When Christmas Wasn’t for Kids

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyPicture it. No Santa. No Christmas tree. No big-ticket Christmas present. No little Susie or Bobby up to their eyes in wrapping paper, as their parents snap a photo of every gift they unwrap.  To die-hard Christmas fans today, this sounds like a nightmare. Where is the wonder and joy? Where is the standing in line or the surfing online all night to find the perfect gift? Where is the fulfilling of little Susie and Bobby’s every Christmas wish?

Christmas, as a celebration, was not always so focused on small children.  Until the 1800s, Christmas was a holiday mainly for adults.  Most of the festivities in the 18th century were designed to provide opportunities to socialize and celebrate with adult family and friends from far and near.  The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) were a time to make merry, unless you were a kid.

Now, to say that children had no chance to enjoy holiday festivities would be an overstatement but not by much.  Kids made “Christmas pieces,” or cards that they decorated and adorned with poems, for their parents and siblings. This tradition eventually grew into the modern activity of sending Christmas cards.

Christmas Pieces

Reproduction “Christmas pieces” in Betty Washington Lewis’ Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Colonial children did receive small gifts from friends and family – little presents like books, fruit, and nuts. There was nothing expensive, nothing breakable, and nothing age-inappropriate.  These presents served as small tokens of affection as parents showed children that they were remembered during the season.  Gift-giving in the 1700s was a top-down affair – parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents could provide little gifts to the children but children were not expected to return the favor.  Modern children might be envious of their 18th century counterparts if they knew that they were off the hook for giving presents to their parents and older siblings.  But Colonial Virginia was a hierarchal society with children near the bottom.  Christmas gift-giving enforced these rules of deference and even at a festive time it remained clear who was firmly in charge.

One reason children were left out of Christmastide festivities in the past may have been just the lack of kid-friendly activities.  Firing guns, going fox hunting, and getting married at a holiday ball weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) activities associated with children.  This is not to say that children did not take delight in these activities when adults did them.

Young boys could not partake in the fox hunt, but it didn’t make it less exciting for them.  Boys admired their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers as they prepared for the hunt.  Boys who were a little older could watch as their male loved ones dashed off on their horses and into the excitement of the hunt.  George Washington was an enthusiastic fox hunter starting in his-mid teens, at which point a young man would be up to the physical challenge. Boys also surely excitedly watched the men fire guns into the air as a way to say “Happy Christmas!” to the neighbors.

Twelfth Night in Devonshire (1863)

“Twelfth Night in Devonshire” (1863) shows men firing guns to celebrate the holiday in “Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker” by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld. Credit: Wikipedia

Girls probably happily helped their mothers or older sisters prepare for the Twelfth Night ball even though they would not attend.  It wasn’t until a boy or girl had gone through puberty that they were ready to go to the ball.  Some children started their dancing lessons early, while others started later.  George Washington was taking lessons by age 16.  Even the nature of the 18th century dancing would have been too difficult for children.  At the beginning of every ball, the guests danced the minuet, a complicated series of steps performed on the tip-toes. This would be nearly impossible for children and their still developing motor skills. Until they were older, little boys and girls admired the festivities from afar.

Couples took advantage of the Christmas balls and family get-togethers to hold weddings.  The 12 days between Christmas and Twelfth Night were a popular time for couples to get married.  Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on January 1, 1772 and George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married January 6, 1759.  This was a joyous occasion for the whole family, but the children of the family were certainly not the center of attention.

Perhaps the greatest example of how Christmas in the 18th century wasn’t for kids is the fact that many people, adults and children alike, did not celebrate the day at all.  Seventeenth century Puritans in Massachusetts saw the Christmas celebrations of the Church of England (and, by extension, Virginia celebrations) as a mockery of the Puritans’ devout faith.  “Yuletide is Fooltide” was the attitude and, except for going to church all day on Christmas, Puritan children did not participate in any of the frivolity of the season. At least Virginian children could enjoy the celebrations even if they were not their focus.

More than anything, Christmas provided 18th century children with the chance to learn the etiquette and proper behavior that would be important for them as adults.  Both boys and girls observed how men and women prepared for and behaved during Christmastide and the rest of the year.  That’s right, modern American children, the biggest Christmas gift that 18th century children received was learning how to behave.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

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Photos: The GWF’s Delightful December

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyThe George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these from our month of festive happenings and decorations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

There will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season and delight in each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations until December 30. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.

The Wine Bottle: Ubiquitous and Informative

Ah, the humble wine bottle.  There are few historical archaeological sites without them and Ferry Farm is no exception.  Our current mending project has produced about a dozen wine bottles from one Washington house cellar feature alone.  Readily identifiable because their form has changed little in the past 250 years, these beauties are sometimes overlooked in favor of fancier or more exotic artifacts.  However, there is much we can learn from the sherds of wine bottles and much history wrapped up in their existence on colonial sites.

Wine Bottles 1

Mid-18th century bottle neck and base fragments excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

Let’s start with what wine bottles cannot tell us. They can’t actually tell us whether or not folks were drinking wine.  Huh?  Well, ‘wine’ bottles of the colonial period held anything from vinegar to gin and all liquids in between.   Yes, many contained wine but the modern use of ‘wine’ to describe these bottles, with their tall, cylindrical shape and dark green-colored glass, is really just a reflection of what we exclusively drink from them currently.

Most 18th and 19th century wine bottles held a variety of substances over their lifetimes.  Bottles were not cheap before industrialization made them relatively disposable and were often listed in probate inventories.  Recycling is nothing new.  Your average 18th century household carefully cleaned out each empty bottle for reuse when needed.  The inside was scoured with sand, small pebbles, or lead shot (which is a terrible idea). It is not uncommon to find wine bottles archaeologically that exhibit heavy use wear on the inside and outside from years of being drained, cleaned, refilled and used for storage, serving, and transport.  Truly, the wine bottle was a workhorse.

Wine Bottles 2

An example of what the bottles excavated at Ferry Farm looked when they were whole.

Where did these ever-present bottles come from?  For the most part, from England.  This isn’t surprising given that colonials weren’t really allowed to trade with any other countries.  While there were some early glass houses in the Americas, their production was nowhere near that of England’s well-established glass industry.  The English produced squat and sturdy wine bottles of very dark glass often dubbed ‘black glass’ able to survive shipping across the Atlantic.  They were filled before the trip and used as ballast in the ship, the contents often being worth more than the bottle itself.

For the most part, these ‘black glass’ wine bottles were filled with wine but not the wine that you’re likely familiar with.  Your typical red or white wine would not survive the months-long tumultuous ocean journey (with its extremes of temperature and humidity) from Europe to America. It would be vinegar by the time it arrived, if you were lucky.

However, wine fortified with a hard liquor such as brandy would halt fermentation and oxidation processes and make the wine both transportable AND much higher octane once it arrived for thirsty colonials.  Subsequently, a lot of the wine enjoyed in 18th century America was fortified.  Not only did these fortified wines such as Madeira, port, sherry, Masala, or Malaga survive the nasty voyage across the ocean, they actually tasted better once they reached their destination.  Fortified wines are total masochists and basically thrive under neglect and abuse.  The more rocking of the boat the better.  Fortified wines also love extremes of temperature and humidity.  In fact, bottlers often documented the voyage a particular wine took.  Madeira and Port that traveled south of the equator and then back north again fetched top dollar because they had been exposed to the extreme conditions of the tropics.

B1981.25.623

“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But why import all this wine?  Surely it would have been cheaper and easier to make it locally like most other colonial food and beverages.  Well, the colonists tried….and tried…and tried.  Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the great innovators of his day and a celebrated lover of wine, failed in this task, although not for lack of effort.  It turns out that European grapes do not do well in the Americas and tend to wither from disease and pests.  Additionally, North America’s few native grapes are ill-suited to making fine wine.  It was not until recently in our history as a country that we’ve succeeded in growing hybrid grape varieties that will produce a palatable wine.  We had a much better track record of making wine out of pretty much everything else (dandelions, apples, barley, peaches, quince, and any berry they could get their hands on).  Seeing as it was unimaginable that our founding fathers go without one of their favorite beverages, both wine and wine bottles ended up making their way across the Atlantic in large quantities.

All of this brings us back to the Washington family wine bottles.  Their presence is not a surprise but finding them has us pondering the importance of wine in the colonies, the intricacies of colonial transatlantic trade, and the value of seemingly everyday objects in colonial society.  Of course it’s also fun to contemplate all of the libations they may have held over the years until a careless hand shattered them and banished the bottles to the trash midden where they would await discovery by archaeologists two and a half centuries later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Grasse, Steven.  Colonial Spirits:  A Toast to Our Drunken History.  Abrams Image, New York.  2016

Hancock, David.  Oceans of Wine:  Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  2009.

Jones, Olive R.  Cylindrical English Wine & Beer Bottles 1735-1850.  Minister of Supply and Services, Canada.  1986.

Photos: “Antiques” Hunt!

Furnishings posts logo finalSeveral weeks ago, staff from George Washington’s Ferry Farm went hunting for objects to go into the reconstructed Washington house, which will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces to allow our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers, and pick up the plates on the table.  Finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat but staff members have traveled to a variety of flea markets and consignment shops on the hunt for 20th century Colonial Revival objects that will pass as 18th century.  Here are a few photos from one of these trips…

To learn more about the reconstructed Washington house furnishing effort, you might wish to read these blog posts…

Furnishing George’s House: The Corner Cupboard
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box
Search for Washington House Furnishings Takes Exciting Turn!
Just What is Colonial Revival?
Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

Living in Colonial America, disease and illness were defining challenges and perpetual threats of human existence.   At the time, there was no concept of infection or germ-theory, no vaccines, no really effective treatments for infectious disease and few public health measures that could reliably curb epidemics.[1]  For colonial Americans, it was not a matter of “if” you would get sick but rather when and would you be strong enough to survive.

George Washington contracted many of the epidemic diseases like malaria, dysentery, and smallpox that plagued colonists and survived despite limited medical intervention.  As a young man in the prime of his life, standing 6’2”tall and weighing over 200 pounds, his body fought a host of illnesses that killed most.  Still, these diseases had lasting effects on Washington’s body and one of the diseases he suffered led to a controversial decision that may have even saved America in its fight for independence.

Smallpox no longer terrifies humanity because it was eradicated in 1977 through a global program of vaccinations.  The devastation this disease caused through history is unrivaled.  By the 17th century, smallpox surpassed all other pandemic diseases as the swiftest and most deadly.[2]

The earliest conclusive evidence for smallpox dates back to 4th century China. It quickly spread through Asia and reached Europe around the 10th century. By the 18th century, it accounted for an estimated 8 to 20% of all deaths.[3] Upon its arrival in the New World, it decimated the Native American population, which had never faced the horrible and highly contagious disease.

Smallpox spread easily through overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, pains in the back and legs, vomiting, and eruptions of seeping, smelly pustules on the body.  While left with immunity, survivors face debilitating after-effects like disfiguring scars and blindness.[4]

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

While smallpox was a reoccurring problem for larger coastal cities in British North America, it was less prevalent in more inland rural areas. Virginia experienced only minor outbreaks prior to 1747 when large outbreaks hit Williamsburg and Norfolk County causing panic, public unrest, and eventually public health proclamations.[5]

At the time, many offered advice on how to stave off or even cure the disease.  Recommendations in popular medical manuals, like Domestic Medicine, advocated rest, liquids, and various regimens of blistering, purging, and bleeding but not much more.[6] A particularly interesting remedy Virginian planter William Byrd II advocated included drinking large amounts of water “that had stood two days upon tar”.  These methods perhaps relieved symptoms but did little to prevent one from catching the disease.

Inoculation was the one way available to try and prevent smallpox.  A doctor took a bit of infected matter (i.e. pus from a pustule) from a person suffering from a mild case of smallpox and inserted it under the skin of a healthy patient.[7]  Theoretically, the newly infected patient would then develop a mild case of the infection and after recovery be immune to further breakouts.

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

Many physicians supported this new technique but inoculation had serious drawbacks.  One of the biggest was the mild case of smallpox in the newly infected patient could become a full-blown attack.  Additionally, people who were inoculated became carriers of the disease, capable of infecting individuals who had never had smallpox or who had not undergone inoculation.  This became a volatile issue because of a lack of understanding of population immunity and ineffective quarantine protocols.[8]

Anti-inoculation sentiments rose in Virginia after people recently inoculated returned to the community and outbreaks followed.  Full-scale riots and protests were seen in Norfolk County  and Williamsburg which led to petitions to ban inoculation. In 1769, Virginia prohibited inoculation unless specifically approved by the county courts.[9]

But how does smallpox and inoculation relate to George Washington, Virginia’s most famous son, and America’s fight for independence?

The connection began on November 2, 1751 when George Washington landed in Bridgetown, Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence. They had come from Virginia to the tropical island seeking relief for Lawrence’s tuberculosis.  Two weeks later, George wrote in his journal that he “was strongly attacked with the smallpox”.  He was confined to his sickbed for nearly a month being too ill to keep his daily journal.[10]  After his battle with smallpox, however, Washington became a major proponent of inoculation even though his support ran counter to most of his fellow Virginians.

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

With the Revolutionary War, smallpox increasingly became a deadly complication for the new United States in its fight for independence.  Where soldiers go plagues follow and when Washington took command of the Continental Army in summer of 1775 he wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he had been, “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox” and he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy”.

Outbreaks were particularly common when there was a large buildup of troops in an area like during the Siege of Boston in 1774 or after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.[11]  Epidemics also broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in summer of 1776 and the attempt by American forces to take Quebec was greatly hindered by smallpox among the soldiers.

In the winter of 1777, Washington decided to have all troops and new recruits inoculated.  As stated in his letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated.  This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.  Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with it usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington understood the great risk he was taking in instituting mass inoculation and effectively incapacitating large numbers of soldiers while they recovered.   The operation was kept secret and done during the winter in the hope that his forces would be healthy and ready to fight in the anticipated summer campaign. Despite some setbacks, Washington’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in the army were largely successful.  While the disease continued to affect soldiers, there were no further epidemic outbreaks among the troops.[12]

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army quartered for the winter of 1776-77 and where a large portion of Washington’s troops were inoculated. Credit: National Park Service / Steve Santucci

George Washington’s insistence in these preventive health measures and his belief in the effectiveness of inoculation helped the Continental Army conquer smallpox and become a more reliable military force.  Additionally, the success of mass inoculation within the fledgling nation’s military helped encourage the civilian population to use these preventative measures. Inoculation began to gain popularity with Virginians and all of the American people.  So, young Washington’s trip to Barbados when he was nineteen was unsuccessful in helping his brother’s tuberculosis but it did end up giving him a greater appreciation for preventive medicine and the devastating power of epidemic disease.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “The Perpetual Challenge of Infectious Diseases”, Anthony S. Fauci and David M. Morens, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2 February 2012.

[2]  Kotar, S.L., and J.E. Gessler. Smallpox: A History. McFarland, 2013. pg 11

[3] The Seat of Death and Terror: Urbanization, Stunting, and Smallpox by Deborah Oxley, The Economic History Review, November 2003,  pg 5, 627

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

[12] “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War”, Ann M. Becker, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No 2. (Apr. 2004), pg. 424-430