One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall. It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year. With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.
We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century. Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house. Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.
What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often. They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories. Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production. Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together. Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.
In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished. There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating. Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit. They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.
The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces. Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms. Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.
The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time. The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights. As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).
Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period. When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.
The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories. The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans. When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table. But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids. Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.
Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm). Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.
We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research. Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.” In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table. In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.
So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons. In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
 Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Basic Books, 2013.
 The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information. Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:
Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.
Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias. Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure. Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.
This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington. Few documents survive that address the matter directly. There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter. The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.
It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax. George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her. We do not know what either of these letters said.
What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon. Fairfax wrote:
“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington. George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend. I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his. I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”
The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence. The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.
It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked. On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.” This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind. Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.” He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”
Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.” While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.
At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England. Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.
“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea. I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog. And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none. And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . . He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go. This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”
Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia. George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.
Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers. What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place? What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate? What were Mary’s specific objections? None of these questions may ever be answered. Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one. Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?
Manager of Educational Programs
 William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].
 Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].
 Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].