Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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Rooms at Rest

Visitors to Kenmore on the evening of April 13th will have the opportunity to see the Dining Room in a very different light, both literally and figuratively.  In preparation for our evening program Letters from the Past, we will be putting the room “at rest,” an arrangement that would have been very familiar to the Lewises during their time in the house, but may look a little odd to us in the present day.

As we have discussed on several previous occasions, household furnishings in the 18th century were thought of as completely mobile.  Almost nothing had a permanent location.  If the large dining table was needed in the Passage for a casual summer supper, then it was moved there.  If the sofa was a favored reading place, it could be moved in front of a cozy fireplace on a cold night, or it might be placed directly in front of an open door to catch a breeze on a hot summer day.  Furniture was even constructed with this mobility in mind.  Tables were drop leaf or tilt-top, so that they could fit through doorways, and could be placed flat against a wall.  Castors were added to the feet of some pieces to aid in their movement from one room to another.  And of course, all of this movement was aided by the fact that gentry households had small armies of enslaved labor to see to it.

And when a room was not in use (or at rest), most of its furnishings were pushed against the walls, leaving the center of the room open and available for any spur of the moment need.  We are used to seeing beautifully appointed rooms, like Kenmore’s famous Dining Room, perfectly staged with a table set with silver and china, the chairs arranged around it, the sideboards loaded with auxiliary glassware and decanters, all at the ready to serve a formal meal.  In reality, these entertaining rooms were probably very rarely in this state of readiness.

Kenmore's Dining Room at Rest

Kenmore’s Dining Room at rest.

On any given day, the Lewis Dining Room was largely empty.  The 15 dining chairs listed in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory were lined up against the walls.  The two drop leaf dining tables, one oval and one square, would have their leaves down, and would be lined up with the chairs.  All of the silver, china and glassware would be carefully locked away in the room’s closet.  The empty cellarette and wine cooler would be shoved under the bare sideboard.  Anyone passing through the room could take advantage of the empty space in the middle of it to admire the Brussels carpet in its entirety, and to view the dazzling plasterwork ceiling from directly under its center.  While a room was at rest, the open space could be used for any variety of purposes, from hanging laundry to having lessons for children in the family, but by and large it would have simply remained closed up and quiet, especially at Kenmore, where the cost of heating such a cavernous room was a real consideration.

Often it was necessary to immediately transition a room to its resting state following a formal meal, such as in preparation for dancing (as we show in our annual holiday Twelfth Night at Kenmore performance) or for an entertainment, such as a musical performance or a dramatic reading.  Guests might leave the room temporarily to share a drink in the Drawing Room, while house slaves cleared the remains of dinner and moved the furniture, but they might also simply pick up their own chairs and move them out of the way while the switch to entertainment mode took place.  As an English traveler in America noted in his diary, while he and other guests watched, the servants “in the manner of the country, carried away the table when they carried away the cloth, and drove loiterers away with an army of brooms…the men had previously carried their chairs to the wall, the women to a window.”[1]

During the Letters from the Past event, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy a candle-lit dramatic reading in Kenmore’s Dining Room, just as their 18th century counterparts might have done.  The room will be at rest, allowing our visitors the chance to sit directly under the plasterwork ceiling and view the space in an entirely different, but very typical for the 18th century, way.

In honor of National Siblings Day, Letters from the Past will read between the lines of George Washington and Betty Washington Lewis’ personal correspondence. Only a small portion of the letters between the siblings still exists. This program will focus on a series of seven letters written in 1789 and 1790 in which brother and sister grieve the loss of their mother, and bicker about the things all siblings bicker about. Not sure eighteenth-century English is your favorite style of reading? We will have twenty-first century “translators” to help us put all of it into some modern perspective.

This dramatic presentation takes place at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, April 13 from 5:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m.  A reception with light refreshments will be held from 5:00 – 5:30 p.m., and the program will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17.  Reservations are encouraged as space is limited, but walk-ins are welcome.

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

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 (New York, 1809). Vol. 1, Pg. 327.  As quoted in Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy.  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 (New York, 1989), Pg. 80.

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].