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).
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.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.
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