No Refrigerator? No Problem!: Preserving and Storing Meat in the 1700s

It’s easy to take our refrigerators for granted.  There they sit in our kitchens quietly keeping our food safe to eat and making our lives quite easy.  It may be difficult to imagine but a large percentage of time on an 18th century homestead such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm was spent preserving food for long term storage.

Before grocery stores and refrigeration, most foods were only available at particular times of the year – this is called seasonality.  Eggs, for instance, were not plentiful in the fall and winter when hens traditionally stop laying.  Certain fish, such as shad and herring, can only be caught during the few weeks a year when they spawn. And, of course, most crops were harvested in the fall.  So when food was available it needed to be preserved and stored properly if there was any hope of enjoying it in the future.

Food preservation was especially important in the fall and early winter, which was butchering season for large animals.  Chickens and small game were enjoyed year round because they could be eaten in one or two meals. A larger pig or cow, however, would spoil in mere days when exposed to the humid and hot Virginia summers. Therefore butchering was left to the cold months.  Even the frosty temperatures were not enough to stave off decay and therefore long term preservation techniques were employed to guarantee a supply of meat throughout the year.

To begin, preservation involved many people.  In my own household today, we butcher two hogs once a year and it’s a family event with our neighbors and friends helping out.  In the Washingtons’ case, a number of their slaves were put to this task and likely butchered dozens of hogs at once to ensure the family and the enslaved population had enough meat for the upcoming year.

Pigs were the preferred livestock for meat in Virginia, as anyone who lives here knows well.  We love our pork.  This is not a coincidence as pork’s high fat content aids with preservation and helps the meat survive the nasty summers previously mentioned.

Butcher Diagram for Pig

A butcher’s diagram showing the main cuts of pork and from where the come on a pig. Credit: Wikipedia/Pearson Scott Foresman.

After butchering, the next step in preservation was to treat the meat in a manner that would facilitate storage.  This usually involved drying, salting, or a combination of the two.  The idea was to reduce the meat’s water content, which promotes spoilage, and kill or inhibit bacterial growth.  Salting pork drew out moisture so small meat cuts could be rubbed down with salt and then stored in even more salt, which was relatively cheap in the 1700s and keeps the nasty bacteria at bay.  Furthermore, adding the chemical compound saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the rub kept meat edible even longer and had the added benefit of ‘fixing’ the nice red color of the meat.  Saltpetre is still in use today for food preservation (and also makes great gunpowder and fertilizer, strangely enough).

A technique that worked even better for long term storage was brining.  This process involved soaking the meat in a salt water mixture and was good for larger cuts, like hams.  Meat could be stored in the brine and packed tightly in covered jars or casks in a cool environment for months.  The Washingtons had cellars in their house ideal for this purpose and the archaeological record at Ferry Farm is full of fragments of stoneware and earthenware jars – the Tupperware of their day.

Of course all this salted meat would need to be soaked in water before it was edible.  Even the salt-loving Virginians couldn’t palate it otherwise.

Adding the extra step of smoking to the salting process preserved the meat even longer.  The smokehouse was ubiquitous on 18th century farms and, while we know the Washingtons had a smokehouse, we have yet to locate it archaeologically.  We have found evidence for a smokehouse that predates the Washingtons moving to Ferry Farm, however.

Washington House and Work Yards

Archaeologists have not located where the smokehouse stood when the Washingtons lived at Ferry Farm. Perhaps it stood among the fenced-in work yards behind the family home. More archaeological exploration will be necessary to place the structure on the landscape.

Your basic smokehouse was a small, square, one room structure with a pyramid-shaped roof and rafters in the roof to hang meat on.  In the middle of the room was a fire pit or box where a fire was kept going for days at a low temperature. It dried the meat without cooking it and exposed the meat to a lot of smoke, which inhibits decay and is a deterrent for bugs and vermin.  Have you ever wondered why mosquitos don’t seem to bite much when you’re around a camp fire?  It’s the smoke.

One final common preservation and storing technique was to pot meat.  This involved packing cooked meat tightly into a jar and capping it with a generous amount of butter, lard, or tallow (rendered beef fat).  An unappetizing as this may sound it kept meat safe to eat for weeks or months in the right environment.  Potted meat is still popular in certain areas, although you’ll find it in cans, nowadays.

Ceramic Storage Vessel (5)

A complete redware storage jar.

A variety of ceramic pots like the above redware jar were available for storage of preserved meat and other foodstuffs in the 1700s.  Below are photos showing four different types of storage vessel sherds excavated at Ferry Farm:

All of the above mentioned preservation and storage techniques lend their own unique taste to meat, many of these flavors are now considered very desirable and the main reason these techniques are still employed for various foods, even though we don’t require them any longer thanks to refrigerators and freezers.  Think salted bacon, Spam, smoked barbeque, and delicious salty ham.  What originated as necessary methods for making food last have evolved into our own unique modern cuisine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Oliver, Sandra L. Food in Colonial and Federal America.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London. 2005

Olmert, Michael.  Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies – Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.  2009.

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont.  Eating In America.  The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey.  1995.


A Thimble of My Love


A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

FF-Graduated Thimbles-shoptSmall

A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.


“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.


Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.


It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

The Lewis Ships That Sailed the Atlantic World


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

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is located on a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River.  That river connects to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  When young George Washington lived at Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock was a gateway to the entire world.  Fredericksburg was a port town on the river’s opposite bank from the farm and small ocean-going sailing vessels traveled up the Chesapeake and into the Rappahannock to dock at the bustling town’s wharves.  Ships like the brigs Stanton and Priscilla as well as the schooners Grampus and Penguin brought goods to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and occasionally people to settle and work in the colonies.

Growing up next to the river influenced the young Washington.  He got to experience life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and sailed to Barbados at the age of 17. Also, for a time, the family debated whether teenage George should pursue a career in the Royal Navy.  Moreover, at Ferry Farm, the Washingtons produced and consumed the goods that ships plied back and forth across the ocean.

George Washington, his family, slaves and neighbors were members of what historians call “The Atlantic World,” a global community of many different peoples taking part in the trade that traveled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Washington, his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, and other Fredericksburg residents saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day and interacted with the sailors from those ships every day.  They supplied the ships with goods to take to destinations far across the sea and then bought the goods these ships carried when they returned.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, at the same time, many planters along the Rappahannock chose to export things like wheat, foodstuffs, timber, and other raw materials used to manufacture goods.

Broadly speaking, these manufactured goods were made in Europe using the raw materials exported from the Americas.  Europe then sent the manufactured goods to Africa as well as back to the Americas.  In Africa, they were used to buy slaves while, in the Americas, they were used to purchase more raw materials.  This movement of goods has long been referred to as the “Triangular Trade” because of the triangle shape that the goods traveled when traced on a map.  Of course, this is a very simplistic description of a very complex network of trade that really spread across the globe.  Still, a triangle is a useful way to imagine, understand, and remember the basics of the process.

Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and the Lewis family built and owned ships that transported goods throughout the Atlantic World. Records of these ships’ voyages help illuminate the Triangular Trade and also how Atlantic trade routes often did not look like a triangle at all.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

In one of the earliest voyages of a Lewis ship, the 80-ton brig Stanton – owned by Fielding’s father John Lewis and captained by Richard Williams – made a roughly six month voyage in the first half of 1732. The Stanton was bound for Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, and then Barbados, an island in the Caribbean Sea, before returning to Virginia. Its voyage is a perfect illustration of the Triangular Trade and we’ve written about it here.

But the Atlantic trade was not always a triangular one.

During the first half of 1737, the Lewis brig Priscilla sailed directly to London and back under the command of Richard Williams and carrying 192 hogsheads of tobacco, six tons of iron, and 5,000 staves.[1] The ship returned to Virginia with “European goods” and, after a brief stop at Madeira, added some wine to its cargo.

'The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge' 1746 by John Maurer

“The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge” (1746) by John Maurer. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The next year, the John Lewis-owned schooner Grampus mastered by John Briggs set sail with 300 staves, 600 bushels of corn, 900 bushels of peas, 180 bushels of wheat, 1 hogshead of wine, and 400 feet of walnut plank bound on a direct voyage to and from “New England.”  It returned with 5 hogsheads and 6 barrels of rum, some molasses, cider, oil, and “New England Ware.”

Finally, about a decade later, we find another John Lewis-owned ship departing Virginia.  The Penguin, a schooner captained by Will Whitterong with a crew of six, set sail for Antigua in the Caribbean on March 1, 1745 carrying 100 barrels of pitch, 303 barrels of tar, 35 barrels of turpentine, 100 bushels of peas, 8 barrels of tallow, and 13,800 shingles.  The Penguin arrived at Antigua on May 17 and returned to Virginia on June 5 with a cargo of 30 hogsheads and 1 tierce[2] of rum, 27 barrels of sugar, and British goods.

Did some of the items these ships brought back from across the Atlantic end up at Ferry Farm to be consumed or used by George Washington and his family (or the Strother family, the farm’s earlier occupants)?  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  Many of the items excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm definitely fit the descriptions “European goods,” “New England Ware,” or “British goods.”  Westerwald jugs, Bartmann bottles, white salt-glazed stoneware fruit dishes, and glass wine bottles all journeyed across the Atlantic to be used by Ferry Farm’s residents, then broken, thrown away, and buried, eventually to be recovered by archaeologists. No matter who actually used them, these recovered items represent the people and way of life of the 18th century’s Atlantic World made possible by the ships Stanton, Priscilla, Grampus, and Penguin.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Staves are the curved lengths of wood used to make barrels, buckets, or, in this case, pipes. Yes, wooden pipes.

[2] Tierce is an archaic measure of wine that roughly equaled 35 gallons. The term was also used as a synonym for cask, which seems what is meant in this case.