Just outside a window of the Archaeology Lab near the demonstration garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm stands a hummingbird feeder. We regularly receive feathered visitors to the feeder. Archaeologist Laura Galke recently captured some photos of a couple of the hummingbirds as well as a surprise guest.
Fruit! It’s good for you, delicious, and often beautiful – but have you ever thought of fruit as a status symbol? In today’s world of relatively quick, inexpensive long-distance transportation, we enjoy fresh fruit from all over the world year-round. We generally take this ability for granted. In the eighteenth century, however, if you or your neighbors didn’t grow a particular fruit at home, then it had to be shipped to you at great cost. In this age before refrigerated shipping, fruit’s extremely short shelf life was magnified. As a result, a simple pineapple or lime represented a household’s wealth and the display of expensive fruits was a way to impress dinner guests. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?
Fruit proved such a rare luxury in the 1700s that people purchased special dishes in which to serve the fruit. These dishes also emphasized the social status of the owner because they signaled to people that this person could afford fresh fruit even if none might be available at the moment. Like the fruit, the dishes themselves came to the owner’s table from all the way across an ocean, further emphasizing their wealth. Archaeologically, we’ve recovered one such special fruit dish from George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Made of white salt-glazed stoneware around 1755, this favorite ceramic of Mary Washington, George’s mother, is heavily decorated. The entire surface of the object has some visually interesting thing to catch the eye. With a geometric design in the center surrounded by a variation of the basket-dot-diaper motif common to the time period and an intricately pierced rim flanked by scroll-work, this dish would certainly have been highly valued in the Washington household.
In the eighteenth century, one of the most important ways a person could display their standing and refinement was by hosting elaborate dinners. This meant having extravagant and highly decorated centerpieces, preferably of silver. However, if you couldn’t afford silver, then a ceramic equivalent was the next best thing. Ceramic fruit dishes, like our white salt-glazed one, even borrowed some forms and stylistic elements common on silver dishes of the time.
What makes our particular fruit dish found at Ferry Farm even more special is that sherds from an almost identical one were excavated at Mount Vernon. In 1757, not long after George Washington moved to Mount Vernon, he sent to England for a large amount of ceramics, including 100 “white stone” dishes. There were numerous other vessels ordered in white salt-glaze as well, including patty pans, mustard pots, butter dishes, mugs, teapots, slop basins, and more. Having special tablewares just for specific types of foods and condiments impressed your dinner guests with both your financial wealth and your knowledge of the “proper” way to serve things. Having the appropriate tableware was so important that when Washington didn’t receive certain items ordered from England, he complained to his supplier, Thomas Knox, writing that “The Crate of Stone ware don’t [sic] contain a third of the Pieces I am charg’d with, and only two things broke, and everything very high Charg’d.” Though showing disappointment about the broken pieces, Washington’s concern that he did not receive all he ordered hints at how fashionable the stoneware was considered. Also, given the large number of items ordered, it is impressive only two pieces broke. White salt-glazed stoneware was sturdy enough for the Washington family to use every day.
If finding similar ceramic dishes at Ferry Farm and Mount Vernon were not enough, we have also excavated very similar sherds at Historic Kenmore, the home of George’s sister Betty. Apparently, the taste for lovely and heavily molded white salt-glazed dishes must have run in the family! The icing on the cake is that we also have a complete example of a fruit dish in Kenmore’s collection of ceramics that matches the sherds recovered in digs at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm. What are the odds?
The archaeologists at Ferry Farm are working diligently to mend together as much of Mary Washington’s fruit dish fragments as possible. We’re a third of the way there. We hope to display these excavated pieces next to the complete dish so visitors can enjoy these lovely examples of eighteenth century artwork as much as we do.
The Washingtons – Mary, George, and Betty – all went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to friends and neighbors. They did so, in part, by serving exotic fresh fruit shipped to the colonies from around the Atlantic World. To serve that fruit, they used fine and fashionable ceramic fruit dishes that were also shipped great distances. Think about that the next time you enjoy a fruit cup!
Lauren Jones, Archaeology Lab Technician
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor
 Email between Eleanor Breen, Director of Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor at The George Washington Foundation, November 12, 2010.
 Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, University Press of New England, 2009.
Historic Kenmore’s beautiful grounds and gardens require much work to remain beautiful. On a recent morning, staff mowed and weeded flower beds in the unending effort to make the flowers and grounds look their best.
Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm always need volunteers to help with our gardens. If you might be interested in volunteering, visit http://kenmore.org/foundation/volunteers.html for more information.
Ships and sea-faring were parts of daily life and culture in the Atlantic World port of Fredericksburg. This was especially the case for the Fielding Lewis family, who became wealthy through shipping, ship owning, and ship building. Wednesday’s Lives & Legacies entry recounted a typical sea voyage around the Atlantic Ocean by the Stanton, a brig owned by John Lewis, Fielding’s father.
Ships, the sea, and the Atlantic World even seeped into Fielding’s reading life. In her latest post on The Rooms at Kenmore blog, Curator Meghan Budinger discusses our efforts to collect books owned by Fielding Lewis. Her blog entry deals with one book in particular called The Voyages, Dangerous Adventures and Imminent Escapes of Captain Richard Falconer, an adventure story of life at sea in the 1700s.
As Meghan notes, his choice to include Captain Falconer in his library “may be a nod to Fielding’s lifelong association with merchant vessels, both his father’s fleet and his own.” It also demonstrates that the Atlantic World was about far more than moving goods across oceans. It reached into every aspect of life for the peoples living within reach of the great Atlantic Ocean, even into their literature.
Read about the mystery behind this book on The Rooms at Kenmore.
In colonial times, ocean-going ships could sail up the Rappahannock River all the way to Fredericksburg. This made the tiny but growing town a bustling seaport. All types of goods were loaded onto ships to be sent to Europe while others were unloaded to be sold right here in the colonies.
George Washington, Fielding Lewis, their families and slaves, as well as the town’s other residents were all members of a wider community centered on the trade traveling back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. The townspeople of Fredericksburg saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day. Those ships brought goods to sell and to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and people to settle and work in the colonies. Washington, Lewis, and their neighbors interacted with the sailors from these ships every day and were aware of the hardships of life at sea.
George even experienced life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and Fredericksburg to sail to Barbados for a visit at the age of 19. This journey is the only time Washington left the confines of the future continental United States. For a time, George, supported by elder half-brother Lawrence, even toyed with the idea of joining the British navy until Mary, George’s mother, firmly refused to give her permission. For his part, Fielding Lewis made his riches from shipping goods to and from the colonies. Shipping cargo, ship owning, and ship building was the family business started by his father John.
In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, for a variety of reasons, many planters in this area chose to export things like wheat, timber, and other raw materials. Using the raw materials exported from the Americas, manufactured goods were made in Europe and then sent to Africa and back to the Americas. The manufactured goods paid for slaves in Africa and for more raw materials in America. Often known as the ‘triangular trade’ because of the triangle shape it forms on a map, this historic trade pattern is one we learn as early as elementary school.
More than goods traveled along these trade routes. People (sailors, settlers, and slaves) moved along them as well. All of these movements created connections between nations, colonies, and groups of people in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and beyond. The Atlantic Ocean was at the center of all these connections. “Every European or African who moved to or was born in Virginia” was also a member of what historians call the Atlantic World.
A voyage typical of those that took place within the Atlantic World was made by one of John Lewis’ ships in early 1732. On December 23, 1731, the 80-ton brig Stanton — captained by Richard Williams — set sail with 8 crew and 2 guns aboard.
The Stanton was a brig, a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. While we have no idea what the Stanton itself looked like, a replica ship named the Lady Washington provides an idea of a brig’s size and appearance.
If you look closely at the people toward the ship’s stern in the photo, you can appreciate just how small a brig can be. Imagine crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean in a ship that size!
As it left Virginia, the Stanton’s cargo was listed as “46 Pipe Staves, 1800 bushel corn, 1000 bushell wheat, 40 [tierces] of Bread, 15 barr[els of] flower, 1 bar[rel] of lard, 300 lb of beeswax, 2000 feet plank, 1100 feet heading & 15 barr[els of] Pork.” Surprisingly to us, in this age before refrigeration, butchered livestock was an important export for Virginia.
The Stanton was bound for the island of Madeira 550 miles off the coast of Portugal. The specific cargo exchanged at Madeira is not listed but, after that exchange, the ship set sail for Barbados in the Caribbean Sea. Once more, cargo was exchanged but specifics were not recorded.
After a five month voyage covering 8,250 miles, the Stanton finally returned to Virginia on May 10, 1732. When the ship came into port in the colonies, it’s cargo included “Rum – 21 [tierces and] 16 barrels, Sugar – 14 Barrels [and] 11 Qt. Casks, 8 Negros, 3 baggs ginger, & Sundry household goods.” Though not specified in the Stanton’s case, sundry household goods shipped to the colonies included ceramic and glass dishes, different cloths, jewelry, and books.
The Stanton’s voyage, the ports it visited, and the cargo it carried are all exceedingly typical of Atlantic World trade throughout the 1700s, whether in the earlier decades of John Lewis or the century’s later decades of his son Fielding.
Ultimately, situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire and the Atlantic World, the people of 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. Fielding Lewis used the ships he owned and the wealth he gained from actively participating as a British merchant in the Atlantic World to fund the struggle to throw off English colonial control, to do his part to support his brother-in-law’s army, and to create a new nation.
Manager of Educational Programs
 April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004: 39.
Archaeologists spend much more of their time working to determine the significance of an object than actually finding the object through excavation. This analytical work is done in an archaeology lab. Before analysis can begin, the newly uncovered artifacts have to be thoroughly washed. This video shows how.
Learn more about archaeology at Ferry Farm here.