Hanging Portraits in Kenmore’s Drawing Room

The George Washington Foundation’s curators recently oversaw the hanging of portraits in Historic Kenmore’s Drawing Room. Portraits of Fielding and Betty Lewis painted by John Wollaston as well as of John Lewis and Fielding Lewis, Jr. painted by Charles Willson Peale were returned to the room where they hung originally. In this video showing the installation process, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations, also explains the significance of these types of portraits to the Lewis family and the rest of Virginia’s gentry.  You can also read more about the portraits and the installation process on “The Rooms at Kenmore” blog at http://kenmore.org/wordpress.

‘Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  This the second in a series of “Colonial Grossology” posts that we’re offering on Lives & Legacies.

At least once during his youth at Ferry Farm, probably in July 1750, George Washington went “washing in the river.”  We know this because Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel were arrested and tried and one of them was even flogged for stealing valuables from his clothes while he was in the Rappahannock.  Of course, it seems quite safe to assume that young George swam in the river on many more occasions than this one moment chronicled in court records.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington's Ferry Farm.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington.  Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington's clothes while he was "washing in the river." Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted or petty larceny and "flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back."

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington. Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington’s clothes while he was “washing in the river.” Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted of petty larceny and “flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back.”  Spotsylvania County Court Records, Order Book 1749-1755, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

The court records say he was “washing in the river.” But was he bathing to get clean or swimming just for fun?  It’s hard to say.  In the 1700s, swimming was “rarely intended for hygienic purposes,” though, of course, it made a person clean.  Cleaning was not swimming’s intended purpose, however.  People went swimming largely to cool off during hot weather.  Still, the word “washing” in the court documents seems significant.  If Washington was bathing with the purpose of getting clean, his dip in the river was somewhat unusual for more than the fact that he fell victim to thieves.[1]

How often did Washington and his fellow colonial Americans bathe to get clean?  The question’s answer is more complicated that you might imagine.

First, the answer largely depends upon what we mean by the word bathing.  If we mean head-to-toe immersion in water and scrubbing with soap to get clean, then bathing was quite infrequent.  In the 1700s, many people feared immersing the body in water as a sure way to get sick.  American settlers came from Europe, where bathing occurred in public bathhouses for much of the early modern period.  Before the late 1800s, people did not understand that germs caused disease.  Instead, when they got sick, people sometimes blamed the bathhouses and bathing.  For much of the 18th century, this suspicion towards bathing “reflected medical theories about the dangers to a healthy body of extremes of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness.  Any extreme might disturb the delicate equilibrium of the body’s humors, temperature, and moisture.  Compared to the shock of immersion in water, dirt upon the skin seemed benign.”  In fact, some people believed dirt helped keep you healthy by “reinforcing the skin.”[2]

Second, an immersive bath was simply a lot of hard work.  Unless you had servants or owned slaves to do that hard work, you carried water to the tub from your water source, perhaps a well, a spring, or a nearby stream, two buckets at a time.  Multiple trips would be necessary.  To warm the water, you had to use precious firewood to build a fire.  Building the fire and getting it started were not simple tasks either.  The incredible effort it took to bathe also explains why, when baths did actually occur, the same water was used by multiple people in the household.  The father bathed first, the sons next, then the mother and daughters, and finally the servants.[3]  To add to these practical difficulties, “tubs specifically made for bathing did not make an appearance in America” until the very late 18th century.[4]  As a result, daily cleaning for most of the colonial era was “accomplished by washing the face and hands . . . in one’s bed chamber, with a basin and a relatively small amount of water.”  We today might refer to this method as a sponge bath.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

“A bath in which the entire body was submerged, or showered with water, was generally taken for reasons of pleasure or preventive health maintenance, and in some cases, as a type of remedy for a particular affliction.”[5]  Immersive bathing for pleasure and health occurred in resort cities and towns at the sites of warm, mineral springs.  For example, George Washington, Fielding Lewis, and kin frequently trekked to Bath, Virginia (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) and both gentlemen owned property in the mountain resort.

For most of the 1700s, washing from a basin remained the most common method for getting clean on a daily basis.  Indeed, it was so much the norm that when Elizabeth Drinker, a wealthy Philadelphia women, tried the new shower her husband built in the backyard, she wrote in her diary: “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past.”[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004: 190

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009: 19-21.

[3] Brown, 209.

[4] Mays, 190.

[5] “Bathing,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bathing [accessed February 10, 2015]

[6] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.

George Toasts George?

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm we’ve just wrapped up a ceramic mending project.  We explain how and why we undertake these mending projects in this post.  Our most recent effort focused on Westerwald stonewares owned by the Washington family.  Stoneware is a high-fired, non-porous ceramic that is excellent for producing storage containers and drinking vessels.  But what is a Westerwald, you may ask?  Well, Westerwald stonewares were a ceramic produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s.  Destined for the British Isles and British colonial markets, this particular ceramic is common to archaeological sites in the Chesapeake region.

Westerwalds were salt-glazed, meaning that during the firing process large quantities of salt were introduced into the kiln.  The salt vitrified (converted into a glass-like substance) upon contact with the vessels, producing a shiny glaze and a characteristic ‘orange peel’ texture on the surface of the pots.  Decorated predominantly with molded and incised designs that are filled with bright cobalt blue and deep purple, Westerwalds are strikingly beautiful.

Jug with a bird motif.

We’ve learned a great deal from analyzing the Westerwalds used by the Washingtons.  Many of the vessels identified in the Ferry Farm assemblage were tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels from which beverages such as ale and cider, a large part of the colonial diet, were consumed.  Some tankard handles we’ve excavated have small holes at the top, where a pewter lid — a distinguishing characteristic of German-made steins — was attached.  These lids often do not survive in the archaeological record because the metal had value.  Rather than being discarded, the pewter was often recycled.

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, Westerwald drinking vessels often served a political purpose.  An excellent example of this is to be found within our assemblage of Westerwalds in the form of multiple mugs emblazoned with the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George.  During the time Westerwalds were produced in Germany, three British kings were named George.  Interestingly, however, all three came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714.  For Americans, of course, the most famous of these Hanover kings was George III.

Sprig decorated G.R. medallion on a jug fragment.

Thus, a gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale.  A night of drinking involved numerous toasts “To the King’s Health!”  It was not unheard of for dozens of toasts to be recited for the king, his family, and anyone else of political interest the imbibers saw fit to honor.  Toasts and drinking vessels were also utilized to express disagreement with political powers.  Politics and drinking definitely went hand-in-hand in the colonies.  Once George Washington became a public figure, there were toasts such as “To General Washington, and victory to the American arms!” to honor him.

The presence of these initialed Westerwalds at Ferry Farm show that until the Revolution the Washington family, like most Americans, viewed themselves as loyal subjects of the British Crown.  Indeed, many families in Fredericksburg would have owned such mugs and toasted their monarch prior to the war.  In fact, several ‘G.R.’ vessels have also been excavated at Historic Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister, Betty.  The people of Ferry Farm, Kenmore, and Fredericksburg found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Colonial men – whether gentry, tradesman, or servants – pursued homes, professions, pleasures, and possessions that conveyed their status, wealth, and English identities.  One such possession that emphasized this identity was Westerwald drinking vessels.

Hollowware fragments with an unknown motif.

One has to wonder what became of these mugs once the Revolution began.  Did Loyalists quietly stash away some of their ‘G.R.’ mugs once the tide of war went against them?  Perhaps some tankards and jugs were smashed publically by Patriots in a ritual different from their intended purpose of toasting but no less a political act than those toasts had been.  Nevertheless, it is intriguing to picture a young George Washington drinking heartily from a ‘G.R.’ mug and toasting a king against whom he would lead a revolution.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Caring for Historic Kenmore: Climate Control

Editor’s Note: The behind-the-scenes tour mentioned at the end of this post and on the video’s end title is sold out.

Today, we’re linking to a behind-the-scenes video on The George Washington Foundation’s YouTube channel.   In the video, Heather Baldus, Collections Manager, gives us a tour of Historic Kenmore’s underground heating and cooling system. This geothermal system helps maintain the proper climate inside the mansion and protects all of the furniture and historic objects on display.

You can see more during “Kenmore: Behind-the-Scenes” on Saturday, March 21 when Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations, gives an extraordinary tour of the mansion, including rare stories and insights into its history, furnishings, and ongoing preservation. Visit the cellar, second floor, attic, and other spaces behind-the-scenes! Admission: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 12-17. Reservations required and space is very limited.  Please call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org. Please note: on this tour, participants visit each floor in the mansion, climbing a total of 80 stairs. A few passageways and stairwells are narrow and confined.

White Snow. Blue Skies.

About a month ago on “Lives & Legacies,” we shared a gallery of photos showing snow-covered Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm in years past.  That post especially focused on snowy scenes of Kenmore.  With snow from yesterday’s storm still on the ground under beautiful sun-filled blue skies, we thought we ought to share a few more snowy photos with special focus on Ferry Farm this time.