How the Enlightenment Transformed Cats into Pets

We look at our cats today as the furriest, purriest companions known to humankind. But most cats in colonial America worked for their status as the designated house cat.  It wasn’t all lazy days trying to squeeze into the smallest box possible or snoozing in that tiny sliver of sunlight on the living room floor. I’m a proud companion of a seven year-old fat cat named Jeffrey, who spends much of his time doing these very things.

Jeffery 1

Jeffrey in his favorite spot- the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Jeffery probably would not have enjoyed being a working cat in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, according to archaeologists; many civilizations have treated cats as companions for at least 8,000 years! But cats were often expected to serve a practical purpose, too. Along with companionship, cats were expected to work at jobs like pest control and to even serve as weapons.  This extreme version of work was proposed in an early German explosives and artillery manual that depicts a weaponized cat and bird set loose into an enemy town.

Weaponized Animals

From a “Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses” by Franz Helm (1584). Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 109.

I expect neither pest control nor explosive assaults from Jeffrey, however. The only thing he “attacks” is the lawn and, more often than not, cardboard boxes.

Jeffery 3   Jeffery 2

Cats as Work Animals
For thousands of years, cats accompanied sailors to sea, including European sailors travelling to the colonies. Rats carrying fleas and disease are common stowaways on ships. As a result, cats were — and still are — used as pest control during sea travel.  Even today, sailors have “ship’s cats” to control vermin onboard their vessels. Not only do they prevent disease and destruction of foodstuffs but they keep vermin from damaging ropes and electrical wiring, which could prove CATastrophic (heh heh heh) if not for ship’s cats.

Winston and Blackie

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stops ‘Blackie’, ship’s cat of the HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing over to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Similarly, when Europeans first established their colonies, survival rates were much lower in the beginning due to famine and disease, so pest control was important on land as well as at sea.   Settlers often kept pragmatic, but friendly relationships with cats in order to keep vermin at bay.

Two Cats by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

“Two Cats” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (18th century) depicts cats doing what they were expected to do, which was to kill disease carriers and some birds, like rats, carried disease vectors or could endanger crops. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.

The Enlightenment
We humans of course established bonds with our friendly working critters and some cats were adopted as what we now call “pets”. The 18th century was a transformative time in pet ownership as we have shown with dogs in another blog post. It had not always been acceptable to keep a pet in European countries. The luxuries that our pets enjoy today would be inconceivable to a person before the Age of Enlightenment. Outfits, daycare, even hotels are now available to our furry friends.  In earlier times, pets were deemed wasteful because keeping them devoted resources to an animal that was neither food nor used for its labor. It was even considered sinful to squander resources on non-working animals. Pets were a luxury saved for the bourgeoisie.

During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of their own sensibilities and opened up to a range of new philosophical ideas. There was a shift from the church being the main authority to the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge was reason.  People who were newly questioning authority also undoubtedly questioned why they could not devote resources and attention to an animal for no other reason than enjoyment and companionship.  With this attitude change, animals became viewed more as a non-human member of the household and were eventually valued in their own right. Cats became pets.

We can see the growing prominence of cats as pets in 18th century poetry, paintings, and songs.

One such poem by Thomas Gray published in 1748 was called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The next-to-last stanza describes the tragic moment.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!

When Gray called the ill-fated cat “a Favourite,” he used an earlier term for “pet”.

European and American portraiture repeatedly depicted people with their pets and cats were common subjects both alone and with their human counterparts. Below, you can see two 18th century portraits of people interacting with their favorite cats.

“Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight” by Joseph Wright (c.1768) Credit: ©English Heritage, Kenwood.

As seen above, Joseph Wright took time to depict two small girls dressing up a kitten.  In children especially, the joy a companion animal brings was irresistible. This critter was undoubtedly a favorite and probably wasn’t expected to do much in the way of work.

Tea-totalism by Edward Bird

“Tea-totalism” by Edward Bird (1795). Credit: ©WAVE,

Above Edward Bird shows a woman enjoying her tea with her companion cat by her side. She even seems to allow the cat onto the table, which many people won’t allow their pets to do even today.

Finally, an 18th century Polish folk song called  “Wlazł kotek na płotek” or “The Kitten Climbed the Fence” was a very popular lullaby, describing a child and grandmother treating the kitten as a favorite by giving it milk when it climbs the fence into their yard.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, according to the Humane Society of the United States, over 97% of cat owners today consider their cats to be a family member or companion. In a way, nearly all domestic cats in America today are “favorites” rather than sources of labor.  The nature in which Americans treat their pets, whether cats, dogs, chickens, or goldfish, reflects the progression of change from the time of the Enlightenment and into present day. While academic research on such an abstract subject is difficult, it is easy to understand how cats progressed from worker and protector to best friend.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician


Hessians and History: Learning Something New Every Day

As an historian, one of the many things I find rewarding is constantly learning.  I truly learn something new every day.  It’s exciting.  Many people might find this curious since to them history perhaps seems stale, unchanging, and boring.

In reality, history is incredibly dynamic.  Things historians thought we knew with certainty for years can be instantly tossed aside with the discovery of some hidden treasure trove of historical documents or archaeological artifacts.  It’s also impossible to know everything so, even as you’re researching familiar and well-used sources, you always learn things you did not know before.

I’ve recently been researching the enslaved community at Historic Kenmore when I came across a completely unrelated bit of history that I did not know about before.  I learned that, at the end of October 1781, a group of Hessian prisoners of war passed through Fredericksburg.  This may be familiar history to life-long Fredericksburg residents and historians but perhaps there are some, like me, who were not aware of these prisoners’ brief visit to town.  For those unaware of the incident either in Fredericksburg or among our global readership, I thought I would share almost the entirety of the information I found in one afternoon about the Hessian prisoners in Fredericksburg.

First, however, we should begin with a quick overview of who were these Hessians.  As explained on Mount Vernon’s George Washington Digital Encyclopedia, the British hired about 30,000 German soldiers to fight in the Revolutionary War.  These auxiliary troops came from several small states in pre-unification Germany then known as the Holy Roman Empire.  The largest contingent was from the state of Hesse-Cassel. Confusingly all German soldiers fighting in the colonies no matter their state of origin were often called Hessians.

Holy Roman Empire, 1789

Map of the Holy Roman Empire as it existed in 1789. Arrows point at Ansbach and Bayreuth. Credit: English map by Robert Alfers based on a German original by Ziegel Brenner. / Wikipedia.

The use of Hessians by the British Army was disliked enormously by the American colonists. Hessians were so disliked, in fact, that their use was listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of the king’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” aimed at “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  George III was “at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

Ansbach Bayreuth Regimental Flag

Ansbach-Bayreuth Regimental Flag surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Credit: National Museum of American History

Who were the Hessian prisoners who visited Fredericksburg in the fall of 1781?  Well, they were prisoners taken as a result of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19.[1]  Among them was Johann Conrad Dohla, a private in the 4th Company of the Bayreuth Regiment from the state of Ansbach-Bayreuth.  He kept a diary for his entire period of service in the war starting with his arrival in America in 1777 and ending after his return to the German states in 1783.[2] His diary titled A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution is still in print today.  The remainder of this blog post quotes extensively from Dohla’s entries describing Fredericksburg and its surroundings, which I found quite fascinating.

After the surrender, Dohla and his fellow prisoners began a long journey north escorted by Virginia militia.[3]  They neared Fredericksburg after a ten day march.  On October 29, Dohla wrote, “We marched to within one and one-half miles of Fredericksburg, where we camped in an opening in the forest.  During our march today, we saw many individual houses built in a poor manner of wood and covered with clay and patched together. But inside they were richly and well appointed, and in part furnished with the finest articles….  Poultry was plentiful here and inexpensive.  There is no shortage of good tea in Virginia because everywhere, in the forest, on the heights, and meadows, there is an abundance of such tea herbs.”[4]

The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia

“The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia.” An engraving by Daniel Berger after a sketch by Daniel Chodowiecki created in 1784 showing Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton marching to Philadelphia. It turns out that buildings located in Fredericksburg’s present-day Alum Springs Park housed both British and Hessian troops captured at Trenton. Credit: Library of Congress.

The next day, Dohla and his compatriots entered Fredericksburg itself.  He wrote, “Our march passed through the small city of Fredericksburg and two miles beyond that place to a main river, the Rappahannock, where we camped. This river contains sweet water and was hardly 100 to 150 feet wide here, and also so shallow that it could be waded across….  It is not to be compared to the James and Potomac rivers.  It rises on South Mountain and is of little value for inland navigation. One to one and one-half miles above Fredericksburg, near Falmouth, it has a waterfall over the granite rocks and becomes navigable from that point to its mouth in the bat, which is a distance of ninety miles.  From its source, however, it might measure two hundred miles. Here it is about a half mile wide, and at its mouth, more than four miles wide. Large ships cannot sail as far as Fredericksburg….  In the region of Fredericksburg glass bottles can be sold at high prices because they are seldom to be had here.”[5]

Dohla breaks from his daily record to make a several observations about Fredericksburg itself. He notes that “Fredericksburg is a medium-size city of rather long and wide layout. It lies in a valley and to the right and left, on heights, along the banks of the Rappahannock River. It has nearly four to five hundred houses and is heavily settled by Germans.  The public buildings lie in ruins, and for no other reason than because it was considered unnecessary to tend to them during the war period and therefore they were neglected, because no English troops came here who could have destroyed them.  They local tobacco industry is of great value and has many advantages.  The price of the best Virginia leaves was formerly twenty-five shillings per hundredweight. The hills surrounding Fredericksburg and on the Rappahannock River consist primarily of sandstone of various colors.  The bed of sand along the river between here and the bay contain, in many places, whale bones, sharks’ teeth, oysters and other shellfish.  Not far from Fredericksburg, in the vicinity of the Rappahannock Falls, one of the most important ironworks in all North America is to be seen because each year more than six to eight hundred tons of iron are said to be manufactured there….  Concerning grain, in addition to corn, much grain and wheat are grown here, although large fields are given over to the raising of tobacco.  Also in some regions below Fredericksburg, the most beautiful cotton is planted and harvested.  Six hundred Englanders are already in Fredericksburg in captivity.”[6]

On the last day of the month, Dohla and his fellow prisoners “broke camp and had to wade through the Rappahannock River.  Some crossed in their shoes and socks; however, I and most of the others took them off and crossed barefoot.  The water was very cold and reached up to our thighs.  Our route went through Falmouth, a small but beautiful village of about thirty to forty houses on the left bank of the Rappahannock, with a German church and two prayerhouses….”[7]

An officer and private in Hessen-Kassel Army's Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen

An officer (left) and private (right) in the Hessen-Cassel Army’s Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen in 1783. Credit: Wikipedia

Dohla and his comrades continued to Winchester where they were held as prisoners of war for about two months.[8]  Then, he was transferred to a prison camp in Frederick, Maryland, where he remained for 15 months.[9]  After the war’s end, Dohla’s band of Hessians were marched from Frederick to Long Island, New York, where they finally were released.  They set sail for home on August 1, 1783.[10]

Dohla’s brief visit to Fredericksburg and his story in general fascinated me and is a great example of what I love most about history. Namely, that I get to learn something new every day.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs


[1] Johann Conrad Dohla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Bruce E. Burgoyne, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, 174.

[2] Dohla, x-xi.

[3] Dohla, 182.

[4] Dohla, 185.

[5] Dohla, 185-6.

[6] Dohla, 186-7.

[7] Dohla, 187.

[8] Dohla, 188.

[9] Dohla, 196, 222.

[10] Dohla, 232.

No Refrigerator? No Problem!: Preserving and Storing Meat in the 1700s

It’s easy to take our refrigerators for granted.  There they sit in our kitchens quietly keeping our food safe to eat and making our lives quite easy.  It may be difficult to imagine but a large percentage of time on an 18th century homestead such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm was spent preserving food for long term storage.

Before grocery stores and refrigeration, most foods were only available at particular times of the year – this is called seasonality.  Eggs, for instance, were not plentiful in the fall and winter when hens traditionally stop laying.  Certain fish, such as shad and herring, can only be caught during the few weeks a year when they spawn. And, of course, most crops were harvested in the fall.  So when food was available it needed to be preserved and stored properly if there was any hope of enjoying it in the future.

Food preservation was especially important in the fall and early winter, which was butchering season for large animals.  Chickens and small game were enjoyed year round because they could be eaten in one or two meals. A larger pig or cow, however, would spoil in mere days when exposed to the humid and hot Virginia summers. Therefore butchering was left to the cold months.  Even the frosty temperatures were not enough to stave off decay and therefore long term preservation techniques were employed to guarantee a supply of meat throughout the year.

To begin, preservation involved many people.  In my own household today, we butcher two hogs once a year and it’s a family event with our neighbors and friends helping out.  In the Washingtons’ case, a number of their slaves were put to this task and likely butchered dozens of hogs at once to ensure the family and the enslaved population had enough meat for the upcoming year.

Pigs were the preferred livestock for meat in Virginia, as anyone who lives here knows well.  We love our pork.  This is not a coincidence as pork’s high fat content aids with preservation and helps the meat survive the nasty summers previously mentioned.

Butcher Diagram for Pig

A butcher’s diagram showing the main cuts of pork and from where the come on a pig. Credit: Wikipedia/Pearson Scott Foresman.

After butchering, the next step in preservation was to treat the meat in a manner that would facilitate storage.  This usually involved drying, salting, or a combination of the two.  The idea was to reduce the meat’s water content, which promotes spoilage, and kill or inhibit bacterial growth.  Salting pork drew out moisture so small meat cuts could be rubbed down with salt and then stored in even more salt, which was relatively cheap in the 1700s and keeps the nasty bacteria at bay.  Furthermore, adding the chemical compound saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the rub kept meat edible even longer and had the added benefit of ‘fixing’ the nice red color of the meat.  Saltpetre is still in use today for food preservation (and also makes great gunpowder and fertilizer, strangely enough).

A technique that worked even better for long term storage was brining.  This process involved soaking the meat in a salt water mixture and was good for larger cuts, like hams.  Meat could be stored in the brine and packed tightly in covered jars or casks in a cool environment for months.  The Washingtons had cellars in their house ideal for this purpose and the archaeological record at Ferry Farm is full of fragments of stoneware and earthenware jars – the Tupperware of their day.

Of course all this salted meat would need to be soaked in water before it was edible.  Even the salt-loving Virginians couldn’t palate it otherwise.

Adding the extra step of smoking to the salting process preserved the meat even longer.  The smokehouse was ubiquitous on 18th century farms and, while we know the Washingtons had a smokehouse, we have yet to locate it archaeologically.  We have found evidence for a smokehouse that predates the Washingtons moving to Ferry Farm, however.

Washington House and Work Yards

Archaeologists have not located where the smokehouse stood when the Washingtons lived at Ferry Farm. Perhaps it stood among the fenced-in work yards behind the family home. More archaeological exploration will be necessary to place the structure on the landscape.

Your basic smokehouse was a small, square, one room structure with a pyramid-shaped roof and rafters in the roof to hang meat on.  In the middle of the room was a fire pit or box where a fire was kept going for days at a low temperature. It dried the meat without cooking it and exposed the meat to a lot of smoke, which inhibits decay and is a deterrent for bugs and vermin.  Have you ever wondered why mosquitos don’t seem to bite much when you’re around a camp fire?  It’s the smoke.

One final common preservation and storing technique was to pot meat.  This involved packing cooked meat tightly into a jar and capping it with a generous amount of butter, lard, or tallow (rendered beef fat).  An unappetizing as this may sound it kept meat safe to eat for weeks or months in the right environment.  Potted meat is still popular in certain areas, although you’ll find it in cans, nowadays.

Ceramic Storage Vessel (5)

A complete redware storage jar.

A variety of ceramic pots like the above redware jar were available for storage of preserved meat and other foodstuffs in the 1700s.  Below are photos showing four different types of storage vessel sherds excavated at Ferry Farm:

All of the above mentioned preservation and storage techniques lend their own unique taste to meat, many of these flavors are now considered very desirable and the main reason these techniques are still employed for various foods, even though we don’t require them any longer thanks to refrigerators and freezers.  Think salted bacon, Spam, smoked barbeque, and delicious salty ham.  What originated as necessary methods for making food last have evolved into our own unique modern cuisine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Oliver, Sandra L. Food in Colonial and Federal America.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London. 2005

Olmert, Michael.  Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies – Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.  2009.

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont.  Eating In America.  The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey.  1995.

A Thimble of My Love


A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

FF-Graduated Thimbles-shoptSmall

A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.


“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.


Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.


It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

The Lewis Ships That Sailed the Atlantic World


“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is located on a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River.  That river connects to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  When young George Washington lived at Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock was a gateway to the entire world.  Fredericksburg was a port town on the river’s opposite bank from the farm and small ocean-going sailing vessels traveled up the Chesapeake and into the Rappahannock to dock at the bustling town’s wharves.  Ships like the brigs Stanton and Priscilla as well as the schooners Grampus and Penguin brought goods to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and occasionally people to settle and work in the colonies.

Growing up next to the river influenced the young Washington.  He got to experience life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and sailed to Barbados at the age of 17. Also, for a time, the family debated whether teenage George should pursue a career in the Royal Navy.  Moreover, at Ferry Farm, the Washingtons produced and consumed the goods that ships plied back and forth across the ocean.

George Washington, his family, slaves and neighbors were members of what historians call “The Atlantic World,” a global community of many different peoples taking part in the trade that traveled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Washington, his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, and other Fredericksburg residents saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day and interacted with the sailors from those ships every day.  They supplied the ships with goods to take to destinations far across the sea and then bought the goods these ships carried when they returned.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, at the same time, many planters along the Rappahannock chose to export things like wheat, foodstuffs, timber, and other raw materials used to manufacture goods.

Broadly speaking, these manufactured goods were made in Europe using the raw materials exported from the Americas.  Europe then sent the manufactured goods to Africa as well as back to the Americas.  In Africa, they were used to buy slaves while, in the Americas, they were used to purchase more raw materials.  This movement of goods has long been referred to as the “Triangular Trade” because of the triangle shape that the goods traveled when traced on a map.  Of course, this is a very simplistic description of a very complex network of trade that really spread across the globe.  Still, a triangle is a useful way to imagine, understand, and remember the basics of the process.

Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and the Lewis family built and owned ships that transported goods throughout the Atlantic World. Records of these ships’ voyages help illuminate the Triangular Trade and also how Atlantic trade routes often did not look like a triangle at all.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

In one of the earliest voyages of a Lewis ship, the 80-ton brig Stanton – owned by Fielding’s father John Lewis and captained by Richard Williams – made a roughly six month voyage in the first half of 1732. The Stanton was bound for Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, and then Barbados, an island in the Caribbean Sea, before returning to Virginia. Its voyage is a perfect illustration of the Triangular Trade and we’ve written about it here.

But the Atlantic trade was not always a triangular one.

During the first half of 1737, the Lewis brig Priscilla sailed directly to London and back under the command of Richard Williams and carrying 192 hogsheads of tobacco, six tons of iron, and 5,000 staves.[1] The ship returned to Virginia with “European goods” and, after a brief stop at Madeira, added some wine to its cargo.

'The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge' 1746 by John Maurer

“The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge” (1746) by John Maurer. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The next year, the John Lewis-owned schooner Grampus mastered by John Briggs set sail with 300 staves, 600 bushels of corn, 900 bushels of peas, 180 bushels of wheat, 1 hogshead of wine, and 400 feet of walnut plank bound on a direct voyage to and from “New England.”  It returned with 5 hogsheads and 6 barrels of rum, some molasses, cider, oil, and “New England Ware.”

Finally, about a decade later, we find another John Lewis-owned ship departing Virginia.  The Penguin, a schooner captained by Will Whitterong with a crew of six, set sail for Antigua in the Caribbean on March 1, 1745 carrying 100 barrels of pitch, 303 barrels of tar, 35 barrels of turpentine, 100 bushels of peas, 8 barrels of tallow, and 13,800 shingles.  The Penguin arrived at Antigua on May 17 and returned to Virginia on June 5 with a cargo of 30 hogsheads and 1 tierce[2] of rum, 27 barrels of sugar, and British goods.

Did some of the items these ships brought back from across the Atlantic end up at Ferry Farm to be consumed or used by George Washington and his family (or the Strother family, the farm’s earlier occupants)?  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  Many of the items excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm definitely fit the descriptions “European goods,” “New England Ware,” or “British goods.”  Westerwald jugs, Bartmann bottles, white salt-glazed stoneware fruit dishes, and glass wine bottles all journeyed across the Atlantic to be used by Ferry Farm’s residents, then broken, thrown away, and buried, eventually to be recovered by archaeologists. No matter who actually used them, these recovered items represent the people and way of life of the 18th century’s Atlantic World made possible by the ships Stanton, Priscilla, Grampus, and Penguin.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Staves are the curved lengths of wood used to make barrels, buckets, or, in this case, pipes. Yes, wooden pipes.

[2] Tierce is an archaic measure of wine that roughly equaled 35 gallons. The term was also used as a synonym for cask, which seems what is meant in this case.

Why Were There Weird Animal Feet on 18th Century Furniture?

Furnishings posts logo finalAs more of reproduction furnishings for the Washington house get underway, I thought I might address one of the more notable characteristics of the pieces: their feet.  Anyone familiar with antique furniture has noticed the sometimes rather odd appearance of foot shapes at the end of table and chair legs.  We have a variety of feet among the Washington house furnishings, some more unusual to our modern eyes than others.  There are three furniture styles represented in the Washington house furnishings: William and Mary (the earliest, dating from the late 17th century to the very early 18th century), Queen Anne (early to mid-18th century) and a bit of Chippendale (mid-18th century onward).  Each of these styles had their own weird feet.

Probably the most well-known type of furniture foot is the “ball-and-claw.” As the name suggests, the foot looks like the talons or claws of a large animal or bird gripping a ball.  The talons or claws could be quite detailed and realistic or a bit more stylized.

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An example of the ball-and-claw foot on a reproduction escritoire — a massive cabinet-sized desk — that will sit in the Hall of the Washington house.

Why did these somewhat grotesque feet take hold in furniture design? In the early 17th century, design elements and decoration from the Orient began showing up in everything from ceramics to textiles to furniture all over Europe, as maritime trading vessels brought Asian goods to new markets.  The image of a dragon’s claw gripping a precious stone had been a common symbol in Chinese mythology for centuries, and was usually intended to symbolize the Emperor’s protection of knowledge.  As with many Chinese decorative elements imported to Europe at the time, the reason it was used in China was less important to European buyers than its exotic look.

In England, the ball-and-claw style of foot was used primarily during the Queen Anne period and faded in popularity as the Chippendale style came into vogue.  In America, however, the ball-and-claw remained a popular decorative feature well into the 19th century.  As a result, American Chippendale style chairs will often have ball-and-claw feet, while English Chippendale chairs often do not.  During the height of its popularity, English furniture makers adapted the ball-and-claw style to other types of claws, often favoring a lion’s paw, to represent the King.  In America, eagle talons were the preferred model.  The level of detail portrayed was purely up to the desire and skill level of the furniture maker and carver.

Another animal-inspired foot found on furnishings in the Washington house is known as the “pied de biche” (literally translated from the French as “doe’s foot”) or hoof foot.  Much like a ball-and-claw, this style can either be an exact replication of a delicate deer’s cloven hoof, or it can be a shape inspired by the graceful curve of a deer leg and foot.

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An example of a “pied de biche” furniture leg on a gaming table that will be displayed in the Washington house.

The reason for its popularity comes from two related trends in furnishings.  In the early 18th century there was a strong backlash against the bold, heavy, bulky style of the William and Mary period, which resulted in something completely opposite – the very graceful and delicate curves of the Queen Anne style.  This preference for lighter furnishings in the Queen Anne period also ushered in the beginnings of interest in classical themes, such as ancient Roman and Greek art.  Animal feet were featured prominently in classic Roman style, and the legs and feet of a deer just so happened to emulate the graceful, delicate curves that exemplified the Queen Anne style, so it was a perfect match.  Pied de biche feet are often found on Queen Anne furnishings in both England and America, but it was raised to a real art form by the French.

The last weird foot that we’ll cover in this installment is probably the most mysterious, simply because we aren’t sure exactly why it came into being.  Known as the trifid foot in America, this style is found mostly on Queen Anne furniture.  In some cases it appears to be more of a three-toed paw, while on other pieces it looks like three webbed toes.  The webbed toes may have been its original iteration, because in Britain this style of foot is often referred to as a “drake” foot, drake referring to a male duck.  Interestingly, it was Irish furniture makers who began using stylized duck feet on their work, and so the trifid foot shows up in American in regions with high Irish immigration, like the area around Fredericksburg. As to why the Irish chose duck feet, well, that remains a mystery, nevertheless we can add the trifid foot to the list of unusual animal feet in the Washington house.

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A trifid foot on a chair at Historic Kenmore.

So whether it was Chinese dragons or Roman deer, furniture designs of the 18th century were looking to the past for inspiration, although the actual reasons behind these choices are sometimes forgotten.  Visitors to the Washington house will have the chance to see a wide variety of homages to these ancient cultures, whether they know it or not.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations