Tacks-ation without Representation

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Tacks recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Let’s do our tacks! I know you’ve been dreading doing your tacks, and putting it off as long as you could, but time is running out. It is time to do our tacks, friends.

Whether iron alloy or copper alloy, tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack at a site.  Delicate items have disappeared but their tacks remain.  There is “tacks-ation without representation.”

Copper alloy tacks often called brass tacks are one of those artifacts that archaeologists occasionally encounter. They tend to occur in small quantities at any given site. Archaeologists also recover iron alloy tacks used in cabinetry, furniture, and architecture but this blog will focus mainly upon brass tacks.

Brass tacks were shiny beacons of taste that drew well-deserved attention to the fine fabric or leather coverings that encased upholstered furniture. Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory lists eleven “leather bottom” chairs in the home’s hall where George and his family dined while sitting upon these chairs. It was likely that brass tacks secured the leather to the frame of the chairs. Leather was an especially popular chair covering in Virginia, due in part to its availability to talented Williamsburg craftsmen.

Augustine Washington Probate Inventory

A portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory from 1743. The highlighted entry shows eleven leather bottom chairs in the Hall.  The entry reads “11 Leather Bottom Do.” The Do. is an abbreviation for “ditto” meaning the prior entry will indicate the item being inventoried.

Leather Chair with Example Tacks

A modern leather chair using tacks that are similar in appearance and function to 18th century tacks.

Furthermore, a couch was located in the passage, and might also have been tastefully tack adorned. While often associated with furniture cushions, tacks were also widely popular on saddles, carriages, and riding chairs. Copper alloy tacks even embellished trunks, coffins, and were employed to hang window coverings.

To date, 127 copper alloy tacks have been discovered by excavators at Ferry Farm. They are scattered throughout the yard spaces surrounding the multiple colonial and antebellum-era dwellings of this site. This assemblage of tacks represents a very small proportion of the tacks used here historically. Like many of our discoveries at this site, the vast majority represent items that were inadvertently lost. Such loss increased when the items they adorned were used, cleaned, repaired, or moved.

Declaration of Independence (1818) by John Trumbull

“Taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the American colonists against British Parliament in the years following the French and Indian War. The victory against the French had been costly, and Britain needed her colonists to contribute to defraying the costs. Parliament opted to impose a variety of taxes – such as on paper and upon tea – and the King’s North American subjects found these fees increasingly irksome. Because the colonists lacked a representative in Britain, Parliament was unable to benefit from the perspective and wisdom of the colonies. Being taxed without such representation was unacceptable, and the colonists took steps to provincial they had no influence on legislation and taxation upon the colonists. The “Declaration of Independence” (1818) by John Trumbull. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

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The shanks of tacks can be square in cross section or round, their ends pointed or blunt, depending upon their function and method of manufacture. Sometimes the shanks are straight and other times they are bent. Bending a shank was sometimes done to ensure the tack was well fastened, and less likely to be lost. However, it can be difficult – some might argue impossible – to discern whether bent shanks were an intentional part of their past function, or whether the shanks were altered as an incidental consequence of their loss, burial, and exposure to subsequent activities that occurred at the site. Occasionally, the shank is missing altogether: broken off and irrevocably misplaced.

Tacks are a timely reminder that the archaeological record does not preserve all of the items that the families who lived here used. The artifacts that we unearth from the yards surrounding the dwellings that were here only represent those things that preserve well and were sturdy. The primary components of furniture decompose readily, often because they are manufactured from organic items. The fabric, leather, canvas, marsh grass, Spanish moss, horsehair, iron hardware, and wood that typified colonial upholstered items do not survive long in the environmental conditions under which the archaeological record of Ferry Farm is exposed. Even under ideal, indoor circumstances, upholstery fairs poorly over time, becoming faded, outdated, and brittle. Cushioning sags and droops over time. Addressing these maintenance issues can result in replacement of these materials and the unintentional loss or even the replacement of its hardware, including tacks.

Despite these limitations, tacks often reflect the use of upholstered furniture, even if the furniture itself has not endured. Most sites lack probate inventories or wills, and tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack. Hence the “tacks-ation without representation” title: while the delicate items which these tacks graced have literally disappeared or are no longer represented, their tacks bear testament to their presence on the site. In the coming years, as archaeologists record more attributes and generate larger collections of these items, their full interpretive potential may be realized.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director

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