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

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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

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm 2019 [Photos]

Presidents’ Day is always a celebratory one at George Washington’s Ferry Farm! Once again this year, George’s boyhood home marked his 287th birthday this past Monday, February 18. A special thank you to the sponsor of the George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm event: Peoples Community Bank.

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

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

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

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

02417v

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

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

Linens on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hazards of Winter in Washington’s Day

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

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

OUTDOORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

INDOORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

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

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

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

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

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