As construction of the Washington house at Ferry Farm continues, our attention is turning to the furnishings of the house. Our goal is to furnish the house entirely with reproductions of 18th century pieces, so that our visitors can fully interact with them, without fear of damage to an irreplaceable piece. Guests will be able to sit on the chairs, open drawers, pick up the utensils on the table, smell the smoke from real fires in the fireplaces, and feel the breeze coming through open windows. In short, the interior of the house will be as close to what the Washington family would have known as we can make it both in design and experience.
Fully furnishing the house will take several years, but the first piece in the process is already on its way to Ferry Farm! It is a corner cupboard, made for us by the talented craftsmen in Colonial Williamsburg’s joiners’ shop and based upon an original 18th century corner cupboard in the CW collection. The story of our corner cupboard is an interesting one, and embodies the work solving mysteries with both history and science that we do at Ferry Farm every day.
The story of the corner cupboard begins with Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory, but not because the corner cupboard is listed in the document. Rather, the fact that it wasn’t listed in the inventory is what caught our attention. In the Parlor, the inventory lists a variety of furnishings, including 3 chairs, a table, a desk, a mirror and a set of window curtains. A value is given for each of these line items, as expected.
The document also lists a value for “lumber in the room and cubbord.” This phrase tells us several things. First, in the 18th century, “lumber” was the term used for what we might call junk today. Lumber was a group of odds and ends or a mish-mash of objects, none of which had much value, and usually lumped together and appraised as a group. “Lumber” did not mean wood. The Washingtons were not storing piles of wood in their Parlor.
“Lumber in the room and cubbord” tells us that there was an assortment of junk in the room – not overly useful info, although maybe it does help us all relate to the family a bit since most of us have a junk drawer or closet somewhere in our homes. The important info that the phrase reveals is the existence of a “cubbord” (phonetic spelling for cupboard) in the room. The fact that the cupboard is only mentioned as a container for the lumber and not as a piece of furniture (it is not given a line item, and is not given a value of its own in the inventory) tells us that the people conducting the inventory felt that the cupboard was not a free-standing piece, but rather a part of the architecture of the house itself. In other words, it was what we would call a built-in.
In the 18th century, built-ins were not exactly common, but they were popular among the upper gentry, and usually took the form of corner cupboards. These corner cupboards served as storage places usually in the a cabinet section in the lower half of the piece covered by a pair of doors. More importantly, they were a place to display luxury goods, like fine ceramics or important silver pieces on the open shelves in the top half of the piece. Through this research, thorough knowledge of 18th century material culture, and some logic, we concluded with strong certainty that the Washington house had a corner cupboard in the Parlor.
Because corner cupboards were built in to the structure of a house in the 18th century, they usually were not constructed by the same furniture makers who produced the chairs and tables for a house. Instead, they were crafted by joiners, who specialized in more architectural work. It was decided to have our corner cupboard constructed off-site at Colonial Williamsburg, so that the historically trained craftsmen there would have ready access to the piece we were trying to reproduce. This original piece dates to approximately 1745 and was probably from the James River Basin region of Virginia.
Conservators at Colonial Williamsburg performed paint analysis on the remnants of original pigments still embedded in the wood of the original cupboard and determined that it was painted a light gray. As the purpose of corner cupboards was often to display fine ceramics, they were usually painted in subdued colors that would contrast with any bright or heavily-painted ceramics.
Unfortunately, most of the best ceramics found archaeologically at Ferry Farm are white or lightly-painted. Gray would not have done much for them. So, research was done by architectural historian Mark Wenger into the paint analysis of the trims and moldings in other Virginia homes of the time period. In the end, it was decided that the cupboard will be painted a dark red color, with a dark gray interior.
A quirk of 18th century construction methods dictates that all the decorative trims and moldings in a house would be in place before plastering, and then plaster would be applied up to those trims, rather than the trim being applied over finished plaster. So, the corner cupboard will need to be in place inside the house before the plaster can be applied. The day when this special corner cupboard will take its place in the Washington house is fast approaching!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations