“The heat is beyond your conception:” Staying Cool in 18th-Century Virginia

“You must be hot in that. I don’t know how colonial people wore such things.”
“I am a little hot, yes. It is hot out today. Aren’t you hot in what you’re wearing?
“I’m sweating buckets.”
“That’s funny, because I’m not.”

I have a variation of this conversation every time I’m in 18th-century dress.  Modern visitors can’t fathom how early Americans managed to keep cool in the sweltering summer heat.

Most methods are intuitive; hydration; light clothing; seasonal lifestyle changes; etc., but they seem to be just beyond the grasp of those who have never known life without air conditioning. Most modern readers will find these methods interesting, but few would be willing to give up the miracle of AC.

Keeping hydrated

Switchel

Switchel being poured into a mug.

Water in parts of England was not much better than the water in Virginia and Virginians used English methods to transform water into something potable. Virginian’s drank something called “small beer” and, in the observation of Reverend Gwatkin, “their [Children’s] common drink which is toddy or a mixture of rum water and sugar. In general is made pretty weak, the proportion being about a glass of rum to 6 of water.”[1] Gwatkin also observed that the women of the colony drank water and speculates that is one of the reasons they outlived the men.

Some enslaved Virginians were given rations of milk, but many relied on the local streams and dug wells that white Virginians did not trust. Even in instances where the water may have been compromised, a thirsty and exhausted enslaved man or woman were likely to partake anyway.[2]

Virginian’s seemed content to drink low-alcohol solutions to rescue themselves from thirst, but other British North Americans developed a different beverage to beat the heat. Switchel, which is also known as haymakers’ switchel, haymakers’ punch, and by many other names, was essential to New England farmers working out in the fields.

Recipes for switchel varied, but common ingredients included water, ground ginger, and a sweetening agent (molasses, sugar, honey, etc.).  As a number of lifestyle blogs will tell you, this beverage is refreshing and hydrating.  Of course, 18th century Americans knew nothing of hydration or electrolytes; it wasn’t until 1887 that these properties were discovered.[3]  Fortuitously, the switchel ingredients contain potassium, an electrolyte replenisher.

Dressing for the heat

One of the most important methods of keeping cool was dressing for the weather.  Modern Americans dress for the heat, but may not be doing as good a job as their 18th century counterparts.  Their secret: natural fibers.  Cotton, linen, and wool whisk sweat away from the body and dry relatively quickly.  On a hot summer day, I’ve gone from wearing 18th century clothing to a rayon skirt and polyester blend top and my 18th century clothing was MUCH more comfortable.

In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey wrote a letter to his brother, Edward Hawtrey, who was preparing to come to Virginia. Stephen who had experienced the Virginia heat and writes, “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible for the heat is beyond your conception . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.”[4] Eighteenth century clothing was not a cure-all, as Stephen Hawtrey’s advice demonstrates. Weather-appropriate clothing had its successes, but the opportunity to “chill out” at home seemed to keep spirits up.

Other ways to keep cool

Cooling in Basement

Woman in a shift and petticoat fans herself to stay cool in the cellar of Kenmore.

Gentry woman Sarah Fouace Nourse wrote in her diary about a particularly hot day. So hot, in fact, that after dinner and before tea she stayed in her breezy room and wore nothing but a shift [the most basic of women’s undergarments] and a petticoat [a skirt, probably of light fabric in this situation].  On even hotter days she would go into the basement for relief, where she could be found taking meals and working.[5]  In 1774, Landon Carter wrote that he wanted a bed for the passage for the summer months[6]

By the time of Mary, George, and Betty Washington, gentry houses had “passages” in which the members of the family could keep cool.  These spaces were more than just a hallway that ran from the front door to the back door. In the summer, they became a place to socialize and a respite from the heat.  William Lee wrote Carter, promising him “a line to repose on in a hot afternoon in ye cool passage;”[7] an enticing alternative indeed to the hot, humid, and sticky weather that makes up the Virginia Summer.

Passage from East

A view from Kenmore’s east portico into the dining room and all the way through the passage and out the house’s west entrance. All of these doors would be opened during hot weather to allow a cooling breeze into the house.

Passage from West

A view from Kenmore’s west front into the passage and all the way through the dining room and out the house’s east entrance.

They may have not had air conditioning but early Americans could call upon a variety of intuitive methods – keeping hydrated, wearing light clothing, and making lifestyle changes – to keep cool during the hot summer months.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Small beer only contained 2%-4% alcohol. [n.d.]. Gwatkin’s Chorography of Virginia: “an account of the manners of the Virginians”

[2] Christina Regelski, “A glass of wine . . .is always ready:” Beverages on Virginia Plantations, 1730-1799,”

http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=mhr

[3] “Svante Arrhenius,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Svante-Arrhenius.

[4] Steven Hawtrey to Edward Hawtrey, 26 March 1765.

[5] Wenger, Mark R. “The Central Passage in Virginia: Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Living Space.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (1986): 137-49.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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Lecture Series will Introduce the New Ferry Farm

Aerial House Photo

A recent aerial view of the Washington house in the midst of construction at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Photo credit: Jimmy Cline

As construction of the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nears completion, we want to share the many years of archaeology, historical research, scientific investigation, skilled craftsmanship, and hard work that made building this reconstruction possible.  Next month, The George Washington Foundation will present a lecture series titled George Washington: Boy Before Legend – Introducing the New Ferry Farm over three consecutive Tuesdays.

First, on Tuesday, September 5, Dave Muraca, archaeologist and the Foundation’s vice president of museum content, will present “Building George’s House,” his account of the last eighteen months as Ferry Farm witnessed the careful reconstruction of the Washington House using many traditional techniques.  Dave’s talk will review the archaeology that made our replica possible and recount the work of the skilled craftsmen building George’s house.

Second, on Tuesday, September 12, archaeologist and artifacts analysts Laura Galke will present “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.”  Laura’s lecture will examine how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura will also discuss how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflected their strategy for overcoming setbacks and for exhibiting British colonial refinement.

Finally, on Tuesday, September 19, Meghan Budinger, director of curatorial operations, will survey how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house in “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.”  In recent years, accuracy in historic house museums has become a primary focus of the curator’s presentation to the public.  How we know what we know about the past has become almost as interesting as the objects we curate.  As such, curators are not only decorative arts scholars, but have adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan will discuss how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations.

Each lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. and admission is free. The lectures will take place at Central Rappahannock Regional Library Headquarters, 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.  For more information, call 540-370-0732 ext. 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Then, in October, celebrate the construction of the Washington house at a special ribbon-cutting event at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  More details soon!

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Just What is Colonial Revival?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

How the Enlightenment Transformed Dogs into Pets

I like many people in America have a dog. His name is Edward. Edward is a large black lab who sheds everywhere, snores like a grown man, and has a borderline obsession with socks. He is my best friend and has been my constant companion for nine years. I consider him a member of my family. It’s true that he doesn’t physically contribute to the running of the household. He never picks up his toys and more than once he has thrown himself a ticker-tape parade in the living room with newspaper to celebrate his fabulousness. Still, he is the center, the heart, of my home. Edward’s value comes from him being himself and providing unconditional love, loyalty, and lots of laughs.

Edward 1

Edward as a puppy.

Edward 2

Edward was adopted at eight-weeks-old after an injury to his back leg, which could not be saved. He is now a healthy nine-year-old tri-paw, who loves to talk to people about adopting special needs dogs.

The sentimental view of dogs as faithful and adoring companions is a pretty recent phenomenon. For much of our history, human and canine relationships have been one of cooperation, not out affection, but rather survival. This noticeably changed around the end of the 18th century and two of the main reasons are philosophy and middle-class urbanity.

Enlightenment and the Rise of Sentimentality
The Enlightenment’s ideas dominated the 18th century world and gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. These concepts were based on the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge is reason. The Enlightenment ushered in an age of fundamental social, scientific, and philosophical change.

One of these deep philosophical shifts led people to start thinking of animals as valued in their own right rather than based on their usefulness to humankind. The idea of sensibility or the perception of others’ emotions, particularly among the vulnerable, became quite fashionable. Having a pet, like a dog, became an acceptable way to demonstrate this sensitivity. By the end of the 18th century, the representation of the dog as faithful, loyal, and adoring was a fixture in popular culture. Broadsheets and magazines regularly published stories extolling the noble virtues of the canine and even noted their ability to think, problem solve, and communicate with people.

This admiration for the dog was endorsed by many notable writers and philosophers of the time. Poet Alexander Pope said that “histories are more full [sic] of examples of fidelity of dogs than of friends”. Clergyman Humphrey Primatt became an advocate for animal’s right in 1776 when he published what essentially amounted to a declaration of rights for animals. Even the esteemed Benjamin Franklin wrote “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.”

Urbanity and the Middle-Class
Shifts in philosophical thinking were not the only reason that dogs began to make their way from the fields into people’s living rooms. Colonial America, by the late 18th century, saw the rise of more affluent urban communities, a development that made keeping pets more feasible and desirable. In prosperous cities, the middle-class found pets as a way to express their status. Instead of having hunting dogs like the gentry to show wealth, they had lap dogs like pugs, pomeranians, papillions, shih tzus, malteses, or King Charles Spaniels. These dogs were usually adornments for the lady of the house. They were given bejeweled collars and carried around to mimic the style of English aristocracy. This view of dogs as adornment was not a particularly sophisticated or humane trend but, once the dog was in the house, affection grew as their qualities became more apparent and they began to be treated more as family. Dogs were no longer an accessory but a companion and sometimes even a confidant.

Best Buds
This evolution of dogs from ornament to friend can be seen in two notable examples: newspaper advertisements and portraiture.

The first newspaper printed in Virginia was the Virginia Gazette in 1736. It became quite common to see “lost or stolen” ads placed by people looking for their dogs. Colonists placed ads with substantial rewards for the return of their cherished pets. William Finne, advertised in 1777 that his, “very remarkable black shaggy dog of Pomerania breed, called Spado,” had been “Lost or Stolen,” and he was offering the sum of twenty dollars for its return. Likewise, when a bulldog named Glasgow, who could usually be found snoozing behind the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, went missing his owner placed an ad in the paper asking for his return with a twenty shilling reward. These two ads perfectly illustrate the era’s changing attitudes toward the family dog and their position in the house. Like today, when the family dog went missing, it created a void and, like us, early Americans were willing to publicly pronounce their concern and love for the missing pet and offer a significant reward for their return.

Spado

Announcement in the Friday, March 7, 1777 edition of the Virginia Gazette offering a reward for a lost or stolen dog named Spado.

Portraiture is another example that illustrates the people’s increasing affection for the family dog in the 18th century. Today, we all love taking pictures of our dogs doing pretty much anything. Facebook feeds and social media accounts are filled with the cute antics of owners and their puppies. In the 17th and 18th century, there was a similar trend of having pictures to show off the family pet. More families in the second half of the eighteenth century had their portraits painted and many of these included a cherished pet. This showed families made a concerted effort to include the dog in their documentation of their domestic life.

The Peale Family by Charles Willson Peale

The Peale Family by Charles Willson Peale (1809). Argus, the family dog, can be seen in the lower foreground. Public domain. Credit: Wikipedia

While these theories and examples are not definitive proof of the changing relationship between humans and pets from one of survival to affection, they do illustrate a great attention starting to be paid to the dog. Dogs’ position during the eighteenth century did move from outside the residence to inside the house as a family member. There is still a great amount of research that needs to be done on the subject but the abstract nature of verifying emotional attachments and affection is difficult. There is one thing for certain. Once you let a dog into your life it will change forever and you can’t help but fall in love with them whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box

Furnishings posts logo finalAfter lengthy research and an occasional head-scratcher, the furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is finished!  Reproduction furnishings are now being made. The probate inventory made after Augustine Washington’s death in 1743 guided us in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written over 270 years ago before standardized spelling, certain objects named on the inventory were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some detective work to determine what exactly they were.

The first unusual item was a scrutoire in the Hall, which we wrote about in part 1.  The second unusual item in the inventory was listed in the Parlor. At first glance, it didn’t seem so mysterious.  It is a “sugar box”, which was not an unknown term in 18th century probate inventories, especially those from the southern American colonies.  Obviously, we can assume the item was intended for the storage of sugar, but beyond that it gets a little murky.

Augustine Washington's Probate Inventory

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Sugar Box” highlighted in pink.

The descriptor “sugar” is often found in front of a variety of furniture forms in probate inventories – chests, cupboards, cases, boxes, etc.  The two most common combinations are “sugar box” and “sugar chest,” with the boxes more common to coastal Virginia and North Carolina inventories and the chests being more likely to show up on inventories further inland.

Only a few 18th century identified sugar chests still exist.  They are all finely made boxes on stands of turned or carved legs, equipped with drawers and compartments, and adorned with fine hardware.  In short, sugar chests were considered fine pieces of furniture, not simply storage devices.  They were status symbols, probably placed on prominent display in the best rooms of a house, signifying to visitors that this household, even though far inland, could afford the rare and expensive commodity of sugar.

So, what were the sugar boxes of coastal Virginia like? Until recently, no known sugar boxes were thought to have survived, but new scholarship may indicate that they were hidden in plain sight all along.  Bottle cases, or cellarettes, are known forms found in all sorts of households in colonial Virginia.  They were simply crates, or sometimes something more elaborate, intended to store bottles of alcohol.  The interiors were divided into standard size compartments (4”x4”) to fit the standardized gin bottles being produced in England.

Occasionally, a bottle case would surface that had abnormally large compartments inside, perhaps only two or three.  The assumption was made that these bottle cases were simply intended for larger sized alcohol containers.  The prevailing theory now, though, is that these particular cases, which almost always look like miniature blanket chests, were actually the mysterious sugar boxes.  The two or three large compartments were intended to hold loaves of sugar, or perhaps cones of sugar.

Sugar boxes were not nearly as elaborate and finely made as their inland sugar chest counterparts for one basic reason – it was much easier for coastal Virginians to access imported sugar than it was for inland colonists. Sugar wasn’t nearly the status symbol on the coast that it was inland.  Coastal Virginians didn’t need to show off their sugar – they simply needed to store it.[1]

As a result of this current scholarship on 18th century sugar boxes, a piece from the Foundation’s own collection has been selected for reproduction. It was originally cataloged as a Virginia-made cellarette, as its interior is divided into compartments.  However, its exterior can be described as a diminutive blanket chest.  In reproducing the piece, the interior will be divided into only two compartments instead of the current arrangement for multiple bottles. Thus, we will have a sugar chest in the Washington house.

Cellarette (1)

Cellarette at Historic Kenmore that has been selected for reproduction as a Sugar Box for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Cellarette (2)

An interior view of the cellarette at Kenmore shows the large compartment on the upper right that may have been used for sugar storage.

As you seen with both the scrutoire and sugar box listed on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory, even when we have 270 year-old written documentation, there can still be mysteries to solve!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Collie, P.E. Are Cellarets from the East Coast and Sugar Chests from Kentucky? Edenton Historical Commission, 2016.  http://ehcnc.org/decorative-arts/furniture/cellarets-and-sugar-chests/