How Washington Relaxed: A Short History of Playing Cards

As modern people, we tend to assume the past is a foreign land where residents’ lives are alien to our own. Would the founding fathers balk at how we dither away our time? Or would they recognize that life without its moments of levity is foolish?

Eighteenth century America was a time of growing leisure activities. Colonists enjoyed playing games, watching horseraces, or going to an evening of theatre. But for anyone who has ever passed the time with solitaire or gone all-in with a pair of Kings, you have passed the time in a way George Washington would recognize immediately.

The entire history of playing cards is massive and sometimes convoluted. Opposing origins, numerous legends, and the lack of definitive documentation make a ‘brief history’ all but impossible. But a few things are known.

Playing cards used strictly for games have been around for thousands of years but the oldest recognizable relatives to our modern playing cards appeared in Europe in the latter half of the 1300s. At this time, France saw a rise in the popularity of expensive and elaborate fortune-telling  Tarot cards, not the everyman game familiar to modern audiences.

Around the same time, we find references to card games in Italy that speak most directly to our modern notion of cards. Here their earliest decks contain familiar features: cards numbered one to ten, four royal court cards, and four suits including cups/chalices (coppe), coins(denari), swords (spade), and club/baton (bastoni).


Suits in a reproduction set of 18th century playing cards seen in a screen capture from an upcoming Lives & Legacies video about how to play Whist, a game popular with colonial Americans.

By the beginning of the new century, the 1400s, references to people playing ‘cards’ are seen all across Europe.  Card numbers, royalty, and suit continued to change across Europe for the next 200 years and featured plenty of regional differences.

For the most part there were four suits, but what those suits were was debatable. Other suits in Europe (some even today) included roses, bells, acorns, shields, leaves, pikes, tiles, clovers, hearts, and of course diamonds.

The royal cards varied from deck to deck, much like the royalty and ruling elite varied in the nations of Europe. Some decks had no queen, others included clergy, sometimes it was three royal cardsand other times there were four. There was one constant, however, there was always a King and he was the highest in the deck.


The King, Queen, and Knave in a reproduction set of 18th century playing cards. When printed numbers and letters (K, Q, J) were added to cards, the Knave came to be called the Jack so it would not be mistaken for the King.

By the early 17th century, England had a standardized deck (based on the ‘French’ deck) made up of the four suits we know, numeric cards one to ten, Knave, Queen, and King. This is the deck we still use today.

By this time, cards even started to play a role in politics. In 1615, as an effort to cease the importation of foreign cards and raise revenue, King James I placed a duty on imported cards and appointed an office to inspect playing cards. Although initially unpopular with commoners who preferred the cheap foreign cards, ultimately the duty persisted. The King and Parliament tried to levy a similar duty with the Stamp Act 150 years later, which many credit with beginning American opposition to British taxation that ultimately led to Revolution.

Those 150 years were incredibly important to the growth the Colonies and of Virginia. They grew from rugged outposts in a strange land to thriving cities and societies that weather the French and Indian War. The colonists earned their right to leisure and wanted to enjoy it!

Gaming Table (1)

The walnut gaming table in Historic Kenmore’s drawing room was made in England around the year 1760. The table top is covered in green baize (felted wool, similar to what you find on modern billiards tables) with wells to hold gaming chips and “turrets” at the corners to hold candlesticks.

Gaming Table (2)

The table has a possible connection to the Washington family, in that it might have descended through George Washington’s younger brother Charles’s family. That connection is still the subject of research, and it may be a while before we are able to conclusively prove or disprove that provenance.

Prior to the Revolution, Virginians prided themselves in being British! They enjoyed British rights, food, drink, and pastimes like horseracing, dancing, and of course, playing cards. It would not be uncommon to see cards being played at the taverns or at gaming tables in drawing rooms, by all members of Virginia society. We only need to look at the probate inventory of Fielding Lewis to discover what games they played for among the books included in his library it lists ‘Hoyl 1 Vol’.

In 1742, Edmond Hoyle published a Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. This pamphlet taught the rules to Whist as well as the best hands/plays  and was an immediate success! Hoyle continued to expand his Treatise to include other games such as back gammon and chess. Ultimately, the book’s 15 editions made it the standard instructional for card games in the English-speaking world. You can read a bit more about Hoyle and, more importantly, about gaming pieces used in the 1700s on The Rooms at Kenmore blog here.


Front page of Hoyle’s Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, published in 1743.

And, finally, if there is any doubt to whether or not colonial men enjoyed the pastime of playing cards, we need only look at George Washington and Colonel Fielding Lewis. On December 23, 1769, George Washington stopped in Fredericksburg while returning home to Mt. Vernon. He would spend Christmas Day with his sister and brother-in-law and won ‘£2 5s at cards’. Whether George and Fielding both enjoyed that specific game may be lost to history, but how they spent that holiday is undeniable; they played cards.

Whether for the game of Whist set out on Kenmore’s gaming table or the game of Hearts you play with your family at home, playing cards have a history that can be traced over the centuries and across the globe. It is a history that we share as directly with one another as well as with our founding fathers.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Editor’s Note: Watch for an upcoming video about how to play the game of Whist coming soon!


In Jewelry Remembered: Fashion as a Mourning Ritual

Collections managers deal with a wide array of objects. Sometimes those objects can be quite odd and even a bit gross to the modern person.  One object that has always fascinated me is mourning jewelry and the hair of the deceased that jewelry contains.  Not many people nowadays think of collecting loved ones hair to keep in a locket or to weave into bracelets, but this was a widespread practice and even quite fashionable a relatively short time ago.  While perhaps odd to us today, mourning jewelry gives us a glimpse into rituals surrounding the dead and grieving at a time when death was a more prominent and ubiquitous part of life.

The evolution of mourning jewelry began around the Middle Ages as part of the growth of Christian ideas on mortality and redemption called Memento Mori. These ideas found their way into literature, art, and even fashion.  Memento Mori jewelry reminded the wearer of their own mortality. These pieces, usually rings, incorporated macabre imagery like skulls, skeletons and coffins to create strong visual reminders of the transient nature of earthly life.

It was not until the 17th century that the Memento Mori jewelry developed into what we know as mourning or memorial jewelry.  The imagery remained similar but the symbolism became more personal and served as a sentimental remembrance of a specific individual, instead of one’s own mortality.  Engraved names, dates of death and age of the deceased appeared on pieces.  Bereaved family presented these ornaments to friends and family as memorial to the individual.  They became a status symbol and many wealthy people actually included instructions of how the jewelry would be designed, and made in their will. For example, George Washington declared in his will: “To my Sisters in law Hannah Washington & Mildred Washington; to my friends Eleanor Stuart, Hannah Washington of Fairfield, and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, I give, each, a mourning Ring of the value of one hundred dollars. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value of them, but as mementos of my esteem & regard.”

GW Brooch 1

The oval-shaped brooch above bears the 1798 Saint Memin likeness of George Washington in profile and dates from around 1799. The image is surrounded by gold and blue enamel and is under convex glass.  The brooch is trimmed by forty-four seed pearls.

GW Brooch 3

The back of the brooch contains a plait of brownish-red hair under glass along with a pin fastening.  Tradition says the hair is General Washington’s cut after his death and sent from Mount Vernon by Martha to Mrs. R.B. Lee of the Sully Plantation, Fairfax Co., Virginia in December 1799.

By the time Washington died, mourning jewelry had evolved with changing attitudes toward death and with a greater focus on sentiment.  The style changed to represent the lighter rococo styles and later Neo-classical designs became popular.  The skulls and coffins were replaced by sepia-toned women dressed in billowing robes lamenting at a tomb, inscribed urns, and weeping willow trees in bucolic landscapes.  Many rings and brooches were lined with pearls to represent tears and included a simple twist of the deceased’s hair.

GW Locket Brooch

The octagonal locket dates from between 1800 to 1825 and has been turned into a brooch. The lock of hair, believed to be that of George Washington, is tied in a figure eight type knot and rests on a mat of woven hair. The lock of hair was supposedly given to Captain Robert Smith who knew and served with George during the war. After Captain Smith lost his wife, he went to visit the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and became friends with Nelly Custis, who gave him this lock of her great-grandfather’s hair. When Captain Smith died, he willed the pendant to his cousin and it passed through the Smith family until donated by a relative to The George Washington Foundation in 1925.

The decorative twist of a loved ones hair for memorial purposes was not new, but it did come into greater use in the 18th century and peaked during the Victorian era.  Hair is one of the few personal mementos people could keep from a loved one.  Human hair contains keratin which is fairly resistant to decomposition particularly when kept in a sealed environment.   The permanence of hair and memory is best summed up with a quote from a journal article of the time discussing female beauty, “Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials; and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic nature; may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.’” (Page 76)

Much Brooch 1

This traditional mourning brooch dates from 1790 to 1810. It contains many neoclassical imagery typical of the time including the weeping woman in classical dress sitting by a tomb, a willow tree, and a ceremonial urn carving. It is inscribed “Much Lov’d, Much Mourn’d”and is painted on ivory encased in a copper mount. The back contains a braid of brownish-blond hair under a glass cover.

Much Brooch 2

In the 19th century the use of more elaborate hair work became increasingly popular. The Victorians developed a strict etiquette for mourning rituals and dress.  The stages specified different colors, fabrics and even jewelry at different times during the mourning period, the length of which varied depending on the mourner’s relationship to the deceased.  Mourning jewelry made of hair was allowed during the second stage (usually about a year into the mourning ritual) creating a rise in not only unique hair jewelry but do-it-yourself guides to making pieces with loved one’s hair.

Memorial jewelry and hair work began to wane at the turn of the 20th century and now these pieces have become curios, often found in antique shops and museum storage collecting dust on shelfs.   Sadly, most of the pieces have no information relating to who they were made for or the names of the mourned. Instead, we are left with an unidentified plait of hair or gold band symbolizing the only piece left from the life of a loved individual.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sweet-Toothed Colonials & Their Chocolate

Ahhh Chocolate!  Now is the time of year when we consume even more than usual, often from heart-shaped boxes gifted by an admirer.  Probably one of the most universally loved foods, the average American consumes roughly 11 pounds of the stuff a year!  It is hard to imagine a world without chocolate and this love of the heavenly substance stretches all the way back to our country’s colonial roots.  However, banish the visual of George Washington chomping a chocolate bar while chopping down the cherry tree, chocolate bars are a fairly recent invention of the mid-19th century.  Before the mid-1800s, if you had a craving for the world’s favorite sweet, you drank it!

Chocolate has its origins in South America where archaeological evidence indicates it was being cultivated and consumed over 3,000 years ago.  The Spanish were the first Europeans to try the spicy chili and chocolate beverage of the Aztecs.  They introduced it to Europe in the 1600s where, with the addition of sugar, it became the height of fashion.

Drinking chocolate of the 18th century was different from our ubiquitous modern day cup of cocoa.  It was made with either cacao nibs or blocks of compressed chocolate that were then grated or ground to a paste and dissolved in a warm liquid inside a dedicated ‘chocolate pot’.  The chocolate was added to any combination of water, milk, cream, wine, or even brandy for an extra kick.  This mixture was combined with sugar, though less than we use because it was an expensive import in colonial America.  Other common ingredients included chili pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, or allspice.  This resulted in a rich, sweet, spicy, and bitter drink that the colonists couldn’t get enough of.

Chocolate Ingredients

Popular ingredients in colonial-era chocolate drinks included (clockwise from top) sugar; cocoa beans, chocolate nibs, or chocolate block crushed and melted to form the foundation of the chocolate drink; vanilla; almonds; cinnamon; nutmeg; and chilis.

We know that many early Americans were fans of chocolate, but it wasn’t available to everyone.  In the 1700s, chocolate was still a fairly expensive drink, similar to tea or coffee, making it a beverage of the upper and middle classes.  It was seen as a nutritious and filling health food, commonly had with breakfast.  Chocolate was a well-known staple at the Washington breakfast table, often served alongside tea and hoecakes in honey and butter.[1]

In fact, the Washingtons were such fans of chocolate that in 1757 George Washington ordered 20 pounds of chocolate from British merchant Thomas Knox.  While living at Kenmore Plantation, George’s sister Betty Washington Lewis ordered a gallon of chocolate.

Betty Orders Chocolate

Although the handwriting is difficult to decipher, this receipt shows highlighted in red that Betty Washington Lewis ordered a gallon of chocolate in May 1791.

This love of chocolate is also evident in archaeological artifacts found through excavations at Ferry Farm. Archaeologists recovered fragments of a porcelain chocolate cup.

It may seem strange to us that there were special cups just for drinking chocolate.  However, since it was a luxury good enjoyed by the upper classes it had a specific set of objects associated with its preparation and consumption.  A teapot or teacup could have easily functioned for drinking chocolate but the purpose of this specialized material culture was to show off wealth and sophistication.  For this reason a  well-to-do colonial household would have separate sets of vessels for the making and consumption of tea, coffee, and chocolate.  Using the right one in the right way let your peers know you were a well-educated gentry woman or man.

Chocolate cups and pots were often made of fancy material like silver or porcelain to show off the wealth of the owner and reflect the nature of the luxury ingredient.  The chocolate cup recovered at Ferry Farm was painted red and blue in what is known as an ‘Imari palette’ and gilded to enhance the cup’s extravagance.  Chocolate cups can be identified by their straight sides, unlike the gently sloping sides of a teacup.

Fragments of a porcelain chocolate cup made in the mid-1700s, decorated in the Imari palette design, and recovered during an archaeological excavation at Ferry Farm.

Similarly, 18th century chocolate pots generally are taller and have straighter sides compared to contemporary teapots.They also have a shorter spout with no strainer and often have a straight handle that juts out from the body.

Chocolate Pots 1

Two 18th century chocolate pots in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

The most recognizable feature of a chocolate pot however is a hole in the lid where the chocolate mill, or molinillo, would be inserted and rubbed between the hands to briskly stir the chocolate, creating a delicious froth on the top.

Chocolate Mill

Reproduction chocolate mill.

Kind of makes you want to try eighteenth century chocolate drink, doesn’t it?  The next time you’re enjoying a bite of a candy bar or sipping your instant cocoa, think of the lofty origins of that treat and be grateful to the sweet-toothed colonials who so prized delicious chocolate!

Lauren Jones, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Editor’s Note: Watch for a video exploring the topic of chocolate in colonial America coming soon!

[1] McLeod, Stephen A. Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertainment, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon. 2011: 37, 51.

Video: Tricks of the Trade – Archaeology Lab Edition

Sometimes, it can be a challenge to precisely identify an artifact. When faced with this challenge, archaeologists working in the lab put their five senses to work and call upon some interesting ‘tricks of the trade’ to make those difficult identifications.

Learn more about archaeology and being an archaeologist during Archaeology Day at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 15 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Visit for event details.

Washington Birthday Wishes

This month marks the 284th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Americans have celebrated our first president’s birthday since long before it became an official national holiday in the late 1800s.  In fact, early Americans even marked George’s birth during his lifetime, most notably with “Birthnight Balls” that replicated the grand dances held in Britain to celebrate the monarch’s birthday.  In 1879, an Act of Congress made February 22 a holiday within the District of Columbia. Six year later, Congress expanded the holiday to all federal offices across the country.

As with many American holidays, both officially recognized and otherwise, businesses created postcards and greeting cards to be used to send good wishes to family and friends on the holiday.  We have four such Washington Birthday postcards in our collection.  These cards date from around 1912-13, as a couple of the cards include cancelled postage stamps that note it being the 180th birthday of George Washington.

This year, you can celebrate George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm by making your own birthday card for George!

Visitors even made birthday cards for George!

Visit his boyhood home on Saturday, February 13 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. for family  fun, including games, crafts, exhibits, the Stone Throw Challenge (weather permitting), history theater, and birthday cake! “General Washington” will attend the Birthday Celebration to talk about his youth on the farm! You can see a short video of last year’s celebration here. $5 adults; 17 and under free.

Additionally, on Presidents’ Day, Monday, February 14 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., learn about archaeology at George Washington’s Boyhood Home. Enjoy crafts, theater performances, presentations by Muraca the Magnificent – Guru of Glues, tours of the archaeology lab, a scavenger hunt, and the Archaeology Artifact Challenge.  Archaeology Day is a free event.

For more information call 540-370-0732 x22 or email

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Video: George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm

Celebrate George Washington’s 284th birthday at his boyhood home with fun activities for the whole family, including games, crafts, exhibits, the Stone Throw Challenge (weather permitting), history theater, and birthday cake! “General Washington” will attend the Birthday Celebration to talk about his youth on the farm! The video below is a preview of the celebration.

This year’s celebration is Saturday, February 13 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

For more information call 540-370-0732 x22 or email

$5 adults; 17 and under free.