In July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.
The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it. It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.
But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.
The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8). But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.
In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains. In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post. While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time. At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades. Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians. The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle. Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view. In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.
Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house. Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed. Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds. So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.
Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like. The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given. However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.
The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death. This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to. While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information. Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.
In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.
Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers. As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg. Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.
As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations