Primary Sources: Interpreting the Past in the Present

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we focus on archaeology as one way to learn about both the Washingtons and the other people who lived and worked on this landscape.  We rely on archaeology because many of these residents did not leave behind documentary primary sources for us to study.  A primary source is a “letter, speech, diary, newspaper article, oral history interview, document, photograph, artifact, or anything else that provides firsthand accounts about a person or event.”  Primary sources are the historian’s most essential tool and serve as windows into the past that allow us all to decipher meanings and draw conclusions about history’s people and events.

Reproduction Washington family documents

Reproduction Washington documents in the house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Brice Hart

Even with our focus on archaeology, written primary sources have played a vital role in understanding Ferry Farm’s history and in helping us reconstruct and now interpret the Washington house.  For example, Augustine Washington’s probate inventory is helping us furnishing the recreated family home.  Basically, primary sources help The George Washington Foundation staff to understand the Washingtons and others so we can better inform the visitor. Most importantly, primary sources help us to remember that, while the past was certainly different from today, the people of the past were human just like us and, in a way, can bring them to life.  Let’s see how!

Lawrence Washington to Augustine Washington - May 30, 1741

The letter dated May 30, 1741 written by Lawrence Washington to his father Augustine Washington while fighting in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Credit: Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions.

The primary source we will use in this blog post is a letter written by Lawrence Washington (eldest son of the Washington family) to Augustine Washington (patriarch of the Washington family). The letter was written on May 30, 1741 from Jamaica where Lawrence was fighting as a loyal subject of English king against the Spanish, one of the other European powers competing for global dominance through colonization.

The letter provides the reader pertinent details in how the Colonial Era differed from the 21st Century; yet it also contains clues on how the two time periods are similar. Lawrence begins by addressing his father with “Honored Sir” and ends with “Your ever dutiful Son,” a stark contrast in how we might address our parents or relatives today. This suggests that families in the Gentry class of the original English colonies addressed their elders with an air of formality and respect. This would have been much the same in their mother country of England and a practice carried over by the colonists.

Lawrence also mentions that he had written many letters to his father, but “to [his] great concern, [he] [had] never yet received one from Virginia”. This gives us a closer look into the lives of military men of that time who were missing home and writing fervently to their families. A soldier’s timeless and ever-present homesickness can also be seen in Lawrence’s grumbling that “We are all tired of the heat & wish for a Cold season to refresh our blood.”

Lawrence also comments to his father, “I hope my Lotts are secured; which If I return shall make use of as my dwelling”. As the eldest son, he would have received inheritance in the form of land from his father. Unlike today, land was everything to the people of the Colonial Era, and it is not unusual for Lawrence to remind his father of his intentions with his land once returning to Virginia from war abroad. Like us today, he also worries about a debt he owes. Even men at war abroad today make similar statements to loved ones about worries and plans after their service is complete.

Lastly, another statement Lawrence makes to Augustine is that “War is horrid in fact.” He also relates how he and his compatriots have learned “to watch much & disregard the noise, or shot of a cannon”. This brief description of war could come from any century.

Many living in 2018 can fail to recognize the many similarities they have with persons from history. In doing so, we can forget to see the people of history as individuals living lives similar to our own. We can easily turn them into a historic figure, and forget they are a person. This often happens with George Washington and the rest of his family. However, the beauty of primary sources is that they can bring someone who has passed long ago, back to life in our imaginations.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

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The Thriving Theatre of Colonial America

Theatre is one of America’s most popular and thriving art forms. It has been a part of American culture since the early part of the 18th century. The development of theatre in the earliest American colonies in New England was prohibited because of those colonists’ strong Puritan beliefs. Colonial America’s first theater was built in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1716 after a number of English actors arrived in the more-accepting South and began performing plays.  Acting ensembles and student groups performed plays, which for the most part were amateur productions, in makeshift theaters and temporary venues—anything from a barn to a large tavern room. Eventually, theaters were built in other cities like Philadelphia in 1724, New York in the mid-1730s, and Charleston in 1736.

The typical colonial theater was not like the ornate theaters of today. Shaped like a shoebox, the stage occupied one-third of the space. The seating took up the remaining space. All different walks of life and classes came together to enjoy theatre performances from the boxes, the pit, or the gallery. The box seats were reserved for the wealthy, whose objective was to be on display for everyone while watching the play. The boxes were raised on the sides of the theater and faced each other and not the stage. The “middling sort” or middle class sat on the theater’s floor in the pit on wood benches. George Washington, a devoted fan of theatre, was said to have preferred watching from the pit despite being of the higher gentry class than other patrons seated there. The gallery was for the “lesser sort”—students, sailors, and even slaves – and was located in the area we’d call the balcony. In England, the lower sort could determine a play’s success and became known as “the gallery gods.”

Royal Theatre, Drury Lane 1813

This sketch of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1813 — not long after it opened — gives an idea of how one of the world’s finest theaters appeared in the early 19th century. Colonial America’s theaters would not have been this elaborate. Indeed, many of the acting companies traveling in the colonies performed wherever they could. Performances usually took place in taverns but sometimes even in barns. Credit: Public domain.

William Hallam and his brother Lewis Hallam were the first to organize a complete company of professional actors called The London Company of Comedians in Europe to bring to the American colonies. They had seen moderate success but then eventual failure in England, so they decided to try their luck in America. They had their first performance in Williamsburg in 1752, where they rented a large wooden structure which they altered to meet their needs. Their opening play was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and music was supplied by a single player on a harpsichord. It was said that the venue was so near the forest that the players were able to shoot wild fowl from the windows of the building.

Nancy_Hallam_as_Fidele_in_Shakespeare's_Cymbeline_Charles_Willson_Peale_1771

Nancy Hallam, a niece of Lewis Hallam, as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by Charles Willson Peale (1771). Credit: Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Lewis Hallam died in 1754 or 1755 in Jamaica where they had gone to perform, and his widow Sarah married David Douglass, manager of another company in the West Indies. In 1758 the companies merged and returned to New York City with Douglass as manager. The Hallams’ son Lewis Hallam Jr. was an actor and star of the company.  Responding to a growing sense of national pride, they renamed themselves the American Company of Comedians in 1763. They toured and converted theatres up and down the East Coast including the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia, the first permanent playhouse in America and built in 1766. They also built the John Street Theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, in New York in 1767. The Prince of Parthia, a Neo-Classical tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, was the first stage play written by an American to be presented in America by professional actors on April 24, 1767.

There were frequent attempts to ban plays during the Revolutionary War including a 1774 decision by the Continental Congress. This was a result of the opposition to British imports, as most plays were from England, as well as objections to the supposed frivolous nature of drama and other entertainments during a dangerous political crisis.

Once America gained independence from Britain, theatre began to flourish again as a national cultural art form. Restrictive wartime legislation was soon repealed and theaters opened across the country, including in formerly anti-theatre New England. By the end of the 18th century, American theatre was a rapidly growing, socially acceptable art-form, and it continues to thrive today throughout the country.

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

View theatre as many did in the 18th century—outside! Shakespeare on the Lawn at Kenmore returns for its fifteenth year with performances of As You Like It—Saturdays and Sundays: June 9-10 and 16-17, 7:00 p.m. Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket, and maybe bring a picnic supper to enjoy.

As You Like It image

Sources:

Peter Holland and Michael Patterson, “Eighteenth-century Theatre,” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, John Russell Brown, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 255-298 http://thowe.pbworks.com/f/eighteenth.century.theatre.pdf [accessed May 25, 2018]

“Theatre in Colonial Virginia,” Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Gazette, April 2006, http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume4/april06/theatre.cfm [accessed May 25, 2018].

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 3 – Imari & Famille Rose Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we revisit the Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) reproduction ceramics now displayed or to be displayed in the future in the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  This is the final post in this three week series and in it we’ll take a look at two special styles of CEP known as imari and famille rose.

These sherds are CEP like the blue and white porcelains we wrote about in part 1 but they are in different colorways, namely “imari” (blue, red, orange and occasionally some gilt accents) and “famille rose” (pink, orange and some green).  Sometimes, the exterior of teacups, bowls and saucers were painted an opaque brown, which is a style known as “Batavian.”  Our fragments suggest some Batavian pieces were in use in the Washington house, as well as some that show gilding. 

Buildings, people and fish were all popular motifs in imari and famille rose palettes.  Famille rose was one of the earliest of the CEP decorative styles, dating as early as the 1720s.  If a colonial American family managed to obtain a piece of famille rose CEP, it would be a treasured possession for generations.

Again, we have located individual pieces in period-correct shapes, that are decorated in colors and motifs that belong to the imari and famille rose palettes.  While interest in all things Asian may have reached its height in 18th century Europe, the style had several resurgences over the ensuing years, including in the early 20th century, which helped us greatly in our hunt for suitable reproductions of CEP.  During that time, Japanese potters began to churn out massive quantities of porcelain decorated in what became known as the “geisha girl” style, using green, orange and pink enamels.  The decorations depicted geishas in gardens near buildings.  While geishas may be a Japanese cultural theme, the colors, the delicate ceramic, and the inclusion of buildings and flowers all reference Chinese famille rose.

These pieces were intended for the Western market, and were often found in American dime stores, or given away as premiums in packages of tea.  They were produced from the 1890s, through World War II and even during the Allied occupation of Japan.  As a result, they’ve become highly collectable and we were able to find several different forms to add to our collection of stand-ins for famille rose tea wares.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 2 – White Salt-Glaze and Westerwald Stonewares

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we continue our look at the different ceramics displayed or soon to be displayed in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  Last week, we learned about the blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproductions gracing the house.  This week, in the second post of this series, will investigate the white salt-glaze stoneware and the Westerwald stoneware.

These fragments are from white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware dinner plate rims, and show two different styles of molded decoration.  The pattern in the above photo on the left was known as “dot/diaper/basket” and the pattern in the above photo on the right was known as “royal rim.”

 

Molded WSG came into existence in the 1740s, so the Washington family was right on trend.  A few decades later, creamware would replace it as popular dinnerware, but the rim patterns found on WSG were often very similar to those used on later creamware.

During the height of the Colonial Revival decorating style in mid-20th century America, the patterns used on WSG and creamware back in the 18th century had a major resurgence.  Several American potteries started producing white stoneware table wares, similar to WSG, with glossy surfaces similar to creamware, using molded rim decorations that were almost exactly like their 18th century predecessors.  The Canonsburg Pottery outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced dot/diaper/basket plates under the pattern name of American Traditional from the early 20th century through the company’s closure in 1978.  The Red Cliff Company pottery in Chicago produced plates with a rim pattern taken from the “royal” rim style on 18th century creamware (which was similar to an earlier WSG rim) under the pattern name Heirloom from the 1950s until their closure in 1977.  Similarly, Sears sold an almost identical plate under the pattern name American Federalist until the mid-1980s.  Luckily for us, all of these 20th century patterns are collectible and we found many of them in stores and on-line.

C1 - Westerwald Artifact

The above fragment came from either a mug or a jug made from grey stoneware decorated with cobalt blue glaze, known as Westerwald.  The Washington family owned quite a bit of Westerwald ceramic, as did the Lewis family at Kenmore.

C2 - Westerwald Mug

Westerwald pottery originated in 17th century Germany, and it is still produced there today.  It was a popular style for traditional German steins, often with pewter lids attached.  In the 18th century, it was often made for export to England and was therefore decorated with the “GR” emblem, referencing Georgius Rex (King George).

C2 - Westerwald Repro

During one of our treks through a thrift store, we came across this lidded Westerwald mug, and we were amazed at how similar to our 18th century fragments it was.  So amazed, in fact, that we questioned whether or not it might actually be an antique piece (that somehow remained in pristine condition)! A look at the bottom revealed a very 20th century maker’s mark, however, but it also spurred a desire to find out more about the company that was producing such excellent Westerwald. The mark indicated that the Markpiece was “Original Gerzit,” and some internet research revealed that the Gerzit Company in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany, was originally the pottery founded by Simon Peter Gerz in 1857.  The family owned and continued to operate the pottery through World War II, at which time they changed the name to Gerzit.  By German law established in 1887, Westerwald produced for export has to be marked Made in Germany.  Westerwald produced for sale in Germany doesn’t have to carry a mark at all.  Any Westerwald produced after World War II for export has to specify whether it was made in East or West Germany.  Putting all of that together, and comparing it to the mark on our newly acquired mug, shows us that it was produced sometime between 1949 (when the company name changed) and 1997 (when the company closed) and was originally intended for sale within Germany.  How it ended up in a thrift store in Virginia is anyone’s guess, but it was a very lucky find for us!

In part 3, we’ll revisit Chinese Export Porcelains to see imari and famille rose artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Lecture – Cabinet of Curiosities: Kenmore and the Evolution of Museum Collections [Video]

On Tuesday, May 15, 2018, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations for The George Wsahington Foundation presented a lecture titled “Cabinets of Curiosities: Kenmore and the Evolution of Museum Collections.” Using Kenmore’s collection as a case study, Meghan reviewed 100-years worth of museum curation and talked about some of the most exciting and unusual objects in Kenmore’s collection.

This final lecture in the latest trilogy of Foundation lectures took place at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 1 – Blue & White Chinese Export Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalAs you may recall from past posts (here and here) about our hunt for reproduction ceramics and glassware to use in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and taking a page from the Colonial Revival playbook, our sources have been varied and surprising – junk shops, flea markets, TV show props liquidation sales, attics of friends and relatives.  You name it, we’ve probably been there! Now it’s time to take a look at what we’ve found, and show you how we decided what passed muster to be placed in the Washington house.  In this series of posts, we’ll examine different ceramics and take a look at the artifact recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century object those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by the artifacts and originals.  This first post will examine blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP).

Blue and White Artifact

Blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain artifact excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

The above tiny archaeological fragment was found on the Washington house site and identified by our archaeologists as being from fine, white porcelain tea wares, decorated in applied blue motifs.  Such tea wares are known as blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) and were produced throughout the 18th century.

This 18th century blue and white teapot in the collection at Historic Kenmore is an excellent example of an English attempt to create porcelain like CEP.

Original porcelain made in China, where the technique was created and perfected, was highly coveted during the 1700s, but it wasn’t easy to come by and was often quite expensive.  Eventually, makers in England and other European countries tried producing this porcelain.  They were never quite able to simulate the very thin, nearly translucent white body, but they came close in replicating the decoration.  Colonists in Virginia, like the Washingtons, had an even tougher time coming across true CEP, so their collections of “porcelain” tea wares were often a mix of true porcelain and the thicker European variety.  The above teapot from the Kenmore collection is an example of an 18th century English attempt at creating porcelain like CEP.  While the ceramic body is sturdier than true Chinese porcelain, the blue decoration is very similar to CEP.

Blue and White Repro

20th century blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproduction teapot displayed inside the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.

Blue and White Repro teawares

20th century blue and white CEP teaware reproductions in the Washington house.

Above are some of the blue and white ceramics that we found to represent the Washington’s original blue and white CEP tea wares.  The difficulty in finding true porcelain continues even today! These pieces were selected because they all have blue decoration that is very similar to the typical motifs used in the Washington period, and their shapes and sizes correspond to what was available in the time period too.  In other words, from 5 steps away, they look just like period examples.  They were all produced in the 20th century, however, and represent manufactories in Germany and England.  Piecing together a tea service from multiple sources allowed us to accomplish another hallmark of 18th century tea wares: Nothing matches! Discerning buyers in the Washington’s time might choose a particular colorway that they liked and find individual pieces exhibiting those colors, but the idea of buying a complete tea set in one pattern was not a possibility until much later in the 19th century.

In the part 2, we’ll examine white salt-glazed stoneware artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations