Being Part of the Story: Collecting Oral Histories about Ferry Farm and Kenmore

Have you ever seen ads for museums inviting you to “be part of the story”?  Well, at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, many people are part of the story and have been for a long time.  Those who have played an integral part in the ownership, history, preservation, and work of the properties have long had a spot for these two places in their hearts.   Collecting and processing the oral stories of those people is an important part of understanding the historical scope of The George Washington Foundation’s properties.  In fact, oral history programs and collections have become an important component of many museums around the world.

Our Foundation’s own oral history project officially began in 2007.  My requirement was to interview someone for a Historic Preservation Department course I was taking at The University of Mary Washington.  I was to record recollections of a person describing the layout of a house he or she previously lived in and detail how the rooms and landscape around the person’s home were used by its occupants.  Since I worked in the Archaeology Lab at Ferry Farm, I decided to ask David Muraca, director of archaeology, if he knew of someone I could interview associated with the property or who had lived at Ferry Farm during the 20th century.   He suggested Charles Linton, Jr, a local gentleman who had lived in the 1914 two-story frame house on the property as a boy with his large family from 1942 to 1956.


The Colbert House (right) built in 1914 by James Colbert, owner of Ferry Farm for much of the early 1900s

In our oral history session, Mr. Linton and his wife, Pat recounted many specific remembrances of the Linton family’s time living on the very same river bank where George Washington grew up He told of the aftermath of the historic 1942 Fredericksburg Flood, rationing during World War II, and his parents’ efforts to house soldiers and provide medical supplies for the troops.  There were many tourists who visited the property during the time that the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm. So many, in fact, that they kept a guest book!  People traveling through wanted to visit the place where the nation’s first president had spent his boyhood.  They wanted to buy tiny jars of homemade cherry preserves from Charles’s mother, postcards from his sister Barbara, and get a tour of where young George had cut down the cherry tree.  The visitors were not disappointed either as Charles and his brother, Tayloe, sold wood pieces cut from the trunk of a cherry tree (with a hatchet, no doubt) for one dollar each…not a bad income for two industrious boys at that time!  Tiny cherry wood carvings of hearts and hatchets were whittled and sold, too.

Heart and Hatchet

Carved cherry wood heart and hatchet (approx. 1” each) dating from the 1940s. Gift of the Linton family.

The stump of a supposed scion of the cherry tree that Washington had barked was also on the property for visitors to see and was known as “The Shrine Tree.”  It was, no doubt, an important reminder to visitors of Washington’s honest character.    While those early 20th-century attractions no longer exist on the property at Ferry Farm, the Cherry Tree Story is still a subject that is inquired about by the visiting public just as it was in Linton’s day.


A young visitor stands next to “The Shrine Tree.”

Some important revelations came to me as a result of doing this assignment for my class.    I began to really recognize the sacred nature of our presidential property and how deeply affected the public had become by that nature over time.  In the case of Ferry Farm, tourists and travelers have been fascinated by Washington’s boyhood home for 230 years mentioning it in diaries and letters over the centuries.  This realization spurred me on to research the publics’ fascination with Washington’s character via the Cherry Tree Story. Why do so many still ask about this tale?  Why do so many acknowledge that the story probably isn’t true but, in their heart of hearts, they want it to be?  To get the answers to these questions it would be necessary to ask more questions by collecting more oral histories and to begin a Foundation archive.  In doing so, it became clear that the recent past, brought to life by the personal stories of so many who have been involved with Ferry Farm, proved a new and fascinating way to look at our archaeologically-rich property and gain understanding of its social and cultural impact over the decades.  I got to work interviewing and, before I knew it, an archive of stories about Ferry Farm and Kenmore Plantation was created.  Not only did I discover more about the 20th century history of our Foundation properties, but documenting the preservation efforts associated with them proved critical to remembering the hard work of the many dedicated people who saved them.

By creating a formal database with the mission of gathering oral histories, I saw that we could document much personal and institutional memory about our museum sites and couple the insightful perceptions collected about the Washington and Lewis Family’s with our scientific and historical research findings.  Eight years later, the archive is well on its way.  Samplings of some of the amazing stories collected so far will make their way into future blog postings so you can view for yourself the peoples’ passion for Ferry Farm and Kenmore’s historical treasures.   Anyone wishing to participate in this project is encouraged to contact the Foundation at (540) 370-0732 extension 14 or

Melanie Marquis
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Oral History Project Coordinator

Where Did the Fruit Come From?

In our age of weekly farmers’ markets, drive-thru smoothie shops, and 24/7 grocery stores, it can be hard to truly understand the importance of fruit to the average colonial Virginian. They, however, would have been well aware of how rare it was and of what it meant to have it. Indeed, they were so aware of its rarity and luxury that they bought and used special dishes in which to serve the fruit. We recently wrote in “Fine and Fashionable Fruit Dishes” about just such white, salt-gazed fruit dish excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Just how rare was fresh fruit in colonial America and, when it was available, where did it come from?

Fruit Dish 2

18th century fruit dish in Kenmore’s ceramics collection. The dish is white salt-glazed stoneware with a geometric design in the center surrounded by a variation of the basket-dot-diaper motif and an intricately pierced rim flanked by scroll-work.

Historians have surveyed old records from stores, taverns, and ordinary households to figure out how often early Americans ate fruit. One such study ranked different foods according to the amount of money spent on them.  In this ranking, fruit came in eighth after meat/poultry, grains, alcohol, and other foods. Ultimately, paired with nuts, fruit accounted for less than 3% of the overall food expenses in Virginian households.[1]

The same study examined the food expenses of people at all levels of society, whether an anonymous wigmaker or the royal governor.  From 1769 to 1770, fruit/nuts were nearly 8% of the royal governor’s food expenses while most other Virginians spent less than 1% of their food expenses on fruit/nuts.[2]  Fruit was for the wealthy and was a rare luxury in 18th century America.

The rarity of this luxury was a direct result of where fruit grew and how people got it. There were two options when it came to fruit for the colonists; locally grown or imported.  For most, of course, locally-sourced seasonal produce was really the only option.

A global exchange of livestock, diseases, fruits and vegetables sometimes called “The Columbian Exchange” began with European exploration of the Americas in 16th century. By the mid-1700s, the American colonies were a unique place for growing fruit. Europeans transplanted old favorites — quinces, apples and peaches — to the New World.  They enjoyed new varieties of fruits — strawberries, cherries, and grapes — in America that had closely related cousins in England and Europe.  Then, they added to their diet fruits naturally indigenous to the Americas.  These included fruits well-known today like cranberries and blueberries as well as fruits now largely forgotten like pawpaws. With all that variety, early Americans still had to settle for what could be grown in their specific climate and at a particular time of the year. Even local fruit, whether transplanted or indigenous, was an expensive luxury.


Naturally, tropical species like citrus fruits and pineapples became the zenith of the colonial fruit hierarchy.  If someone really wanted to demonstrate their wealth, these imported fruits were the way to go. They could not be acquired locally and indicated the buyer had deep pockets as well as a more sophisticated palate. While wealthy Virginians attempted to grow some of these fruits in private “orangeries”, the precursor to modern greenhouses, they mostly came from islands in the Caribbean.  Transportation made them extraordinarily expensive but their expense did not mean there was any shortage of uses for them.


Illustration of an orange by Pierre Antoine Poiteau (1766-1854) and published in his Histoire naturelle des orangers or “Natural History of the Orange Trees” (1818).

Because they symbolized wealth and simply had a short shelf life, fresh fruit was displayed on a fruit dish or epergne as a decoration and status symbol. Fruit’s value also came from its multiple uses within a home. Cookbooks of the time gave plenty of uses for fruit ranging from the familiar such as apple dumplings to the foreign like salt pickled lemon. The most commonplace recipes (or receipts as they were referred to in that period) concentrated on preserving fruits so that colonists could enjoy their flavors throughout the year.

To conclude, we present a receipt from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a book we know was part of the Lewis family library at Kenmore. The receipt’s colonial version comes from a first edition facsimile from 1747.

An Orange Fool – Colonial Version

TAKE the Juice of six Oranges and six Eggs well beaten, a Pint of Cream, a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, a little Cinnamon and Nutmeg; mix all together, and keep stirring over a slow Fire, till it is thick, then put in a little Piece of Butter, and keep stirring till cold, and dish it up.

An Orange Fool – Version updated for today

1 c Heavy Cream
1 c Orange Juice (3 Fresh squeezed oranges or store brought)
1/3 c Sugar + 1 tsp sugar
½ Orange zest
½ Tbs butter
1 egg + 2 egg yolks
½ tsp Vanilla Extract
½ tsp Cinnamon
¼ tsp Nutmeg

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Place four 6-ounce (or six 4-ounce) ovenproof cups or ramekins in a deep baking pan just large enough to hold them. Fill baking pan with enough water to come halfway up the pan.
  3. Add cream, orange juice, zest, and 1/3 c of sugar to a small saucepan and bring to medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture starts to steam. Add butter.
  4. Meanwhile whisk the egg, yolks, and vanilla extract together in a separate bowl.
  5. Once the orange cream mixture has come to temperature remove from heat and use a ladle to slowly pour it into egg mixture while vigorously whisking the eggs.
  6. Once the cream and eggs are fully incorporated return them to the small saucepan and put back onto low heat. Let the custard steam but NOT simmer (approx. 175 degrees).
  7. Take off heat and pour into ramekins through a fine strainer.
  8. Mix the remaining sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together and sprinkle onto each cup.
  9. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the custard is just set
  10. Let cool at room temperature for 1 hour and serve. OR chill in the refrigerator overnight for a cool summer dessert.

Next time you pour yourself a fresh glass of orange juice, buy some fresh fruit at the grocery store, or stop a farm stand by the road for apples remember the luxury that you are enjoying. This aspect of our daily lives is an opportunity of which our forefathers would have been sincerely jealous.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1] Walsh, Lorena S., Ann Smart Martin and Joanne Bowen. Provisioning Early American Towns. The Chesapeake: A Multidisciplinary Case Study. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997: 141.

[2] Ibid: 300.

Meet the Lewis Family: George Lewis

George Washington Lewis was Fielding and Betty Lewis’s fourth son, being born on March 14, 1757.  His birth came within months of the deaths of two of his older brothers – Augustine and Warner, ages 4 and 1 – and was a bright spot in dark days for his parents.  He was named for his uncle George, who would have great influence on his nephew later in life.  Young George would also become a favorite of his uncle’s, too.

Bed and Desk

No known images of George Lewis exist. This photograph shows a bed and the desk he inherited from his parents and that both currently reside in the Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

The earliest mentions of George in the Lewis family records concern his education.  In 1771, he and his younger brother Charles were sent away to school in New Jersey.  Thirteen-year-old George attended the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), while ten-year-old Charles went to a nearby grammar school.  The Lewis boys would be enrolled in New Jersey for the next three years, coming home to Fredericksburg on occasional school breaks.[1]  Whether it was his family relationship to the man who would lead the Continental Army during the Revolution or the strict anti-Anglican education he received in New Jersey, George Lewis would become the most militarily-involved of all of the Lewis children.

In November of 1775, George Washington asked that his wife, Martha, leave Mount Vernon and spend the winter with him at his encampment in Cambridge.  He was well aware that his nephew George (now eighteen years old) was interested in joining the cause, but Washington was reluctant to give any family members appointments in his army for fear of the appearance of favoritism.  In an attempt to give his eager nephew something to do, he asked the young man to accompany his wife on what would be a very arduous winter journey from Virginia to the encampment.  When George left his childhood home for Mount Vernon, he carried with him a letter from his father to General Washington, in which Fielding gave his blessing for his son to join the military, but hoped that the General could find some “little post that will bear his expenses”[2] for him, safely away from the fighting.  No doubt, this is what Washington originally hoped for, as well.  The reality of George Lewis’s military career would be far different.

Initially, George did serve as a secretary for his uncle after his arrival in Cambridge.  He must have proved himself trustworthy and capable, though, because in the spring his uncle suddenly reversed his position on commissioning relatives and made his nephew a First Lieutenant on March 12th, 1776, just two days before his 19th birthday.  Lt. Lewis was made second in command of a new cavalry unit, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.  In addition to performing as Washington’s personal couriers and escorts, the Guard was also responsible for his protection during battle.  Lt. Lewis would be in the vanguard of the surprise attack on Trenton, and later in the attack on his former stomping grounds at Princeton.  During the battle of Princeton, fellow Fredericksburger General Hugh Mercer was mortally wounded, and captured by the British.  Washington sent his nephew George under a flag of truce and carrying a letter to General Cornwallis, asking that the young man be allowed to tend to General Mercer in his final days.  Cornwallis relented, and Lt. Lewis spent the next few days providing comfort to the dying man.[3]

In 1777, Lt. Lewis was promoted to Captain in the Third Continental Dragoons.  He participated in the Philadelphia Campaign, wintered with the army at Valley Forge, and survived an encounter with the British 17th Light Dragoons at the disastrous Baylor’s Massacre, when most of the Third Dragoons were ambushed in a barn and slaughtered.[4]

“Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge” by John Ward Dunsmore, 1907. Library of Congress photo.

During the rebuilding of the Third Dragoons, the few officers who remained were assigned to Washington’s headquarters, where Capt. Lewis returned to the rather mundane activities of being Washington’s courier.  At some point during 1779, George met Colonel William Daingerfield, Commander of the Seventh Virginia Regiment of the Continental line, and his daughter Catherine.  George and Catherine fell in love, and apparently the relationship became a huge distraction for the young Captain, who was increasingly absent from camp.  General Washington wrote his nephew an angry rebuke in February, saying that his behavior reflected badly not only on himself but on Washington, too.[5]  Although George returned to his duties immediately after receiving the letter from his uncle, he would resign by September and marry Catherine.

George and Catherine settled near Berryville, Virginia, on land owned by Fielding Lewis that would eventually be George’s inheritance.  Although he became a planter, his military career wasn’t quite over.  In 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania broke out, and President Washington called on his trusted nephew to supplement the tiny standing army.  George raised a cavalry unit that he called the Fredericksburg Troop of Volunteers.  George was made a Major Commandant and his unit was deployed to Fort Pitt.

Finally, with the end of the Whiskey Rebellion, George Lewis took up a quiet life.  He and Catherine had three children, and eventually purchased the plantation Marmion, on Virginia’s Northern Neck outside of Fredericksburg.  Many of the original furnishings from Kenmore would be left to George, and would descend through his family at Marmion.  George continued to maintain a close friendship with Washington, who often asked for his advice on family and business matters.  When Washington died, he left his nephew a handsome inheritance, as well as his pick of Washington’s swords.


Marmion, the home of George Lewis and family, as it appeared in the mid-20th century. Library of Congress photo.

George Lewis died in 1821.  He and Catherine are thought to be buried at Willis Hill in Fredericksburg, the home of their son-in-law, Byrd Willis.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family, 1998. Pgs. 163-164.

[2] Fielding Lewis to George Washington, November 14th, 1775.  Pennsylvania Historical Society.

[3] Lossing, Benson J., ed. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 1859. Pgs. 180-184.

[4] Moran, Donald L. The Men of the Commander in Chief Guard, The Liberty Tree Newsletter, 2006; Demarest, Thomas. The Baylor Massacre, Bergen County History Annual, 1971.

[5] George Washington to George Lewis, February 13th, 1779.

Kenmore’s Kitchen: Then & Now

The brick kitchen building next to Historic Kenmore is not original to the property. It was built in the 1930s in the colonial revival architectural style popular at that time.


The brick construction does not reflect the kitchen building seen in the earliest known photo of such a building at Kenmore.  That image, taken around the time of the Civil War, shows a large wooden kitchen to the north of the house as well two enslaved people standing in the kitchen yard.


The wooden kitchen can be seen to the left of the house in this Civil War-era photograph.

The Kenmore Association, a group of women who saved the mansion and transformed the property into a historic site open to the public, built the brick kitchen in the 1930s.

ms 1687

Inside the brick kitchen just after construction was completed in the 1930s.

Throughout much of the 20th century, visitors sat around the table in the photo above to enjoy gingerbread and tea served by the ladies of the Kenmore Association.

Recently, we decided to highlight these ladies and their efforts to preserve Kenmore even more during our tours. We felt the most logical of places to do this was in the kitchen where they served their famed gingerbread and tea.

We placed a tea set and faux gingerbread on the same table used to serve visitors for so many years. We surrounded that table with many of the same ladderback chairs, though most of their seats have been re-caned. We returned some of the china and the china cupboard that had stood for so long in the kitchen back to that space.

While we cannot serve actual gingerbread and tea – modern-day museum guidelines prohibit food service inside historic structures – we can discuss the Kenmore Association’s monumental efforts to save Kenmore and make the mansion accessible to the public. You can read about these efforts here.  Although it does not date back to Kenmore’s very beginning, the 80-year-old brick kitchen is still a part of the site’s centuries-long story.

After Digging: What Happens in the Archaeology Lab?

Intro to Lab (3)

Artifacts excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Here at Ferry Farm for the last 13 years, professional archaeologists have been exploring the local landscape, digging hundreds of excavation units in their quest to reveal the history of all those who lived here, including, of course, the Washington family.  Their investigative efforts have resulted in a multitude of artifacts dating from the earliest prehistoric Native American occupation of this riverine site, through the Colonial and Civil War periods, all the way to a 1990s occupation of the farm.

So, what happens to all the artifacts that are uncovered and dug up with trowels and shovels? All of those items are important pieces to the puzzle of reconstructing the history of this site, but only if they are cleaned up and recognizable.  That is the purpose of the archaeology lab here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.   With the help of both professional staff and dedicated volunteers, every single artifact that has come out of the ground is washed, dried, identified, labelled, and, finally, catalogued into a searchable computer database.

The archaeology lab is located within the Ferry Farm Visitor Center which houses museum exhibits, storage rooms for the artifacts, and other administrative offices.  Visitors making their way through the exhibits can check out our lab spaces through large windows, allowing them a peek into our work spaces and giving them the ability to see the different processes the artifacts go through.

Intro to Lab (1)

The visitor’s view of the Archaeology Lab.

While archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm take place every year, actual digging occurs only three months out of the year.  Artifact processing and analysis in the lab goes on for 12 months out of the year.  Archaeologists often say that “1 day in the field equals 3 days in the lab” and, in general, that adage is true.  Once the artifact bags come into the lab, it can be six months to one year or more before an entire artifact collection is completely processed.

So where does it all start? Well, in the wet lab…

Wet Lab

Intro to Lab (4)

Where artifacts are washed inside the Wet Lab.

The wet lab is a small room where the artifacts are washed and dried.  It is fitted out with two sinks – the artifacts are washed only with water – and a countertop to provide space for the washing process.  Toothbrushes, dental picks, pipe cleaners, washtubs, and other cleaning tools are handily arranged for easy access by the staff.

The washing process is pretty straightforward.  The artifacts, covered with dirt from the field excavation, are poured out of the bag onto a tray.  The washer separates the different items on the tray and proceeds to carefully wash them with a tooth brush and water.  After a quick rinse, the washed items are placed on a tray covered with mesh and the tray is placed in a drying rackThe washing process can be seen in this video. The artifacts stay on the drying racks for at least a week to make sure they are completely dried before being bagged.  Large windows allow visitors to watch this process and to see the “treasures from the earth” as they are uncovered and completely revealed, often for the first time in 200 years or more!

Dry Lab

Intro to Lab (2)

Volunteers work in the Dry Lab.

The dry lab is a larger space containing desk space for the staff, the small finds cabinets, and long tables used for labeling and other projects.  It is here that the dried artifacts are placed into acid-free plastic bags, catalogued, and then labelled by the staff and volunteers.  Our staff spends quite a bit of time cataloguing the artifacts, which involves identifying, counting, measuring, and weighing all the artifacts.  The cataloging process can be seen in this video. Each artifact is labeled with identifying information and the address of the exact location where it was found on the site.  Research is always an ongoing activity as identifying and dating specific artifacts helps in understanding Ferry Farm’s past and the people who once occupied this ground.

Time is also spent on the mending, conservation, and analysis of artifact collections. The small finds cabinets contain hundreds of unique artifacts that are studied because of their personal relationships to the individuals that lived here.  Long term projects, such as our current white-salt glazed ceramic mending, take place in the dry lab space, where a table covered with hundreds of ceramic sherds awaits matching. And as with the wet lab, museum visitors can look through the windows and observe all the projects being currently worked on.

Having an archaeology lab on site is very convenient for the archaeologists that work at Ferry Farm as it allows them easy access to the artifacts at all stages of their processing.  Future plans for Ferry Farm rely on knowing what has been found here and weaving together that data with the historical record.  It also gives the public an exciting chance to see all the work that goes into getting the artifacts ready for further research.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

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

The 100th rule of the famed Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior  copied by George Washington as a school boy advised people to “Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.”  This advice proved necessary two centuries ago because “the most common means of cleaning teeth was by rubbing them with a cloth dipped in a little salt and water.”[1]  As long as this happened away from the dinner table, all would be well regarding propriety.

Dental care has improved greatly in 200 years but the seeds of modern tooth care can certainly be seen when looking back to colonial days.

Bristle toothbrushes are an age-old invention of the Chinese.  Today’s brushes are remarkably similar in shape and design to ones used in centuries past.  The pig bristle is now nylon and the animal bone is now plastic.  Archaeologists have found bone toothbrush heads — two of which date from the 1820s — during excavations at Ferry Farm.  Even without their handles, they look quite familiar even to the modern eye.

FF Toothbrush Heads

Bone toothbrush heads excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Instead of toothpaste, early Americans brushed with tooth powders. To clean teeth, these powders contained abrasives like alum, ground seashells, bone, eggshells, brimstone, baking soda, and even gunpowder. To freshen breath, powders included cinnamon, musk, or dragon’s blood.[2]  If dragon’s blood sounds strange, tobacco merchant William Hugh Grove claimed tobacco ashes were “excellent to clean teeth!”  These powders were not hard to make yourself and were even available for purchase in cities.

On January 2, 1772, ‘surgeon dentist’ John Baker took an ad in the Virginia Gazette “to inform the Gentry that he is now at Mr. Maupin’s, in Williamsburg, and will wait on them.”  His ad is worth examining at length for its fascinating glimpse into dental procedures of the time.


Page 3 of the January 2, 1772 edition of The Virginia Gazette. Baker’s ad is near the top of the far right column.

Baker Dentist Ad

Ostensibly, Baker could cure “the SCURVY in the GUMS, be it ever so bad.”  He did so by scrapping from the teeth “that corrosive, tartarous, gritty Substance which hinders the Gums from growing, infects the Breath, and is one of the principal Causes of the Scurvy, which, if not timely prevented, eats away the Gums, so that many Peoples Teeth fall out fresh.” We each have essentially this same procedure performed every six months when we visit the dentist for a cleaning.

Furthermore, Baker said he “prevents Teeth from growing rotten, keeps such as are decayed from becoming worse, even to old Age, makes the Gums grow up firm to the Teeth, and renders them white and beautiful.”

In a passage familiar to any modern cavity suffers, the ad notes that Baker “fills up, with Lead or Gold, those that are hollow, so as to render them useful; it prevents the Air from getting into them, which aggravates the Pain.”

Baker even transplanted “natural Teeth from one Person to another.”  The use of human teeth as replacements for extracted teeth as well as in dentures was quite common in the 1700s.  Indeed, teeth collected from thousands of the dead after the Battle of Waterloo were used in dentures for years.  Before Waterloo, “teeth were frequently acquired from executed criminals, exhumed bodies, dentists’ patients and even animals and were consequently often rotten, worn down or loaded with syphilis. The prospect of an overabundance of young, healthy teeth to be readily pillaged from the battlefield must have been a dentist’s dream.” 

Surgeon Dentist Baker extracted whole or partial teeth, even if they were “ever so deep sunk into the Socket of the Gums.”  Once extracted, the tooth was cleaned of infection and, if necessary, filled.  Then, it might be placed back in the same person, into another person, or in a set of dentures.  Some teeth even ended up in the archaeological record.  An extracted human tooth was uncovered during excavations at Ferry Farm.  From the upper jaw, the tooth belonged to a person of European descent and featured an incredibly large cavity. That said, the nerve was likely dead by the time this tooth was pulled. We know it was pulled because of a broken root. There is no decay from the top of the tooth and it has little wear, indicating it belonged to a younger person.  The tooth was discovered in the plow zone[3], meaning that it could not be dated historically.

FF Tooth 1

Human tooth excavated at Ferry Farm shows an incredible cavity.

FF Tooth 2

Human tooth excavated at Ferry Farm.

Using toothbrushes for preventative care, treating gum disease through cleaning, and filling cavities with lead or gold all represent some commonalities between past and present dental care.  While seeds of modern dentistry can be traced to the 18th century, significant advances have been made in replacing single teeth and in using dentures.  Even if past dentists had some of today’s treatments, however, it seems safe to bet that they still would have been unable to stop the terrible tooth trouble suffered by George Washington throughout his life.  We now have picture of 18th century dentistry.  In a future post, we’ll examine George’s famously troublesome teeth.

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, Inc., 2004: 191.

[2] Dragon’s blood was a red powder obtain from any of several different plants and used as a folk medicine.

[3] The plow zone is the area of soil that is churned up during plowing.  This churning destroys soil stratification or layering, which is the first method archaeologists use to date objects.  This dating is based on the principle that the deeper an artifact is found in the soil, the older the artifact is.   Plowing mixes up the artifacts and makes dating challenging.