The Decked Halls of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore [Photos]

Happy Holidays! George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore are closed today for Christmas Eve and tomorrow for Christmas Day.  Both houses will reopen for tours for five more days this year before closing on New Year’s Eve and beginning their annual two-month closure during the months of January and February.  If you are unable to visit this holiday season, please enjoy these photos giving you a festive glimpse inside each home.

To learn more about visiting Kenmore and Ferry Farm, click here.

Making Syllabub

The holiday season has arrived at Historic Kenmore, bringing with it our annual display in the house of colonial wintry traditions from greenery to lovely desserts. Two years ago, I explored the mysterious origin of Betty Lewis’s hedgehog cake and even made a pretty passable replica.  This year, there is another dessert on our table at Kenmore that I have been eager to talk about and even taste, syllabub.

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

Display of desserts popular in the 18th century inside the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

Syllabub is no longer the favorite staple dessert it once was two hundred years ago. I decided to investigate this fluffy confection to learn its history and to attempt to recreate it. You may find that it’s worth reviving this old classic for your upcoming holiday celebrations!

One of the earliest references to this frothy treat is from a 16th century Tudor drama called Thersytes, when a character states, “You and I…muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe!”[1]  It continued to be mentioned through the 17th and 18th century in plays, poetry, art, diaries and cookbooks.  From poet laureate Ben Jonson to famous diarist Samuel Pepys to pioneers in household management like Hannah Woolley, Eliza Smith, and Hannah Glasse, they all knew and appreciated this sweet treat.[2]

Through the centuries, syllabub evolved to suit changing taste and convenience.

One of the oldest and most legendary syllabub recipes was informally known as “under the cow”.[3]   To make it, a poor dairymaid was supposed to milk a cow directly over a bowl of sugar, sack (a white fortified wine), brandy, and cider to create a “fine frothy top.” Then she was to let it sit for a few hours in a cool place.  It sounds simple, rustic, and even pretty tasty. However, this recipe was more fantasy than reality and incredibly impractical.  Despite being unsanitary, it doesn’t seem to work and splits the milk in a most unappetizing way.[4]

If you don’t have a live cow, another syllabub recipe, also rather dubious, was the so-called “Poured or Teapot” approach[5].  This method called for the maker to fill a container with milk and then, from a substantial height, pour it into a bowl of sugar, wine, cider or bandy, and a bit of lemon to create a light and frothy mixture.  This could actually work, if the maker used a heavily enriched cream (similar to modern heavy whipping cream). Otherwise, it also tended to create an unpleasant curdle. [6]

The two former methods, if they worked, were supposed to create a syllabub that was more of a drink and that was pretty heavy on the spirits.  By the 18th century, however, the “Whipt syllabub” became the most popular style of syllabub. It contained less alcohol and was used as a topping instead of as a drink.  The recipe called for the whipping of cream, wine, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg whites. As the froth started to develop, the maker spooned it off into a sieve and let it dry.  After drying, the maker placed the little clouds of froth on top of a glass of sweet wine or jelly.[7]

The Sense of Taste (1744) by Philippe Mercier

“The Sense of Taste” (mid-to-late 1740s) by Philippe Mercier includes some “Whipt syllabubs” on the table. Credit: Yale Center for British Art

I decided to try this fourth style and used a recipe for my experiment called an “Everlasting syllabub” found on page 276 of Mrs. Eliza Smith’s cookbook The compleat housewife, or Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, published in 1773.[8] Betty Washington Lewis owned this book, which is listed on the 1781 probate inventory of Kenmore. Additionally, I picked this recipe because I don’t have access to a cow, didn’t want to create too much of a mess, and wanted to create a dessert rather than a liquor-infused drink.

RECIPE

18th century recipe
To make Lemon Syllabubs
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it in your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them overnight.

Recipe using modern measurements and a mixer and that makes less syllabub:
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

1 cup white sugar
½ cup white wine or apple juice for non-alcoholic
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tsp of grated lemon zest
Nutmeg to sprinkle on top

Whip the cream and sugar (slowly tbsp. at a time) in a bowl until the cream begins to thicken.  Add white wine, lemon juice and zest and continue to whip until light and fluffy and just holds a peak.  Make sure that all the sugar has dissolved and does not give the syllabub a grainy texture. Serve chilled with a dash of nutmeg or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

Syllabub can sit in the fridge for a few hours but you may get some separation of the wine and cream. 

Everlasting syllabub creates a fluffier mousse that is great on its own or as a topping on jellies and trifles.  The recipe is quite simple and requires heavy cream, white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar. This is all beaten together until it is almost the texture of modern whipped cream.  The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and it took less than 15 minutes to create and serve.

After taste-testing my refreshing treat with several colleagues, we arrived at a consensus that this indeed is a dessert that needs revived for our holiday celebrations.  It is light, fluffy, and citrusy and would be a great palate cleanser after a heavy dinner or a nice change from dense baked goods.  For families with children, a non-alcoholic version can be made by replacing the wine with apple juice.

Finished Syllabub

The syllabub we made topped with lemon zest and nutmeg.

Our experiment was a success and many of you may now have a new dessert gracing your holiday table, if you can keep from eating it all yourself.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Syllabub.” The Foods of England Project, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/syllabuboldtype.htm.

[2] Day, Ivan. “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not ‘Jumble it a pritie while’?” Historic Food, https://www.historicfood.com/Syllabubs%20Essay.pdf; Pepys, Samuel. “Sunday 3 August 1662.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/08/03/; Woolley, Hannah. The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex. Duck Lane near West Smithfield, Richard Lowndes, 1672. J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 114; Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, Company of Bookfellers, 1747, pg 218.

[3] MacDonell, Anne. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. London, Philip Lee Warner, 1910, pg 120.

[4] Day.

[5] Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. London, C. Rivington, 1723.

[6] Day.

[7] Nott.

[8] Smith, Eliza. The Complete Housewife: or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London, J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 276.

 

 

All About Sugar Cones

Furnishings posts logo finalIn a post several months ago, we discussed a piece of furniture listed in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory that gave us some interesting insight into the daily life of the Washington family – the sugar box.  Recently, our reproduction sugar box arrived and is now on display in the Parlor, just as the probate inventory indicated.  It’s been popular among our visitors, most of whom had probably never given much thought as to how colonial Virginians used and stored sugar. It also began to raise some questions among our staff.  Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story of sugar in the 18th century than we thought!

Sugar box 1

The sugar box was made by Fredericksburg craftsman Steve Dietrich, who used a cellarette in the Kenmore collection as inspiration. It is made of black walnut from King George County, and has hardware similar to fragmentary pieces found in archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm.

Sugar box 2

Sugar box with the lid raised.

By now, most history buffs know that refined sugar was sold by 18th century merchants in the form of cones, usually called loaves, which were wrapped in bright blue paper and sealed with red wax.  You can even buy souvenir sugar cones in any number of historic site gift shops.  Perhaps because we’re accustomed to seeing these small souvenir sugar cones, and because we hear it reiterated time and again that refined sugar was such a precious commodity in the 18th century, we tend to think that colonial Americans kept one of these dainty cones safely under lock and key in a little chest, carefully rationing out tiny portions as needed.  That notion, however, is quickly squashed when you see the sugar box in the Washington house.  The interior compartments of the box – there are two of them – are quite wide, and very deep, too, measuring 14 inches deep, 14 inches long, and 11 inches wide..  If the box was intended to hold two loaves of sugar, how big were these cones?? As often happens in our line of work, one question leads to another, and sometimes you discover some interesting and little-known facts.

Sugar box 3

Sugar loves and nippers inside the sugar box.

The Kenmore historic manuscript collection came in handy in addressing these questions.  This document collection includes more shop accounts and receipts for purchased goods than any other type of document, and it was an easy task to do a quick search for records relating to the purchase of sugar.

Betty and Fielding Lewis made regular purchases of “loaf sugar,” “sugar loaves,” “white sugar,” “brown sugar,” and sometimes “brown sugar loaves.” The prices they paid ranged all over the place, probably indicating a fluctuating market or scarcity at any given time.  On occasion, the account records gave size and weight information on the loaves being purchased, and they were impressive! The smallest loaf mentioned weighed 5 pounds, 9 ounces.[1]  The largest? It came in at 50 pounds![2] Interestingly, that 50 pound sugar loaf cost £3, 15 shillings whereas the 5 pound loaf was valued at roughly 7 shillings, meaning the 5 pound loaf was worth significantly more per pound than the much larger cone.  Even taking a fluctuating market into account, that’s an enormous difference.  What would cause that?

Sugar loaves

A closer view of the sugar loaves.

Sugar nippers

Sugar nippers were used to cut the loaves.

The answer to both the questions of why sugar cones varied in size so much, and why their value could be so wildly different lies in how refined sugar was produced.  Get ready – you had no idea this was how sugar was made! First, raw sugar from sugar cane was boiled with lime water to remove impurities (yep, lime!).  The resulting liquid was mixed with egg whites, ox blood or sometimes charcoal to further purify the liquid (yep, blood!).  This step produced a layer on top of the sugar liquid that was scraped off and put aside  – it was known as the scum (more about this later).[3]

The sugar liquid was then alternately re-boiled and allowed to evaporate a few times before it reached the optimal thickness, and was then left in a vat to cool.  As it cooled, the liquid began to crystallize, at which point it was poured into cone-shaped molds.  The pointed end of the mold had an open hole in it, but this was initially plugged with a twist of paper.  Once the sugar began to harden, the paper plug was removed so remaining liquid could drain out.[4]  This liquid was also saved and set aside  – it was called the bastard (more about this later too).

Sounds pretty straight forward, but that’s not the end.  The process up until this point produced a more refined, light-color sugar…but it’s still not the pure, bright-white sugar that was so highly coveted.  How did they get the sugar to that final state? Well, a layer of white clay slip was poured over the large end of the cone, and slowly the clay percolated down through the sugar cone, adhering to particles and pushing out any remaining molasses.  This process might be repeated two or three more times to make the most valuable refined sugar.[5]  In the end, those 18th century folks who wanted the good stuff were actually ingesting quite a bit of lime and dissolved clay in their daily cup of tea.  Delicious!

Anyway, once the whitening process was complete the dried cones were carefully tapped out of their molds and the hardened lump of clay that had formed at the nose of the cone was broken off, giving the sugar cone its distinctive bull-nose shape.  These cones were then wrapped in blue paper, which enhanced the bright white color.

Now, back to those scums and bastards.  Both of these bi-products could be recycled again and again to make increasingly inferior sugar, each batch being less refined and less white (and requiring more lime, clay and blood to make it look good).  Eventually very little of either was left, and the resulting “rubbish scums” were simply thrown out.  The inferior sugar liquid produced in this recycling process didn’t crystallize as easily as pure sugar liquid did, and so larger and larger cones were needed to form it.  Therefore, the larger a sugar cone, the lesser the quality of its sugar.  And thus, larger cones were cheaper than smaller ones.  The best sugar came in cones about 5 inches tall, while merchants could acquire mid-range sugar in cones up to 3 feet tall and 14 inches in diameter.[6]  But any level of refined sugar was still a luxury.  Betty and Fielding Lewis’s accounts show that when white sugar was scarce or expensive, they resorted to cheaper molasses (which was actually itself a bi-product of the bastards) to sweeten their foods.

So, now we know why the compartments in the Washingtons’ sugar box were so large.  For general, daily use, they probably purchased medium-grade sugar cones at about 2 feet tall, 7 inches in diameter.  One of those cones might last them for the better part of a year, assuming they could keep the bugs away and keep the sugar relatively dry in Virginia’s summer humidity (no easy task, and likely meant that they simply didn’t use sugar in the summer).

As we know from teawares recovered archaeologically [PDF], Mary Washington was an avid tea drinker and collector of fine teawares. We can also surmise that she may have invested in the occasional small cone of truly fine sugar to serve guests to her tea table in the Hall Back Room, where she did her entertaining.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Lewis, Betty in Account with John Legg, 20th January 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 365.

[2] Account, undated. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 1099.

[3] Porter, George Richardson. The Nature and Properties of the Sugar Cane: With Practical Directions for the Improvement of Its Culture, and the Manufacture of Its Products (London: Smith, Elder, 1843), 271-273.

[4] Magid, Barbara H. Sugar Refining Pottery from Alexandria and Baltimore, Ceramics in America 2005, Robert Hunter, ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2005), 223-224.

[5] Silliman, Benjamin, Manual on the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane and the Fabrication and Refinement of Sugar (Washington, D.C.: Printed by Francis Preston Blair, 1833).

[6] David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), 139.

5th Annual “A Wee Christmas at Kenmore” [Photos]

Visit Kenmore this holiday season for an exhibit of highly detailed, replica dollhouses – including the mansion – and miniatures in the Crowninshield Museum Building. Share memories of your dollhouse with your family as you explore life in miniature! Put your mind and eye to the test with our “I Spy Miniatures” challenge – fun for young and old alike!

Kenmore’s hours are Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Kenmore is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Exhibit ends on December 30. Admission to Kenmore and exhibit: $12 adults, $6 students, under 6 free. Exhibit only: $6 adults, $3 students, under 6 free.

Learn more here.

Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme: A Different Kind of Holiday Decorating

Over the years, we’ve often discussed how colonial-era Christmas celebrations and decorations were different from our own modern-day versions (read here, here, here, here, and here).  Each year, throughout the month of December at Historic Kenmore, we depict the Twelfth Night festivities possibly enjoyed by the Lewis family because, in the 1700s, the main holiday celebration took place in January at the end of the Christmas season, rather than on Christmas day.  We show an elaborate dessert table, loaded with fanciful sugar creations and treats, waiting for midnight revelers to partake during a break from music and dancing.  We place simple jars of greenery around the house, and show a large punch bowl at the ready to serve holiday visitors.  There are no Christmas trees or mentions of Santa yet – those would come later, in the 19th century.

Kenmore Dessert Table

Dessert table from overhead in the passage at Historic Kenmore.

Kenmore Punch Bowl

Punch bowl and tumblers in the drawing room at Kenmore.

This year at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we have a new challenge: how do we show the Christmas season in the Washington house? The Washington family lived at Ferry Farm in the 1740s when Colonial Virginia was a more rustic place. While the Washington family was living in a far better situation than most of their neighbors, they still couldn’t imagine the luxuries that the Lewises would know at Kenmore 40 years later.  So what was Christmas like for the Washingtons?

Washington House - December 2018

The Washington house replica at Ferry Farm as snow flurries fall on a December day at the end of 2018.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of information from that early part of the 18th century to give us much detail.  The Christmas season was rarely mentioned in correspondence or journal entries, and so we can surmise that the lack of mention means that the holidays weren’t an especially unusual time in the lives of most early Virginians.

Interestingly, we actually know more about the seasonal happenings of an even earlier time – that of the very first colonists to arrive in the New World during the 1600s.  Because those early colonists were religiously devout, they observed the sacred aspects of the season strictly, even in the harsh environment they found themselves in after crossing the ocean.  There are a number of holy days, feasts and saints’ days that occur throughout the Christmas season, and marking each of them with church services, large meals or simply readings and recitations comprised the holiday period for those early Virginians.  With a few exceptions, decorations, special foods, small gift-giving, music, parties and the other secular trappings of the holiday would be largely confined to the late 18th century celebrations known to places like Kenmore.  The Washingtons at Ferry Farm probably fell somewhere in between these earlier and later extremes.

Although the Washingtons probably decorated even less than the Lewises, we do have the opportunity at Ferry Farm to show one aspect of early 18th century Christmas that we cannot show in a traditional antique-filled house museum – the use of fragrant herbs.

Early in the 18th century, it was common practice not to decorate one’s home for the holidays, but rather to put the effort into decorating the sanctuary of the local church (if you had one).  Clergymen urged local parishioners to ensure “the church be swept, and kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed, and stuck with boughs.”

For most colonial era churches, incense was an expensive and not easily obtained luxury. To mimic its pleasant smell during holy days, parishioners strew fragrant dried herbs on the floors of the sanctuary.  As the herbs were crushed under foot, they added a pleasant holiday aroma to the room.  Sage, rosemary, and thyme were the most commonly used herbs but lavender and rose petals might also be added.

Herbs on the Hall Back Room floor

Herbs strewn on the floor of the Hall Back Room in the Washington house.

This practice of strewing herbs on the floor was adopted in private homes, too, especially when a household didn’t have a church nearby and services were conducted at home.  Sachets of herbs might also be hung from doorways and windows, and small bundles of herbs might be occasionally tossed into the fire to add to the scent.  The practice served to sanctify the house, but also gave people a break from the never ending parade of bad smells they encountered on a daily basis.

Another common practice among parishioners in decorating their churches was to place sprigs of holly and mistletoe in the muntins of the windows.  Like the strewing of herbs, sprigging the windows found its way into the home and likely was the only greenery early 18th century colonial Virginians like the Washingtons used to mark the season.

Tavern Decorated for Christmas

Although a depiction of a tavern from later in the 18th century, this engraving shows the practice of sprigging the windows at Christmas time still continues. A ball of mistletoe also hangs from the ceiling. Settling the Affairs of the Nation. Engraving; Bowles & Carver, publishers; London, 1775.

At Ferry Farm, because the Washington house is filled with reproduction furnishings, we can use both real herbs on the floors and real sprigs of greenery in the windows.  It may be much less than our 21st century eyes are accustomed to, but the Washingtons would have recognized these signs of the season right away.

This holiday season, we invite you to visit both Ferry Farm and Kenmore to experience these sights and, for the first time this year, the smells of the 18th century’s evolving Christmas celebrations as marked by the Washingtons, the Lewises, and their fellow early Americans.  To learn about visiting Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the holiday season and to see a list of special holiday events, click here.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

32nd Annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibit at Ferry Farm [Photos]

It’s the 32nd year of a a long-standing holiday tradition: the Gingerbread Contest & Exhibit at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!  This year’s theme is “Cartoon Adventures.”

Adults and children alike will enjoy the sights and smells of these festive creations displayed at Ferry Farm!  Ferry Farm’s hours are Monday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ferry Farm is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The gingerbread exhibit ends on December 30.  General admission to Ferry Farm and the exhibit is $9 adults, $4.50 students, under 6 free while admission to the exhibit only is $4.50 adults, $2.25 students, under 6 free.

For more information, call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.