Time for Some Trash Talk: The Social Role of Garbage at Historic Kenmore

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Today, we would find trash disposal in the 18th century to be pretty horrifying.  Garbage of all sorts – sharp-edged broken household objects, putrefying food scraps, and odoriferous human waste – was simply dumped in the street, the back yard, or, when available, nearby holes or ravines.  Often, it was literally tossed out the nearest window or the back door.

Believe it or not, archaeology is very concerned with the garbage disposal habits of people in the past.  Sites of disposal called middens are treasure troves of artifacts that excite archaeologists the most because people’s trash can reveal so much about their lives and sometimes even a bit about their personalities.

Archaeologists have excavated a sizable portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm for decades.  These excavations revealed how the Washington family and their enslaved workers disposed of household items, food scraps, and human waste in the area immediately behind the house. Color-coded maps showing the intensity of artifact concentrations illustrate how they simply stepped to the edge of the back porch and tossed trash into the back yard.

Animal Bone Concentration behind Washington House

Map showing the concentration of animal bones excavated from the midden at the rear of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

At Historic Kenmore, some archaeology has been done around the kitchen site and these excavations reveal more complex habits of trash disposal compared to Ferry Farm.

Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis successfully manipulated the landscape immediately surrounding the house and kitchen and designated certain areas for certain tasks.

An insurance plat of Kenmore from 1797 shows the house as well as the nearby outbuildings in relation to the house.  In the 1700s, wood-built kitchen and laundry buildings stood on the spots were two recreated Colonial Revival-style brick outbuildings stand today.

Insurance Plat of Kenmore, 1797

A drawing done in 1797 for insurance purposes showing the location of outbuildings in relation to the main house at Kenmore.

The earliest photo of the kitchen taken during the mid-1800s when Kenmore was owned the Harrison family shows a sizable wooden structure with two enslaved workers – a man named Cary and a woman named Brittania – in the front of the kitchen.

Kitchen at Kenmore in the mid-1800s

The earliest known photo of Kenmore’s wooden kitchen taken sometime in the mid-1800s and showing two enslaved workers believed to be a woman named Brittania and a man named Cary.

The kitchen was just 30 feet from the house.  Rachel, an enslaved cook for the Lewises back in the late 1700s, carried food from the kitchen, across the kitchen yard, and entered the main house through an exterior door that opened into the slave passage, a short but extremely narrow hallway leading to both the master bedchamber and to the dining room.  After a meal, enslaved house servants cleared the dining room table or wherever else in the house that the family might have taken their meal and reversed the trip, carrying food waste back outside through the slave passage.

Slave Passage from Bedchamber to Dining Room

Passage in Kenmore used by enslaved workers to travel between the kitchen, dining room, and master bedchamber.

As archaeology has shown us at Ferry Farm, it would not have been unusual for the enslaved workers to simply dump the food waste into the yard between the kitchen and the house.  Excavations at Kenmore, however, show an extraordinarily clean kitchen yard with few artifacts.  The things like animal bones and broken ceramic dishes or glass cups that you would normally find in an 18th century midden, or trash disposal area, are not there.  The area is very clean, which indicates that it was kept very clean.

Excavated kitchen yard 1

Yard at Kenmore between the kitchen (shown) and the house (behind photographer) under excavation.

Excavated kitchen yard 2

The kitchen yard was relatively clean archaeologically.

Archaeologists at Kenmore did find the kitchen midden, however.  It was located just to the west.  While there is a window on the west side of the kitchen, there is no door.  If the waste couldn’t be tossed out the window, enslaved workers walked over to that side of the building to dump it.  This midden is full of artifacts: a pig jaw, for example, and an amazing amount of other animal bones, a knife with a bone handle, as well as architectural material and much more.

Midden at Kenmore

The midden discovered at Kenmore contained a large amount of architectural debris.

Pig jaw found in Kenmore's midden

Pig jaw found in Kenmore’s midden.

Bone handled knife found in Kenmore's midden

Bone-handled knife found in Kenmore’s midden.

The relative lack of artifacts in the clean area between the house and kitchen along with the centralized location of artifacts in the midden gives some idea of the level of control and surveillance enslaved workers were subjected to by Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Betty, for example, could sit at her desk in the master bedchamber (her “command central”) and with the slave passage doors open see directly into the kitchen yard.  From her seat, she ran the household and, in Fielding’s absence and then after his death, the plantation itself.

View of Slave Passage from Bedchamber

View from Betty Washington Lewis’s desk into the slave passage. The closed door visible in the passage opened into the kitchen yard.

The land on the kitchen’s north side was used still another way.  Excavations show it was a kitchen garden.  A cutaway view of the soil layers or the soil stratigraphy reveal subsoil formed before humans, then plowed soil in a large field of corn before the house was built, followed by redeposited clay from the house construction between 1772 and 1775, and finally soil indicating a kitchen garden.  Kitchen garden soil is marked by plow scars that go in all kinds of different directions as many different crops are planted over the years.

Kitchen garden stratigraphy

Diagram illustrating the soil layers excavated in the kitchen garden area at Kenmore.

Finally, the kitchen’s east side was dominated by the formal gardens and terrace.  While the present garden at Kenmore is Colonial Revival in style, archaeological clues to what the original 18th century garden looked like remain under the soil.

Archaeology has shown us that at Ferry Farm, the disposal of trash was something of a free-for-all within the area behind the Washington house.  At Kenmore, however the yard on each side of the kitchen building was carefully controlled for a different use.

Land Use around Kenmore's Kitchen

Aerial photo of Historic Kenmore with different land uses around the kitchen marked.

No matter where the garbage was disposed, however, finding the trash middens on the landscapes has revealed much about the free and enslaved residents of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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