed in (present-day) Winchester, Virginia, and was relieved to discover the inn featured “…a good feather bed with clean sheets….” However, just ten days later, George was appalled by the lack of a tablecloth and of utensils during supper at the home of a Justice of the Peace in Frederick County. He compensated, using his own utensils which he had thoughtfully brought along for the trip. Washington’s personal table utensils were originally intended for his backcountry, deep woods, prepared-around-the-campfire meals. That these basic utensils had to be employed at the home of a Justice of the Peace took young Washington by surprise.

These brief encounters with startling rusticity – a lack of table linen and utensils, primitive straw mattresses, a shortage of bedclothes, or flea-infested beds — were so unusual to this young Virginian that George noted them as part of his otherwise concise diary entries. Table linen, bedclothes, clean laundry, and table utensils were part of his take-for-granted world of this gentleman. For most Virginia colonists of the time, these items represented extravagant treats, not basic necessities.

As he grew, Washington traveled in elevated social circles, allowing him to refine his manners and to adapt new forms of sophisticated behavior. Expectations for comfort and refreshments continued to grow in the colony overall as improved shipping, extended credit, and cheaper goods increased. George had a long association with the aristocratic Fairfax family, who lived next door to his older, half-brother Lawrence whom he frequently visited. Furthermore, Washington was the product of two propertied, multigenerational Virginia families, each of whom had immigrated to the colony during the 1650s. Sustained by a host of enslaved washers, ironers, and cleaners, propertied families surrounded themselves by amenities and practiced manners that quickly became fundamental behaviors among the well-heeled.

Through these experiences, Washington developed an urbane taste and refined style to which many Virginians aspired, but few attained. His marriage to Martha, a wealthy widow, cemented his membership amongst the top families. Their home at Mount Vernon was elegantly furnished and its landscape was groomed to be productive and impressive to visitors. The young couple enjoyed financial security and an extensive social network.

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

A fanciful early 20th century painting titled “The Victory Ball, 1781” and painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown. Credit: Wikipedia.

This is why, on a chilly mid-February day in 1760, party hosts Carlyle Laurie and Robert Wilson must have eagerly anticipated this elegant pair of ascendant young Virginians attendance to their ball. George and Martha journeyed to Alexandria for the festivities, where they socialized, dined, and danced. George even indulged in a game of cards (that evening he noted in his account book the loss of seven shillings, about $74.00 in modern currency). While the activities in which guests participated were festive, the refreshments served fell far short of expectations. While Washington’s criticism might seem a trifle petty, his evaluation seems to have been largely limited to his personal diary:

Went to a Ball at Alexandria – where musick and dancing was the chief entertainment. However in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuets with tea and coffee which the drinkers of coud not distinguish from hot water sweetened. Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table Cloths and Napkins and that no Apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the bread and butter ball.

We can only imagine the shared glances that more discriminating guests may have exchanged, as they employed their own handkerchiefs in the absence of anticipated napery. Just envision the puckered faces and furrowed brows that guests made as they sipped the weak, tepid tea they were presented upon tables that lacked tablecloths! Were the offerings truly so pitiable, or is it possible that George’s expectations exceeded that which the typical Alexandria social affair could provide?

Dive into George’s diaries to learn more about his fascinating life, humble beginnings, and social ascent. Dorothy Twohig edited Washington’s diary entries, George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment, which is as entertaining to read as it is an invaluable insight into Washington’s lifePlease visit us at his boyhood home in Stafford, Virginia for George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 18. Unlike Alexandria of old, Fredericksburg table linens abound and refreshments shall be more than bread and butter.  In fact, there shall be birthday cake!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

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

Garrett, Nicholas D.
2018 Shipwrecked in the Land of King Tobacco: The First Washington Family Immigrant to America. Independently published.

Levy, Philip
2015 George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape. West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.

Saxton, Martha
2019 The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, the Mother of our Nation’s Father. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

Twohig, Dorothy
1998 The Making of George Washington. In George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, edited by Warren R. Hofstra, pp 3-34. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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The Hazards of Winter in Washington’s Day

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Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm after a December snow in 2018.

Many people find winter miserable. It can be hard dealing with freezing temperatures, inclement weather, and long nights.  With much of the nation experiencing record-breaking cold and windchills today and the current temperature at George Washington’s Ferry Farm as we publish this post only 20 degrees Fahrenheit. it may not feel like it but our modern conveniences negate some of the brutality of the season. Colonial Americans did not have these luxuries.  For them, winter was not just difficult but deadly.

OUTDOORS

Winters outdoors in the 18th century were dangerous for many reasons that we take for granted.  Modern infrastructure and weather forecasting have reduced the dangers of winter for us today.

Colonial Americans did not have a permanent network of solid roads and sidewalks they could rely upon.  Roads and walking paths were often dirt and subject to seasonal change.  When the weather turned icy and snowy, the road into town could disappear while a well-worn path through a forest became much more perilous.

Furthermore, lakes and ponds vanished under layers of snow, which gave the impression of a solid surface and created the illusion of a quick but deadly shortcut.  It was common for people and sleds to venture across the frozen water sometimes with lethal results as newspaper reports show.

Williamsburg, January 28. The Weather has been so excessive bad, for some Time past, that there has been scarce any passing the Rivers, for Ice, or travelling for Snow.  And we have Accounts from several Places, of Persons being frozen to Death, and others drowned, by attempting to cross the Rivers.  No Post has come from the Northward these 6 weeks; and we may reasonably conclude, that as the Weather is so severe here, it is worse there. – Virginia Gazette, January 28, 1738

For the last two days the weather has been severely cold. On Thursday night the Mercury in Fahrenheit’s Thermometer was 26 degrees below freezing point; and yesterday morning the Delaware river was frozen, so that many persons crossed on the ice.  Nearly opposite to Spruce Street it broke under a young man, and he fell into the water.  With great difficulty he was saved, after being nearly exhausted with the cold. — Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

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Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

A heartbreaking example of drowning after falling through ice happened in 1793 when a group of cousins tried to cross what was thought to be a solid frozen river in their sleigh.  The ice broke, taking all under the water.  Assistance was rendered by people on the shore but only one person could be saved.

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Gazette of the United-States, New York, NY, March 24, 1790

Fluctuations in temperatures, unpredictable by the rudimentary weather forecasting available at the time, were also very dangerous.  Many underestimated just how quickly freezing temperatures could take their toll and suffered frostbite or succumbed to exposure while trying to carry on with daily life.  On one particularly cold February day in New York, frigid temperatures even froze wine and beer.   In Boston, during the same cold snap, “two or three persons were found frozen to death the beginning of this week, and … many people in the country had their ears and cheeks frostbitten going to public worship.”

frozenbeer

Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

INDOORS

Indoors, dealing with freezing temperatures in the 18th century was a constant struggle made more difficult because fire was the only source of heat.  Fire in the open hearth was not efficient, consumed copious amounts of fuel, and only provided warmth within a small area. Almost 90% of the heat produced by a fire in a traditional colonial fireplace escaped up through the chimney. Not only that, but chimneys were drafty, letting in cold air.  This ineffectiveness meant that a family’s living space became restricted and fires were kept going almost constantly.

The quest for warmth lead to many house fires.  The Washington family even experienced a house fire first-hand sometime in the 1740s at Ferry Farm. A small fire began near the fireplace in the hall back room and did enough damage to ensure major repairs. The upper floor would have been well smoked and whole parts of the first floor ceiling were ruined. The home was damaged, but not lost, and repairs ensued.  Archaeological evidence of this fire includes a root cellar filled with fire related ash, burned artifacts, and fire-damaged plaster.

Although it is unreliable, there is some documentary evidence, of a fire at Ferry Farm in a letter to George Washington from Robert Davis dated May 25, 1795.  Written 55 years after the fact, Davis’s memories are interesting but contradict the physical evidence found by archaeologists. He wrote…

“I am not sure but I was once a play Mate of yours many years ago, was Colonel [Augustine] Washington who lived on Rappahannock & opposite to Fredericksburgh your Father, whos Estate Joined a Plantation of Mr Anthony Strathers on the River side—from Mr Strather, a Mr Robt Shadden had a Store house, with him I lived as a young Assistant in the Store, Colo. Washington was very kind and indeed a second Father to me and I Remember it well, that it give me a very sore Heart that on a Christmass Eve, his great house was burned down & that he was Obliged with his good family to go and live in the Kitchen.”

A more contemporary letter hints at the fire as well but provides no real details other than some sort of fire happened.  Writing to Augustine Washington on October 9, 1741, Richard Yates opens his letter with “In the midst of your late calamity wch. you suffer’d by fire, for which I am sincerely concern’d…”[1]

While the Washingtons’ fire was apparently not a newsworthy event at the time, colonial-era newspapers carried plenty of thrilling details about many other fires for their readers.

For example in 1774, the Governor’s house at Fort George in New York City, caught fire and the Virginia Gazette, although far from New York, published stories of a narrow escape out a second story window, lost jewels and valuables, and the death of 16-year-old “servant girl” Elizabeth Garret.

Along with the increased danger of house fires, the cold also made fighting out of control fires much more difficult Another Virginia Gazette story discussed efforts to battle fires in freezing temperatures on an evening in Boston. The Gazette reported, “In this cold season were several alarms of fire breaking out which were happily extinguished before any considerable damage was done, excepting one…”  This was the joiner’s shop of Mr. Benjamin Sumner, “which before the inhabitants could be collected, was all on fire.”  People worked to extinguish the fire “notwithstanding the uncommon severity of the weather, which was so cold that the water thrown from the engines upon those building, that were in the most danger, instantly congealed into ice.”  Despite the difficulty with the extreme cold, the fire was put out, many houses were saved, no one died, and only a few people had their hands and feet frozen.

bostonfire

Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

Some were not so fortunate.  The same newspaper dispatch about the Boston fire noted that on a December night in 1772 Michael Law of Putney lost not only his house but four children.

twelfth night 2019 for blog (2)

Snow begins to fall on Historic Kenmore on the evening of January 12, 2019.

Winter has always been a difficult time for people. The constant battles with the cold and lethal dangers of the season were in the forefront of colonial Americans’ minds.  As Mary Palmer Tyler reminisced in the 19th century about the brutality of winter in her youth in the 18th century, “Truly the people of this age know little of the horrors of winter.” [PDF]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Richard Yates to Augustine Washington, October 9, 1741, printed in Moncure D. Conway, Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (New York, 1892), pgs 68-69.

The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

“Twelfth Night at Historic Kenmore” 2019 [Photos]

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2019 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 11 and 12. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Coming Soon! “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” [Photos]

On Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, and Sunday, January 13, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in 1776.

This production depicts the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and Kenmore’s enslaved community.  Here are some photos from last year’s performance.

Performance dates: Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, Sunday, January 13
Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; under age 3 free.

The Decked Halls of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore [Photos]

Happy Holidays! George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore are closed today for Christmas Eve and tomorrow for Christmas Day.  Both houses will reopen for tours for five more days this year before closing on New Year’s Eve and beginning their annual two-month closure during the months of January and February.  If you are unable to visit this holiday season, please enjoy these photos giving you a festive glimpse inside each home.

To learn more about visiting Kenmore and Ferry Farm, click here.

Making Syllabub

The holiday season has arrived at Historic Kenmore, bringing with it our annual display in the house of colonial wintry traditions from greenery to lovely desserts. Two years ago, I explored the mysterious origin of Betty Lewis’s hedgehog cake and even made a pretty passable replica.  This year, there is another dessert on our table at Kenmore that I have been eager to talk about and even taste, syllabub.

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

Display of desserts popular in the 18th century inside the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

Syllabub is no longer the favorite staple dessert it once was two hundred years ago. I decided to investigate this fluffy confection to learn its history and to attempt to recreate it. You may find that it’s worth reviving this old classic for your upcoming holiday celebrations!

One of the earliest references to this frothy treat is from a 16th century Tudor drama called Thersytes, when a character states, “You and I…muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe!”[1]  It continued to be mentioned through the 17th and 18th century in plays, poetry, art, diaries and cookbooks.  From poet laureate Ben Jonson to famous diarist Samuel Pepys to pioneers in household management like Hannah Woolley, Eliza Smith, and Hannah Glasse, they all knew and appreciated this sweet treat.[2]

Through the centuries, syllabub evolved to suit changing taste and convenience.

One of the oldest and most legendary syllabub recipes was informally known as “under the cow”.[3]   To make it, a poor dairymaid was supposed to milk a cow directly over a bowl of sugar, sack (a white fortified wine), brandy, and cider to create a “fine frothy top.” Then she was to let it sit for a few hours in a cool place.  It sounds simple, rustic, and even pretty tasty. However, this recipe was more fantasy than reality and incredibly impractical.  Despite being unsanitary, it doesn’t seem to work and splits the milk in a most unappetizing way.[4]

If you don’t have a live cow, another syllabub recipe, also rather dubious, was the so-called “Poured or Teapot” approach[5].  This method called for the maker to fill a container with milk and then, from a substantial height, pour it into a bowl of sugar, wine, cider or bandy, and a bit of lemon to create a light and frothy mixture.  This could actually work, if the maker used a heavily enriched cream (similar to modern heavy whipping cream). Otherwise, it also tended to create an unpleasant curdle. [6]

The two former methods, if they worked, were supposed to create a syllabub that was more of a drink and that was pretty heavy on the spirits.  By the 18th century, however, the “Whipt syllabub” became the most popular style of syllabub. It contained less alcohol and was used as a topping instead of as a drink.  The recipe called for the whipping of cream, wine, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg whites. As the froth started to develop, the maker spooned it off into a sieve and let it dry.  After drying, the maker placed the little clouds of froth on top of a glass of sweet wine or jelly.[7]

The Sense of Taste (1744) by Philippe Mercier

“The Sense of Taste” (mid-to-late 1740s) by Philippe Mercier includes some “Whipt syllabubs” on the table. Credit: Yale Center for British Art

I decided to try this fourth style and used a recipe for my experiment called an “Everlasting syllabub” found on page 276 of Mrs. Eliza Smith’s cookbook The compleat housewife, or Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, published in 1773.[8] Betty Washington Lewis owned this book, which is listed on the 1781 probate inventory of Kenmore. Additionally, I picked this recipe because I don’t have access to a cow, didn’t want to create too much of a mess, and wanted to create a dessert rather than a liquor-infused drink.

RECIPE

18th century recipe
To make Lemon Syllabubs
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it in your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them overnight.

Recipe using modern measurements and a mixer and that makes less syllabub:
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

1 cup white sugar
½ cup white wine or apple juice for non-alcoholic
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tsp of grated lemon zest
Nutmeg to sprinkle on top

Whip the cream and sugar (slowly tbsp. at a time) in a bowl until the cream begins to thicken.  Add white wine, lemon juice and zest and continue to whip until light and fluffy and just holds a peak.  Make sure that all the sugar has dissolved and does not give the syllabub a grainy texture. Serve chilled with a dash of nutmeg or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

Syllabub can sit in the fridge for a few hours but you may get some separation of the wine and cream. 

Everlasting syllabub creates a fluffier mousse that is great on its own or as a topping on jellies and trifles.  The recipe is quite simple and requires heavy cream, white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar. This is all beaten together until it is almost the texture of modern whipped cream.  The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and it took less than 15 minutes to create and serve.

After taste-testing my refreshing treat with several colleagues, we arrived at a consensus that this indeed is a dessert that needs revived for our holiday celebrations.  It is light, fluffy, and citrusy and would be a great palate cleanser after a heavy dinner or a nice change from dense baked goods.  For families with children, a non-alcoholic version can be made by replacing the wine with apple juice.

Finished Syllabub

The syllabub we made topped with lemon zest and nutmeg.

Our experiment was a success and many of you may now have a new dessert gracing your holiday table, if you can keep from eating it all yourself.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Syllabub.” The Foods of England Project, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/syllabuboldtype.htm.

[2] Day, Ivan. “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not ‘Jumble it a pritie while’?” Historic Food, https://www.historicfood.com/Syllabubs%20Essay.pdf; Pepys, Samuel. “Sunday 3 August 1662.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/08/03/; Woolley, Hannah. The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex. Duck Lane near West Smithfield, Richard Lowndes, 1672. J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 114; Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, Company of Bookfellers, 1747, pg 218.

[3] MacDonell, Anne. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. London, Philip Lee Warner, 1910, pg 120.

[4] Day.

[5] Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. London, C. Rivington, 1723.

[6] Day.

[7] Nott.

[8] Smith, Eliza. The Complete Housewife: or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London, J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 276.