Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire

Furnishings posts logo finalThe furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is done, and the reproduction furnishings are being made.  Whew! It was a long process, filled with lengthy research and sometimes a few head-scratchers.  Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory was our guiding document in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written more than 270 years ago (and long before spelling was standardized) the names on it for certain objects were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some digging to determine what exactly they were.

Right off, we have the enigmatic entry on the first line of the inventory for the Hall.  The handwritten words seemed to be “Scren Fore” or perhaps “Scren Tore”, with a valuation of 13 shillings.  There is no colonial-era furnishing known by that name, and extensive research turned up very little evidence as to what the inventory-takers could have meant by a “scren fore” or “scren tore.” At present, our best educated guess is that “scren tore” was an attempt at phonetically spelling the word “scrutoire”, a furniture form unique to the Rappahannock river valley and eastern Virginia during the first half of the 18th century.  Several variations of the word “scrutoire” show up in advertisements and probate inventories from those early years, suggesting there was a wide interpretation of how to spell and pronounce the word.  In fact, it is believed that “scrutoire” itself is a corruption of the French word “escritoire,” which describes a diminutive ladies’ desk.

Scren Tore

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” highlighted in pink.

A scrutoire in colonial Virginia was also a desk, topped with a bookcase or shelving, and enclosed with two pairs of doors.  The main difference between a scrutoire and a bookcase-on-desk of the variety we are most accustomed to seeing is that there is no slant-top, or fall-front writing surface in a scrutoire.  Rather, the writing surface is a pull-put board, which is also hidden by the doors when closed.  When not in use, a scrutoire resembles a cabinet or cupboard.

The scrutoire is usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, as the desks almost always feature slots for oversized ledgers, and a variety of cubbyholes and small drawers for accounting purposes.  It appears that the scrutoire was a form brought to the Virginia colony by Scottish furniture makers, who settled near the Rappahannock and along the eastern shore, in places like Fredericksburg and Williamsburg.  In Scotland, the scrutoire had existed as far back as the 17th century.

Escrutoire1

The reproduction scrutoire that will be displayed inside the completed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

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The valuation given to the supposed scrutoire in the probate inventory was also a somewhat problematic clue. At just 13 shillings, it seems rather low for a significant case piece.  However, this oddity may be explained by Sumpter Priddy in his 2012 article on scrutoires in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ journal.  As they were a form popular in Scotland as early as the 17th century, they arrived in colonial Virginia rather early in its history, and by the mid-18th century had fallen out of favor to the more common slant-front bookcase-on-desk.  While their valuations in early probate inventories show them to be highly valued household furnishings, by mid-century, they are almost universally given low values, indicating their old, worn-out, unfashionable status in the household.

A scrutoire currently in the collections of Mount Vernon served as the basis for our reproduction. This example dates to slightly after Augustine Washington’s death. It is attributed to Robert Walker, a Scottish craftsman who counted Augustine and Mary Washington among his clients in the 1740s and 1750s.  Later, he would produce pieces for the next generation of the Washington family as well as for Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law at Kenmore.  It seems likely that if the Washingtons of Ferry Farm did indeed own a scrutoire, it would have been produced by their favorite local Scottish craftsman.  The Mount Vernon piece does have a tradition of ownership on Virginia’s Northern Neck, where it descended in the Jett family, who lived in close proximity to the Washingtons at Pope’s Creek, and were not far from Fredericksburg and the later Washington home at Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty confident we’ve solved the mystery of the “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” but that left at least one other  strange item on Augustine Washington’s 270-year-old probate inventory to investigate.  We’ll turn to that mystery in part 2 of this post in early August!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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