“With Double Its Weight of Vermin”: Bugs in George’s Bed

Chamber (1)

The Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore

“I went in to the Bed as they call’d it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c,” wrote 15-year-old George Washington in his Journal of my journey over the mountains kept during one of his earliest surveying trips to Virginia’s frontier.

Furthermore, when young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior as a handwriting exercise in school, one rule cautioned the aspiring gentleman to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others.”

As these two instances from Washington’s life hint, the days of early Americans teamed with insects.  “Bugs were everywhere,” writes historian A. Roger Ekirch, “especially given the proximity of dogs and livestock.”[1]

Except for maybe the lice on one’s own head and body, probably nowhere were bugs more problematic than in bedding and bed furniture.  “Bedding afforded notorious homes to lice, fleas, and bedbugs, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology,” Ekirch notes.  Bugs in bed was a significant problem indeed and “people in Britain often referred to bedtime pests in martial terms—for example, ‘troops,’ ‘detachments,’ ‘a compleat regiment,’ and ‘whole armies’”[2]

These insect armies certainly had plenty of places to hide. Beds of the 18th century were constructed of wood frames lashed together with rope.  The humblest of beds contained numerous nooks and crannies that served as home to numerous creepy crawlies. Wealthier homes were not safe from infestation.  Large canopy-style beds frequently decorated with ornate cravings greatly increased the number of hiding places for vermin. Sheets, blankets, quilts, and bed curtains added more hiding places.  Finally, the mattresses themselves were usually filled with straw or, for the more well-to-do, with feathers that bugs found to be soft and enjoyable homes.

Chamber (3)

Bed furniture, curtains, canopy, and coverings could become infested with variety of insects common to an 18th century plantation in Virginia. Housekeeping guides of the time included instructions on how to make concoctions to eliminate bugs from one’s bed.

The number of bugs in bed meant that before going to sleep, “families engaged in ‘hunts’ of furniture and bedding for both fleas (pulex irritans) and bedbugs (cimex lectularius)” while they also combed lice out of their hair and picked lice off their clothing and skin.  Ekirch recounts that “to keep gnats at bay, families in the fen country of East Anglia hung lumps of cow dung at the foot of their beds, whereas John Locke advised placing the leaves of kidney beans about a bed to avert insect bites.”[3]

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, two popular guides to proper housekeeping in the 18th century, included recipes for concoctions aimed at killing bugs in bedding and bed furniture.  Both of these books were in Fielding Lewis’ library at Kenmore.

Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

Title page and frontispiece to Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (c. 1777).

Glasse’s recipe for “How to keep clear from Bugs” advised closing up the room tightly by hanging blankets over shut windows, doors, and across the mouth of the fireplace.  Then, one opened any closets, cupboards, drawers, and boxes. Bedding and mattresses were pulled from the bed and hung over chairs and tables around the room.  In a broad earthen pan in the center of the room, one placed a chafing-dish full of lit charcoal to which was added brimstone (sulfur) and, if available, “India pepper.” This pepper was a source of capsaicin which served as an insect repellent. The sulfur suffocated the bugs and, frankly pretty much anything else in the room. The cautions within the recipe about leaving the room quickly and about reentering the room after several hours are lengthy.  The process left an irritating residue so, before it was safe to reoccupy the room, it had to be cleaned first.

Smith’s The Compleat Housewife recipe for “destroying Bugs” essentially consisted of alcohol and pine resin.  Alcohol would kill any bugs on contact while the pine resin in the form of turpentine would act as a repellent to keep insects away.  One applied the liquid mixture to “the lacing, &c. of the bed, or the foldings of the linings or curtains near the rings, of the joints of holes in and about the bed, head-board, &c. wherein the bugs or nits nestle and breed.” The recipe advised pouring “some of it into the joinings and holes where the sponge or brush cannot reach.” This concoction was quiet unsafe as well for it also called for camphene, a high combustible mixture of alcohol and turpentine.  The Compleat Housewife warned to apply the mixture only “in the daytime, not by candle light, lest the subtilty of the mixture should catch the flame as you are using it, and occasion damage.”

Lastly, both books included one other “Effectual Way to clear your Beadstead of Bugs” specifically for use on bed furniture. This recipe called for mixing quicksilver (poisonous mercury!) with eggs and then spreading the goo throughout the cracks, crevices, and joints of the bedstead and leaving it there.

While all of these treatments would have been effective against the bugs, they were quite dangerous to humans as well.  The reprieve provided from infestation was probably relatively short-lived for the recipes all suggested repeating the process as needed.  Even with the help of Hannah Glasse or Eliza Smith, lice, fleas, and bedbugs were an ever-present and inescapable part of the 18th century life and could be found in the fine bed in Fielding and Betty Lewis’s chamber as well as in the dirty straw mat of the young surveyor George Washington.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005: 270

[2] Ekirch, 294-5

[3] Ekirch, 270.

Shakespeare Day in Virginia!

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Credit: the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Governor Terry McAuliffe has proclaimed today – Saturday, April 23, 2016 – as Shakespeare Day in Virginia!

While we’re planning and preparing Shakespeare on the Lawn in June, our first-ever Shakespeare Camp in July, and Shakespeare by Candlelight in August as Historic Kenmore’s contributions to this year’s many commemorations across the Commonwealth, we want to take a moment on this auspicious day to celebrate Shakespeare’s countless literary achievements!

Both the theater and Shakespeare were beloved by George Washington and that love began when he was young man living here in Fredericksburg.  For this reason, The George Washington Foundation has presented regular performances of Shakespeare’s plays for many years now.

To mark Shakespeare Day, we’ve decided to share some photos from last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn performance of King Lear.

You can see an additional photo album of last year’s Shakespeare by Candlelight presentation of Cymbeline here as well as a collection of posters from a variety of other past performances here. Furthermore, read up on Shakespeare and theater history here, here, and here.

Finally, here is the text of the Governor’s proclamation:

WHEREAS, William Shakespeare, an English poet, playwright, and actor is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language and one of the world’s pre-eminent dramatists; and 

WHEREAS, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and is an opportunity to celebrate his work and influence in English literature, film, poetry, and classics studies; and

WHEREAS, the Virginia Shakespeare Initiative (VSI) is a statewide celebration of William Shakespeare’s work, and will host more than a dozen events across the Commonwealth on April 23, 2016; and

WHEREAS, on this day, tourism councils, schools, college systems, libraries, and museums will open their doors to exhibits, activities, and celebrations focusing on the works of Shakespeare; and

WHEREAS, Virginians are encouraged to participate in Shakespeare Day;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Terence R. McAuliffe, do hereby recognize April 23, 2016, as SHAKESPEARE DAY in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Restoring Kenmore’s Gardens

Kenmore's Gardens 1

While the various restorations of Kenmore itself over the years are usually the star attraction for visitors to the site, there was another restoration, equally as important, that occurred on the property in its early years as a museum.  Kenmore’s gardens are well-known for their beauty now, but when the Kenmore Association acquired the property in the 1920s, the grounds were in a sad state.  It would take generations of work and ingenuity from a variety of people and groups to return the gardens to their former glory.

Perhaps the most important moment in the history of Kenmore’s gardens was when the Garden Club of Virginia decided to tackle them as their first-ever restoration project in 1929.  The Garden Club established Virginia Garden Week specifically to raise funds for the project.  Their success in both completing the first restoration of Kenmore’s gardens, and in creating a significant annual event across the Commonwealth of Virginia lead to more than 50 historic garden restorations since, and the celebration of its 83rd Historic Garden Week next week.

In 1940, the next phase of Kenmore’s garden restoration began when the Garden Club agreed to fund the implementation of designs by the renowned Southern landscape architect Charles Gillette.  His plans included the “secret garden” area in the northeast corner of the grounds, the brick wall that currently surrounds the property, and Kenmore’s iconic brick gate on Winchester Street. Gillette would continue his work at Kenmore into the 1950s.

Garden Letter 1

Page 1 of a letter from Hetty Harrison to Annie Fleming Smith dated June 26, 1940 informing the Kenmore Association that the Garden Club of Virginia had selected Kenmore as its restoration project and that renowned Southern landscape architect Charles Gillette would provide the design.

Garden Letter 2

Page 2 of the Harrison-Smith letter

Tree Planting

Ceremonial tree-planting on the Kenmore grounds, 1938.

Most recently, the Garden Club of Virginia undertook another restoration of the gardens in 1992.  The Club remains a vital supporter of Kenmore’s landscape efforts to this day.

During Historic Garden Week, enjoy Kenmore’s gardens and experience the house in a new way! On Tuesday, April 26, try a specialty tour highlighting one of three topics—the restoration of Kenmore at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., American Revolution at Noon and 3:00 p.m., and ceramics at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.  For more information and to view the specialty tours monthly schedule, click here.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Some Tax Myths… Busted!

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” And with the deadline to pay the federal income tax only days away it would be difficult to disagree with the founding father. However in the 200 years since the American Revolution, a few popular misconceptions attach themselves to that universal truth. This blog post will debunk two such highly-repeated but highly-inaccurate tax myths.

The Closet Tax

The misconception that early Americans were taxed for the number of closets in their homes has been repeated so many times that almost everyone has heard it somewhere at some time. The pervasiveness of a story, however, does not make it true.  No records show any of the 13 colonies or early states had a closet tax.

How did this myth originate?  There are two likely culprits.  First, most historic homes seem to lack closets but that is simply a modern impression.  In the 18th century, closets were not used to store clothes. That practice became popular after the Civil War. Instead, clothes were kept in a trunk or a clothes press and this leaves bedrooms woefully lacking in closet space to modern eyes. Despite our notions, 18th century homes, like wizards who arrive exactly when they mean to, had just as many closets as early American homeowners wanted.

The other culprit in creating the closet tax myth may be England’s window tax. From 1696 until 1851, England taxed the number of windows in homes as a way to tax individuals proportionately to their wealth because it was thought that more windows meant a larger home and more wealth.  A similar logic – more closets meant more wealth – is said to explain the mythical closet tax. The window tax ultimately affected architecture in England and resulted in homes with fewer windows.  The same thing is claimed to have resulted from the faux closet tax.  Both Virginia (in 1781) and Pennsylvania (1798) tried a window tax, unsuccessfully, but there was never a closet tax.

Bricked Up Windows

As a result of the window tax, many homeowners in England bricked up their windows to reduce their tax burden. This house was constructed in 1830 on Portland Street in Southampton. Credit: Gary Blunt / Wikimedia Commons

This cartoon from an 1850 edition of the British satircal magazine Punch advocated for the repeal of the window tax. Indeed, repeal finally took place in July 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This cartoon from an 1850 edition of the British satircal magazine Punch advocated for the repeal of the window tax. Indeed, repeal finally took place in July 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Boston Tea Party

It is sometimes claimed the Boston Tea Party was a protest against tea’s rising cost.  Actually, the Tea Act made tea cheaper for colonists.  In 1770, Lord North, the new Prime Minister, repealed all of the Townshend Duties, except for the one on tea. He also passed the Tea Act of 1773 which allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to the colonies, dropping the price of tea well below that of smuggled Dutch tea even with the small tax included. To Parliament, repealing all the duties except the small one on tea seemed perfect. The action did away with measures the colonists disliked, enacted an alternative that was much cheaper, encouraged English/colonial shipping, and used something colonists already bought.

In spite of all of this, it was not a welcome measure with some colonists like the Sons of Liberty, a radical group of Boston merchants. Colonists were not forced to spend their money on tea and its tax. They could even refuse ships that held the tea from entering their ports. Most other colonies protested the Tea Act through boycott. Massachusetts’s Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, however, ordered a tea-filled ship be allowed into the harbor despite the insistence of Bostonians. This act by the governor speaks more directly to the motives of the Sons of Liberty on that evening in December 1773.

"Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston," engraving by W.D. Cooper in The History of North America. London: E. Newbury, 1789. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

“Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston,” engraving by W.D. Cooper in The History of North America published in London in  1789. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

The governor’s disregard for the people’s wishes and the reaction of the Son of Liberty were indicative of a long-standing animosity between the two. While motives were varied, numerous, and complex; the Sons of Liberty were not protesting the oppressive cost of tea when they tossed it into Boston Harbor.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Photos: Glue Through a Microscope

While living at Ferry Farm, Mary Washington, mother of George, owned a creamware punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif and cherry accents.  Archaeologists excavated pieces of this bowl from the cellar of the Washington home and subsequently discovered glue residue on the sherds.

PunchBowl

cherry-sherds

interior-glue copy

We’ve written about the importance of the bowl’s discovery here and even showed how we recreated a glue similar to the one used to repair the bowl here.

As part of our continuing efforts to learn as much as we can about the punch bowl and these glue residues, we took the sherds to the archaeology lab at Dovetail Cultural Resource Group here in Fredericksburg, where they took photos using a microscope.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

These Are A Few Of My Favorite (Broken) Things: Cobalt Blue Decanter Stopper

Archaeologists are somewhat unique in their appreciation for all things broken, mostly due to the coveted information discarded items can tell us about those who died long ago.  However, occasionally a fragment is unearthed which is both informative and beautiful.  Such is the case with a lovely cobalt blue decanter stopper excavated on the grounds of Historic Kenmore.  Made from leaded glass to increase clarity, it seems quite heavy when placed in the hand.  Six carefully hand-cut flutes adorn each side and when held up to a light it exhibits violet-colored highlights that accent the piece perfectly.  Just the stopper alone is beautiful. Imagine how striking the entire decanter would have looked! Conveniently enough, that’s my job!

Cobalt Stopper

During the late 18th century, the decanter and its stopper graced one of the rooms at Kenmore and held either fortified wine like Madeira, Port, and Sherry or a stiffer spirit such as rum or gin.  It may have been part of a set and adorned with gold gilding that spelled out which heady beverage was contained within. I picture the decanter being picked up by one of the Lewis family’s enslaved servants on a dark night and a glint of purple from deep within the cobalt bottle shining as it reflects off of a candle while dark burgundy Madeira is poured forth into a waiting cup.

All musings aside, however, the reality is that this stopper (which I am clearly obsessed with) also teaches us about how Fielding Lewis and his family lived.  The decanter was a showy piece meant for display.  It could be argued that, while it was a functional vessel, its primary purpose was to emphasize the wealth of the family and to impress guests.

For us today, the stopper has a practical use. Meghan Budinger, Kenmore’s curator, was able to locate a similar vessel using the excavated stopper as a guide. While the decanter on display in Kenmore’s dining room is clear instead of cobalt blue, its shape and design closely match the cobalt decanter and stopper owned by the Lewises.  Meghan continues her search for a blue decanter.

Kenmore Decanter (2)

Still, visitors and obsessed archaeologists alike may marvel at its beauty.  In fact, most of the ceramics and glass in that room have archaeological equivalents that have informed Meghan’s choices.  Thus, when asked by visitors why we have selected the beautiful tablewares before them, we can confidently answer that it is not just because they are pretty (so very, very pretty!) but also because, thanks to the archaeological record, we know the Lewis family owned pieces like them!

Kenmore Decanter (1)

You can see the clear glass decanter that is based on the cobalt blue stopper while also learning more about their ceramic cousins and about how archaeology has informed the choices of objects displayed inside Kenmore on a new specialty tour of the house called “Posh Pots and Decadent Dishes: The Lewis Family Life through their Ceramics.” Learn more about this new tour here. If antique glass is more your style, you can read more about Kenmore’s “Beautiful Glass” on The Rooms at Kenmore blog here.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist