“A time to be born… a time to plant”: Timing Labor in the Washington Family

Recently I was contemplating Augustine and Mary Washington’s family bible. Like many families at the time, the Washingtons recorded the births of their children on their bible’s end pages. As I casually perused the handwritten notes that I had read so many times, I discovered something that I had never noticed before: each of Mother Washington’s labors, while carefully recorded, was only done so to the nearest hour.  No minutes, no “…quarter after…,” no “…5:38…” were detailed. I quickly realized two things at once: 1) the Washingtons owned a timepiece, and, 2) that timepiece only possessed only one hand for determining the hour.

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Page in the Washington family bible listing births and deaths.

These times were clearly not chronicled using a sundial, given the arrival of George’s younger brother Samuel Washington on November 16 at three in the morning.  Clearly, at 3 am, there was no sunlight from which to read the early-hours culmination of Mary’s labor on a sundial! The timepiece used to record these births had to be a pocket watch, case clock, table-clock, or a wall clock.

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Page from the Sarrett family bible

Compare the Washington family’s biblical records with that of the Sarrett family.  John and Mary Sarrett recorded deliveries in their mid-eighteenth century bible as well.  However, recording the specific time was not deemed important during these happy occasions, or was perhaps not possible because they may not have owned a timepiece.

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Page from the Kings family bible

In Worcestershire, England, the mid-eighteenth century Kings family did record birth times. Carefully written
among the pages of their New Testament, the deliveries of their children were noted, with the day, month, date, and the nearest hour of their birth.  Sometimes, if the birth was not especially close to an hour, they improvised: daughter Anne was delivered “…between 4 and 5 in the afternoon….”

Solar Time Versus Clock Time

Luxuries such as watches became popular in England starting at the end of the seventeenth century, when advancements in manufacturing and technology made timepieces smaller and more accurate. A social climate that fostered the ownership of such elegant accessories and scientific instruments (such as sundials, compasses, scales, barometers, and clocks) evolved and thrived at this time (Priestley 2000:7; Shackel 1987:156-165). Their high cost, luxurious status, and the knowledge needed to read and understand scientific instruments limited their ownership to well-off, educated consumers. This began to change during the mid-1700s.

With their increased accuracy, consumers of these timepieces soon realized that standardized time did not match solar time: due to the earth’s tilted axis and elliptical orbit the days were not of equal length throughout the year. At the height of winter, the solar day is almost a quarter hour slower than the clock, but by mid-December the clock is that much faster than the solar day.

Some one-handed timepieces featured incremental marks that allowed minutes to be recorded with some degree of precision. Though the mechanical clock had existed for several centuries (Stephens 2002:20), most colonists had little need for measuring time to the nearest hour, much less to the minute. People organized the activities of their day according to the rising and setting of the sun and around the exigencies of weather and light that favored some tasks over others. In the United States today, we continue to tell time in relation to the middle of the day, noting whether the hour is a.m. – ante meridiem (before the middle of the day)- or p.m. – post meridiem (after the middle of the day). Since daylight provided the best conditions to do most tasks in an era when expensive candlelight, ethereal firelight, or moonlight provided the only other options, it made sense to arrange one’s tasks according to this crucial reference point. (That said, people in the 18th century were surprisingly active at night as we explored in this blog post last year.)

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Although from the 1500s instead of the 1700s, this tambour cased timepiece from Germany is a fine example of a pocket watch with only a single hour hand. Credit: British Museum, (No. 1958, 1201.2203)

At Monticello, Jefferson installed a clock at the entrance to the mansion house.  It was simultaneously visible from both the yard and the entrance hall with one significant difference: from the yard, the clock had a single, hour hand but the interior, household face featured three hands. This interior clock allowed time to be segmented to the nearest hour, minute, and second. While outdoor tasks were sufficiently general that timing to the hour was appropriate, indoor tasks could be scrutinized to the nearest second.

Augustine Washington’s Pocket Watch

There was no a wall clock, table clock, or a case clock like Jefferson’s in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory. Either the probate assessor missed the clock during his survey, or the times noted in the Washington family bible reflect the use of a pocket watch. Pocket watches were especially popular among those who invested in timepieces, outselling furniture, or ‘case,’ clocks throughout the 1700s.

Indeed, a splendid watch was noted in Father Washington’s probate inventory under the heading “plate.” The “plate’’ category represented items plated in silver, and included things such as teaspoons, soup spoons, and a sword. At £5, Augustine’s watch represented the single most expensive item of plate recorded in their home: over four-and-a-half times more expensive than Father Washington’s sword!

Augustine’s pocket watch allowed him to check the time and document the births of his and Mary’s children’s to the hour. By checking the time, he demonstrated his pride in the ownership of a timepiece and in the esoteric knowledge needed to properly read it..

George may have taken this very timepiece with him in the late winter/early spring of 1748 when he joined a team of surveyors hired by Fairfax to transform parts of the Shenandoah Valley into farm-sized lots (Flexner 1965:34-38). During his March travels, Washington noted:

Tuesday 15th. …It clearing about one oClock & our time being too Precious to Loose we a second time ventured out and worked hard till Night….
Wednesday 16th. We set out early & finish’d about one oClock….
Thursday 17th.  Rain’d till Ten oClock….
Wednesday 23d.  Rain’d till about two oClock….

George recorded all of the times only to the nearest hour, indicating a single-handed timepiece. I considered that he used a pocket sundial. However, since some of the times were recorded during rain events, and given the nature of backwoods surveying, it had to be a pocket watch: no member of the surveying team could have carried a bulky case clock around the valley and across swiftly-flowing rivers.

There’s a good chance that this pocket watch was the same elegant, silver-plated timepiece that his father proudly used to record George’s own birth. Surely George enjoyed showcasing his graceful, refined pocket watch amongst the more experienced backwoodsmen and surveyors with whom he traveled in 1748. It otherwise seems difficult to justify recording such trivial details to the nearest hour. The piercing gleam of the weak winter sun against his magnificent silver-plated pocket watch distinguished George as a sophisticated gentleman, despite the rustic conditions in which he was surrounded.

With their watches and clocks, Augustine, George, and others living in the 18th century now measured the fruits of their labors in greater detail and that labor became commodified, helping to usher in the modern era.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Dixon, Simon
2015 Who Owned the Wicked Bible?  University of Leicester Library Special Collections Staff Blog, October 23. http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2015/10/23/who-owned-the-wicked-bible/

Flexner, James Thomas
1965 George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775). Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Priestley, Philip T.
2000 Early Watch Case Makers of England 1631-1720.  National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc, Cornerstone Printing Services, Lititz, Pennsylvania.

Shackel, Paul A.
1987  A Historical Archaeology of Personal Discipline.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of New York at Buffalo.

Stephens, Carlene E.
2002 On Time: How America has Learned to Live by the Clock.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

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