History’s Paper Trail: What Handwriting & Spelling Reveal about Early America

One of the aspects of a historian’s job is dealing with primary sources, the paper trail of history.  The archives here at The George Washington Foundation contain primary sources that include letters, wills, land grants, court orders, military orders, bills and receipts.  These hand-written documents are largely related to the Fielding and Betty Lewis family and provide us with a wealth of information on all facets of their lives from how much rum they bought to how much they paid in yearly taxes.  At the same time, they and other written historical records provide a glimpse into some fascinating dynamics of early American society and culture.

However, sometimes these documents can be difficult to read because, in the 18th century, writing style and spelling were still not completely standardized.

Students in early America usually learned to write by copying different styles of writing known as ‘hands’ in a copybook that showed alphabets and phrases in the ‘hand’ to be learned.  Students copied the alphabets and phrases exactly, for practice and for reference, and business forms.  For example, while attending school in Fredericksburg, young George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior to learn handwriting as well as proper behavior in polite society.

Above: Examples of ‘hands’ (Flourishing Alphabet, Italian Hand, German Text, Round Hand) from The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick by George Fisher and published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1786

In the 1700s, writing was a skill reserved for select groups of people, mainly professionals and upper class males.  Women, artisans, lower classes, and the enslaved were not formally taught handwriting because it was viewed as unnecessary to their everyday life.  A lack of formal education did not stop people from writing.  Instead, they just developed their own system of penmanship and style.

Spelling

Colonial-era writers could choose from a number of dictionaries to assist with spelling.  Many of these books, however, focused only on difficult, obscure, or archaic words.  It wasn’t until 1755 that Samuel Johnson published the influential A Dictionary of the English Language, which offered a more comprehensive lexicon of contemporary English of the time.  By the colonial period, much English spelling was recognizably modern due to the beginning movements of standardization in education and print. Dictionaries also assisted in the development of a more uniform writing style.

What if you had not been to school or had never seen a dictionary?  Well, you simply spelled a word the best you could by sounding it out phonetically.  So, ‘school’ became ‘skool’ or ‘laugh’ became ‘laff.’ A word might be spelled a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.  When read aloud, these words sound fine but, when silently reading a primary source document, the written phonetic spelling can take a few seconds to process.

An account statement from 1766 between James Winn and Fielding Lewis that includes two examples of phonetic spelling: “brest” buckle and “soop” spoon.

The Long ‘s’

The long ‘s’ was a style of spelling that generally fell out of use in print by the end of the 18th century.  It persisted in handwriting until the mid-19th century.  The long ‘s’ was an elongated version of a lowercase ‘s’.  It was often seen at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and in words containing a double ‘s’.   A notable example is the spelling of Congress in the Bill of Rights.

Understandably, when we read primary sources today, the long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’ or ‘p’ and it takes some practice to get the context of what is being said.

The word ‘Witnes’ in this document includes an excellent example of the long ‘s’ in the word and it’s close resemblance to an ‘f.’  This is a bond dated 14 September 1747 that requires George Lewis, who lives in Frederick County, to pay 3 pounds of Pennsylvania Currency to Charles Dunnahie by 1 May 1749.

Abbreviations/Subscript

Abbreviations and subscript often come up in colonial-era handwritten documents, particularly on bills, invoices and receipts. Shortening words or phrases like can’t for cannot or asap for as soon as possible is something we are familiar with today.  Commonly, abbreviations in the 18th century were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters like Recd for received.  Superscript or subscript letters are most frequently seen today in chemical compounds (H₂O) or in mathematical expressions.

This receipt, dated 25 September 1780, from Henry Rutter to George Lewis for 48 1/2 bushels of tax oats and 40 Bushels of Rye from George Lewis per Thomas Smither.  The “Recd” at the beginning of the receipt is an excellent example of both an abbreviation and superscript.

All the quirks in 18th century writing present many challenges for the historian.  Creating a system of deciphering can take time and plenty of practice.  At times, it can be more than a little frustrating.  Once the documents’ particular meanings are deciphered, the writing itself can reveal many different dynamics about early American society and culture.

One of the biggest of these dynamics is that very few people received enough education to develop a professional level of literacy.  Professional level of literacy, at the time, would mean having enough skill to conduct business.  Such a level was reserved, usually, for white middle to upper class males.

Selective education provided a powerful form of social control and a framework for society to judge and instantly understand a person’s social status, education, and occupation.  At this time, it was not thought important for women, slaves, or the lower classes to know how to write.  Some even thought that teaching these groups to write would encourage them to aspire above their allotted station in life.  Writing gives people the freedom to express themselves and their ideas in a concrete way which can easily be transmitted to others, an uncomfortable prospect for a society based on a selective hierarchy.

Though a woman, George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington could write.  Her spelling was extremely phonetic as seen in this letter transcription and reflects a lack of formal schooling but not necessarily a lack of intelligence as some historians have argued.  Indeed, primary sources like Mary’s letters supported by “new archaeological data has yielded a decidedly more complex picture of this influential matron than is possible using the historical record alone.” Laura Galke, an archaeologist here at The George Washington Foundation, argues (PDF) that artifacts discovered at George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm demonstrate that Mary “enjoyed the personal agency that widowhood allowed her; she was responsible for the management decisions of the Washington household and the surrounding farm. Mary’s choices reflect an ambitious woman determined to participate in the genteel society her family had enjoyed before Augustine’s death.”  This required much intelligence.

Interestingly, Mary’s daughter Betty Washington Lewis also knew how to write.  Mary ensured Betty knew how to run a household and keep in touch with family, which numerous letters written by Betty show she did effectively.

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis painted by John Wollaston in the 1750s

Her phonetic spelling in this letter transcription is an improvement over her mother’s.  The improvement in Betty’s spelling when compared to Mary’s further illustrates the increasing standardization during the 18th century and can also be seen as an example of changing beliefs in education for women at the end of the 1700s.  A movement was growing late in the century to teach writing to women.  This movement, however, did not come from a revolutionary drive for equality but, rather, from an expanded idea regarding the duties of Motherhood.  If women could not read and write, it was thought, how would they teach their sons, the future generation of leaders, to do the same?

Though difficult, at times, to decipher, the simple act of writing gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who thought about and experienced a life quite different from ours.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Video: The Science of History – Experimental Archaeology & Stoneboiling

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. Native American occupation of Ferry Farm left behind many artifacts including fire-cracked rocks. This video shows how those rock artifacts were made through a cooking technique known as stoneboiling.

See the first video in our Science of History series here.

Why Did the Chicken Eat the Artifact?

Chances are you haven’t spent much time thinking about chicken digestive tracts.  This is normal.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, however, the topic actually comes up from time to time.  More than once we archaeologists have found ceramic artifacts that have been rounded in an odd fashion, as if tumbled in a river for many years.  What accounts for this phenomenon?  The answer lies – or roosts, rather – in the coop.

Have you ever given thought to how birds eat?   How they chew food and digest whole seeds without any teeth?  A bird chews its food, but not with its mouth.  Most birds use gizzards that essentially act as second stomachs.  Almost pure muscle with a strong lining, the gizzard mashes up food to make its nutrients absorbable by the intestines.  A bird ingests rocks and grit to help the gizzard grind tough foods like seeds and plant material.  These rocks are not passed through the bird but remain inside its gizzard until they are completely ground up or the bird dies.  Subsequently, these rocks sometimes take on a rounded, polished look because the gizzard is essentially a tiny rock tumbler.

Stones recovered from the gizzard of a modern turkey.

How does all this relate to archaeology?  Simply put, a bird cannot differentiate between a rock and an artifact.  The free-range chickens, turkeys, and geese that live with humans gobble up anything that is about the right size for their gizzard, whether rocks, glass, ceramics, or even plastic and metal (The plastic and metal is probably not all that good for them).  When a bird is butchered, the gizzard stones – known as ‘gastroliths’ to archaeologists – are released, buried, and excavated to confuse some poor archaeologist hundreds of years later.  This is exactly what happened at Ferry Farm.  At least one Ferry Farm bird had expensive taste and swallowed porcelain.  Some ceramic gastroliths excavated by our archaeologists were in a gizzard so long that the glaze wore off entirely and was ingested.  Eighteenth century ceramic glazes contained lead, and this ultimately would have been passed on to the humans who ate the unlucky fowl.

Gullet Stones (4)

Ceramic pieces worn smooth inside a turkey or goose gullet and recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm.

In addition to being an archaeologist, I also keep birds on a small farm.  After butchering a few chickens and a turkey, I notice that the size of the gizzard stones reflected the size of the bird.  A turkey is capable of ingesting much larger objects as gastroliths than chickens. This was such an exciting revelation that I saved some stones recovered from the turkey gizzard and analyzed them.  Archaeologists are an odd bunch!  The stones were partially rounded and, in addition to rock, the turkey had eaten chucks of concrete and even a bone.

Two pieces of concrete and one piece of bone from inside a modern turkey gizzard.

Given the size of the ceramic gizzard stones excavated at Ferry Farm, we can deduce that the birds which ate them were probably large domestics such as turkeys or geese.  So we not only learned why the chicken ate the artifact but that it probably wasn’t even a chicken at all.  This helps to us to understand what kinds of livestock the Washington family kept at Ferry Farm.  Who knew you could learn so much from a beat up piece of pottery in a gizzard?

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Photos: Nature Walk at George Washington’s Ferry Farm


George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm offers a wonderful blend of woods, fields, wetlands, and riverfront.  Fox, groundhogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and deer make Ferry Farm their home.  In the meadows, bushy heads of grass seeds provide an important source of food for birds.  Beautiful flowers and majestic trees abound across the landscape.  A few weeks ago, we set out on a nature walk around Ferry Farm to enjoy the flora and fauna.

Learn more about Ferry Farm’s natural environment here.

Of Chamber Pots and Close Stool Chairs

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.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

In over five years working in historic house museums, it has come up in conversations with visitors more than one might expect and far more than the 18th century Virginia gentry would have thought proper. After passing through drawing rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms, the youngest in a tour group often realizes, with very little shyness, that “There’s no bathroom! Where did they go to the bathroom?” Veteran historic house visitors will often notice a certain object on the floor near a bed and, in hopes of not being overheard by others on the tour, quietly ask if the object is what they think it is. As a museum educator, I’ve come to embrace discussing how colonial Americans did their business because those acts are fundamental to being human. Discussing them reminds us that the larger-than-life characters who lived two centuries ago were just like us.

Outhouse

A simple outhouse.

So, just how did early Americans go to the bathroom? Many visitors imagine they used an “outhouse.” It seems that few colonial Virginians, however, had outhouses or privies, as the structures where known in the 1700s. These buildings were much more common in other colonies. A privy was a small wooden structure usually built behind the house with a floor built over a good-sized hole dug into the ground. Inside the structure, a wood plank served as the seat and a round hole cut in this plank allowed the waste to fall down into the pit. Privies sometimes featured multiple holes (including smaller holes to ensure children did not fall into the pit) but, of course, little privacy.

While certainly important to their early American users, privies also yield important secrets to today’s archaeologists. Seeds ingested when colonial people ate passed from the people into their privies and actually survive to be excavated hundreds of years later. These seeds tell archaeologists what kind of fruits and vegetables people were eating. Even eggs from parasites that lived inside colonial people were deposited into the privy pit when they went to the bathroom. These eggs also survive and reveal what kind of illnesses people suffered from 200 years ago. A lot of people had stomach worms!

When someone living in the 1700s woke to the call of nature in the middle of the night, that person didn’t necessarily want to go outdoors and use a privy. Who wants to walk outside when it’s raining, snowing, cold, and dark, after all? Instead, you simply used a chamber pot resting next to your bed. Chamber pots came in a variety of shapes and sizes and could be made from ceramic or metal.

Chamber pot tucked under the bed in The Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Chamber Pot

A porcelain child-sized chamber pot.

It actually was quite common for the chamber pot to even be part of a special chair called a close stool, which looked like an ordinary chair but, in fact, its hinged seat lifted up to reveal a chamber pot.  The collection at Kenmore contains a chair originally made in the 1700s and then modified in the early to mid-1800s into a close stool chair.

The chamber pot and the close stool chair were probably enough for most colonial Americans, a good majority of whom never bothered to build a privy. No privy dating from George Washington’s time has been found at Ferry Farm, which means he and his family probably used only chamber pots and/or close stool chairs. In fact, archaeologists found fragments of a stoneware chamber pot in the Washington house cellar during excavations in 2008 and 2009. It features hand-painted cobalt blue floral design and dates from the mid-18th century. In the photos below, the pot is upside down and resting on its rim.

At Kenmore, Fielding Lewis’ probate inventory lists a “close stool chair and pan” among the house’s upstairs furniture. When George or Fielding used the pot or the chair, either they themselves or, more likely, their enslaved house servants tossed the waste outside. People emptied their pots in a variety of convenient places: into a pit for just that purpose, into the nearest body of water, onto their vegetable garden as a fertilizer known as “night soil,” or just out the nearest window. What could be more convenient!

On plantations and farms, waste flying out of windows wasn’t necessarily an immediate danger to other humans. People living in crowded cities and towns throughout the colonies and Europe still emptied their pots in much the same way as their rural counterparts. They just tossed the waste into the street. Some localities did have rules about disposal. In Edinburgh, for example, residents could only empty their chamber pots “after 10:00 p.m., upon the sound of a drum, and only once they had shouted a warning of ‘Gardy-loo!’ (‘Mind the water!’) to passerby.”[1] The southern French city of Marseilles required residents to give three warnings before emptying. In nearby Avignon, however, people walking in the street at night had to make their presence known by shouting.  New York City passed an ordinance in 1724 making it illegal to dump waste into the street. Residents had to walk to one of the rivers to dispose of their waste.

Privies, chamber pots, close stool chairs, night soil, rampant stomach worms, and waste lying in the street. Relative to today, the 18th century was not a terribly clean or healthy time. While not a pleasant topic, the ‘gross’ bathroom tools and customs of two centuries ago can teach us much about the everyday lives of early Americans and, ultimately, their most important lesson may simply be that our ancestors were human too.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, pg. 28.

Video: Summer in the Garden

Scenes from the Demonstration Garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm on a peaceful summer morning. The garden contains a variety of colonial-era plants that would have been grown by the Washington family like tobacco, corn, and squash.  There are also modern flower species plus birds and other wildlife.