Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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Rooms at Rest

Visitors to Kenmore on the evening of April 13th will have the opportunity to see the Dining Room in a very different light, both literally and figuratively.  In preparation for our evening program Letters from the Past, we will be putting the room “at rest,” an arrangement that would have been very familiar to the Lewises during their time in the house, but may look a little odd to us in the present day.

As we have discussed on several previous occasions, household furnishings in the 18th century were thought of as completely mobile.  Almost nothing had a permanent location.  If the large dining table was needed in the Passage for a casual summer supper, then it was moved there.  If the sofa was a favored reading place, it could be moved in front of a cozy fireplace on a cold night, or it might be placed directly in front of an open door to catch a breeze on a hot summer day.  Furniture was even constructed with this mobility in mind.  Tables were drop leaf or tilt-top, so that they could fit through doorways, and could be placed flat against a wall.  Castors were added to the feet of some pieces to aid in their movement from one room to another.  And of course, all of this movement was aided by the fact that gentry households had small armies of enslaved labor to see to it.

And when a room was not in use (or at rest), most of its furnishings were pushed against the walls, leaving the center of the room open and available for any spur of the moment need.  We are used to seeing beautifully appointed rooms, like Kenmore’s famous Dining Room, perfectly staged with a table set with silver and china, the chairs arranged around it, the sideboards loaded with auxiliary glassware and decanters, all at the ready to serve a formal meal.  In reality, these entertaining rooms were probably very rarely in this state of readiness.

Kenmore's Dining Room at Rest

Kenmore’s Dining Room at rest.

On any given day, the Lewis Dining Room was largely empty.  The 15 dining chairs listed in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory were lined up against the walls.  The two drop leaf dining tables, one oval and one square, would have their leaves down, and would be lined up with the chairs.  All of the silver, china and glassware would be carefully locked away in the room’s closet.  The empty cellarette and wine cooler would be shoved under the bare sideboard.  Anyone passing through the room could take advantage of the empty space in the middle of it to admire the Brussels carpet in its entirety, and to view the dazzling plasterwork ceiling from directly under its center.  While a room was at rest, the open space could be used for any variety of purposes, from hanging laundry to having lessons for children in the family, but by and large it would have simply remained closed up and quiet, especially at Kenmore, where the cost of heating such a cavernous room was a real consideration.

Often it was necessary to immediately transition a room to its resting state following a formal meal, such as in preparation for dancing (as we show in our annual holiday Twelfth Night at Kenmore performance) or for an entertainment, such as a musical performance or a dramatic reading.  Guests might leave the room temporarily to share a drink in the Drawing Room, while house slaves cleared the remains of dinner and moved the furniture, but they might also simply pick up their own chairs and move them out of the way while the switch to entertainment mode took place.  As an English traveler in America noted in his diary, while he and other guests watched, the servants “in the manner of the country, carried away the table when they carried away the cloth, and drove loiterers away with an army of brooms…the men had previously carried their chairs to the wall, the women to a window.”[1]

During the Letters from the Past event, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy a candle-lit dramatic reading in Kenmore’s Dining Room, just as their 18th century counterparts might have done.  The room will be at rest, allowing our visitors the chance to sit directly under the plasterwork ceiling and view the space in an entirely different, but very typical for the 18th century, way.

In honor of National Siblings Day, Letters from the Past will read between the lines of George Washington and Betty Washington Lewis’ personal correspondence. Only a small portion of the letters between the siblings still exists. This program will focus on a series of seven letters written in 1789 and 1790 in which brother and sister grieve the loss of their mother, and bicker about the things all siblings bicker about. Not sure eighteenth-century English is your favorite style of reading? We will have twenty-first century “translators” to help us put all of it into some modern perspective.

This dramatic presentation takes place at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, April 13 from 5:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m.  A reception with light refreshments will be held from 5:00 – 5:30 p.m., and the program will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17.  Reservations are encouraged as space is limited, but walk-ins are welcome.

For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 (New York, 1809). Vol. 1, Pg. 327.  As quoted in Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy.  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 (New York, 1989), Pg. 80.

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Ferry Farm’s Bird Life: An Update

Fredericksburg Birding Club

Members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Between September 2017 and February 2019, the Fredericksburg Birding Club (FBC) conducted 12 bird surveys at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We did three in spring, one in summer, three in fall, and five in winter.  During that time, we saw 78 of the 136 species listed in the “Checklist of Birds at Ferry Farm” pamphlet and saw 3 new species for a total of 81 species spotted.  All observations were recorded at ebird.org.[i] A full list of species observed by the FBC during this time follows.

The chart below compares species listed in the “Checklist of Birds” with those seen by the FBC by abundance designations. Some species vary in abundance with season and, in those cases, these species were given the designation used during their most abundant season.  For example, Catbirds are uncommon in spring, common in summer and fall, and rare in winter.  Nonetheless, in the chart, they were designated as common because summer and fall are when they are encountered most, spring sightings are the “earlybirds” anxious for warm weather, and winter sightings are out-of-habit occurrences.

Designation Definition # of species on “Checklist of Birds” # seen on FBC surveys
Abundant

 

Very numerous 16 16
Common Likely to be seen or heard in suitable habitat 23 23
Uncommon Present, but not certain to be seen 44 29
Occasional Seen only a few times during a season 40 8
Rare May be present but not every year 13 2
New Not listed in checklist (3) 3

 

 

Total

   

139

 

81

As you can see, we observed all birds listed as abundant or common. In addition, we saw 29 of 44 listed as uncommon; eight of 40 species listed as occasional; and two of 13 as rare.  We also sighted three species not listed: the American Pipit, Red Headed Woodpecker, and Pied-billed Grebe.  These sightings bring the total of rare birds at Ferry Farm up to 16 and the total number of bird species seen to 139.

American Pipit

American Pipit. Credit: Becky Matsubara / Wikipedia

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker. Credit: William J. Majoros / Wikipedia

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe. Credit: Mdf / Wikipedia

We don’t think the low numbers of uncommon, occasional or rare species indicate a trend as we are comparing 12 field days over 18 months with former Ferry Farm staff member Paul Nasca’s eight years of intense observation.

However, we noted two differences in frequency of sightings compared with the “Checklist of Birds.”  We only sighted one Catbird and they are listed as common in spring and summer.  In contrast, we have seen Bald Eagles on five of our 12 outings and they are listed as occasional.  Again, at this point in our surveys, these are just interesting observations to follow, not necessarily trends. This year, we expect to pick up more uncommon species and hopefully some occasional species. We’ll see if any of rare ones show up.

Bird Species List

Four of the surveys were conducted during the breeding season — spring through summer — and that data was entered into the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (VABBA2) database.  This atlas is the second for Virginia, the first being compiled from data collected between 1985 and 1989. VABBA2 will document breeding birds throughout the Commonwealth with data collected over five breeding seasons from 2016-2020.

The VABBA2 database notes specific behavior observations that indicate breeding.  By those criteria, we confirmed breeding of four species: Tree Swallow, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, and House Finch.  We also observed probable breeding of four additional species: American Crow, Eastern Bluebird, Common Yellowthroat, and Carolina Chickadee.  While we know these and other species breed at Ferry Farm, we have to observe behaviors or actual juvenile birds to document the breeding.

Highway noise from State Route 3 and the Blue-Gray Parkway at the south end of the property may be a factor in bird observations for both birds and birders.  Studies have documented birds abandoning nesting areas or changing breeding songs so they can be heard.  Additionally, highway noise makes it difficult for birders to hear songs, which affects observations of both bird presence and breeding activity.

The club’s major goal this year is to increase field days in the spring and summer both to document bird presence, particularly of uncommon and occasional species and to observe breeding behavior for VABBA2, increasing the number of confirmed breeding species at Ferry Farm.

Maureen Daly Hamm
Fredericksburg Birding Club

[i] During the non-breeding season, all birding data is entered directly into ebird.org at “George Washington’s Ferry Farm” hotspot.  During the breeding season, the data must be entered through https://ebird.org/atlasva/home.  VABBA2 has split Virginia into geographical blocks and the breeding data must be entered in the block where the birds are observed. Unfortunately, Ferry Farm falls into two different blocks. The southern field area is in block 0380277C4SW, and the remainder of the property is block 0380277C4CW.  We submit data for the southern field area as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm 038077c4SW” The block 0380277C4CW data encompassing the majority of Ferry Farm property is listed simply as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm.”  We will investigate ways to make the data simpler to access, but it may not be possible until the breeding bird survey is complete.

 

All About Mary’s New “Old” Desk

Furnishings posts logo finalAnother new piece of furniture has arrived at the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm! Introducing the “Old Desk,” as listed in the “Parlour” on Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory.  This desk was copied from an original piece in the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that dates to ca. 1710-1730, making it one of the earliest pieces represented in the house. So, why was it called the “old” desk in the inventory? And why are we now calling it “Mary’s desk?” And what are all those squiggly lines all over its surface? And does it have any secret compartments? Read on for the answers to these, and many other questions.

Mary's Desk 1

New “old” desk in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.

Augustine’s probate inventory doesn’t give us much description when it comes to the furnishings of his house, but what it does tell us can provide us with some interesting clues.  For instance, the furnishings of the parlor are almost all described as “old” – an old table, 3 old chairs, and the old desk.  Almost none of the furniture in the rest of the house is given this descriptor.  It would seem to indicate that the parlor was filled with furniture that was already considered old by 1743.

Parlor on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

“Parlour” section on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 following his death. Several items are described as “old.”

What do we consider “old” today? It can be a pretty broad category! For some of us, an object isn’t really old until it’s been around for hundreds of years.  On the other hand, folks living in California might consider a house built in the 1920s to be pretty old.  So what was considered old in the Washingtons’ day? Our best guess is that there was something about the furniture in the parlor that made the inventory takers think it was old – in other words, it looked different than the rest of the furniture in the house.  It was probably of a style that looked so different that it was immediately recognizable as being from an earlier era.

As we’ve previously discussed, in 1743 most colonists were becoming familiar with the Queen Anne style of furniture – a lighter, more graceful style, that emphasized curves and less embellishment.  Immediately preceding the Queen Anne was a style known as William and Mary, or early Baroque.  Early Baroque furniture was heavier, and emphasized intricate decoration like inlays, veneers, and carvings with an emphasis on dark woods.  Even to our modern eyes, William and Mary furniture looks very, very old.  We think that the Washington’s parlor was filled with William and Mary style furniture, giving the room a very different feel than the rest of the house.

The original desk chosen for reproduction is from the William and Mary time period, and shows all the hallmarks of that style – dark wood, intricate inlays and veneer on every surface.  The material used for all that veneer also explains those squiggly lines.  The wood used here is walnut, but more specifically it’s “burled” walnut.

Burl on a oak tree

Large burl on an oak tree. Credit: Wikipedia

Burled walnut isn’t a species, but rather a condition of the wood.  If you’ve ever seen an old tree with large, gnarled knots growing out of it, you’ve seen burled wood.  Those knots are caused by a fungus that invades the tree and causes the usual wood ring pattern to grow out of control.  Unfortunately, these gnarled knots of wood are very weak and can’t be used for any kind of structure, but they can be used for decorative purposes.  A woodworker can thinly slice the knots, producing material suitable for veneers that are covered in beautiful whirled patterns like what you see on the desk.

In addition to all the inlays and burled veneer, the desk does indeed feature some secret compartments.  This is everybody’s favorite part! In this post from three years ago, we discussed the importance of hidden compartments in 18th century furniture for keeping important documents or other valuables safe.  They were usually hidden within the structure of the desk, such as boxes built into the case of a piece and concealed by a false panel or floor, but they could also be spaces concealed by decorative elements of the piece, like carvings or architectural elements.

Our desk has a particularly sneaky hidden compartment in that it’s not what you think it is.  There is a panel in the center of the desktop that slides backward to reveal a large open compartment.  To our modern eyes, this must be it, right? The secret compartment! But no, it’s a fake out.  Our colonial ancestors would have recognized it as the storage compartment for the inkwells and stand necessary for proper letter writing – a fairly common feature of a formal writing desk at the time.

Mary's Desk 2

Desk showing the central compartment open. This space was for storing inkwells and a letter writing stand.

However, if you’ve gotten this far in an examination of Mary’s desk, then you’re pretty close to discovering the real secret compartment.  In fact, it’s revealed in the video below but, when you visit Ferry Farm, you should keep looking in the desk.  There are two more secrets hidden here!

And why do we call it “Mary’s desk” now? Well, that’s become a habit, but it’s one based in probability.  As our regular readers know, there are two desks in the Washington house – the small one that we’re discussing today, and the scrutore in the Hall, which we previously discussed here.  The scrutore is a very large piece of furniture, and was usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, who often kept them in their back rooms to house account ledgers and financial papers.  The fall-front writing surface was intended to be used while standing, rather than while seated at a desk chair, and you can see by how high that it was positioned that was intended for persons of some stature.  Scrutores are generally associated with use by men, so in the Washington house, we tend to think of our scrutore as being “Augustine’s desk,” a place where he kept track of both his business accounts and matters related to the farm operation.

Washington's Birthday Celebration 2019 (3)

Interpreter Gary Haynes shows the scrutore to visitors touring the Hall of the Washington house.

The old desk, on the other hand, is very small – what furniture scholars call “diminutive” – and is of a style that is usually associated with use by women. Contrary to popular belief, women were often in charge of the complicated business arrangements and contracts related to the running of a household, and in Mary’s case, a farm operation after Augustine’s death.  So their desks were not simply for writing letters, but also for the storage and organization of all the associated papers and accounts needed to run their world.  Additionally, as the “keeper of the keys” in a colonial household, the mistress of the house might also store costly spices and foodstuffs in locked drawers within her desk, so that she could monitor their use.  Visitors to the Washington house will see that we have outfitted the old desk with all of the things Mary used on a daily basis, giving rise to the nickname “Mary’s desk.”

Mary's Desk 3

The desk showing a balance, mortar and pestle, spice pouches, letters, papers, quills, and all the necessities for an 18th century woman to manage the complicated business arrangements and contracts related to running of a household.

We hope you will stop in soon to see all of the new additions to the Washington house furnishings …and maybe figure out where Mary hid her secrets!  Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore both open for the season this Friday, March 1. Click here to plan your visit.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations