Thievery, Espionage, and Fancy Dishes: Why Porcelain Was a Big Deal for the Washington Family

Porcelain is the king of all ceramics.  As resilient as it is beautiful, porcelain has long fascinated many people.  During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Chinese began exporting porcelain to Europeans, who coveted the precious dishes to the point that porcelain became more as valuable as gold.  Europeans obsessed over how it was produced and various countries sent spies, attempted to kidnap those with the knowledge, and sought to steal texts describing the process.  The Chinese closely guarded the secret, however, and the recipe for the clays and how to get the firing temperature high enough (between 2,200, and 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit) remained a mystery.  The Chinese had been making hard-paste porcelain (as opposed to soft-paste porcelain, which was considered less desirable) for over a thousand years.  That’s a well-kept secret, folks.

Porcelain (1)

Tea canister with hand painted landscape motif.

In the 16th century, the first Europeans attempted to make porcelain in Florence but without success.  Following that, Portuguese traders returned from China with kaolin, a clay found to be key in making porcelain, but they didn’t know what else to add to it so it would survive the high firing.  Then, around 1700, a teenage alchemy apprentice with poor judgement named Johann Friedrich Böttger boasted that he knew the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that would turn base metals into gold.   Word got out and he was kidnapped first by Frederick I of Prussia and then Augustus II the Strong of Poland.  Augustus locked him up in Dresden and ordered him to make good on his claim.  Obviously he couldn’t and to avoid being killed by the increasingly impatient king, he reluctantly partnered in 1707 with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a scientist working on developing porcelain.  Combining their efforts resulted in the first hard-paste porcelain manufactured in Europe and resulted in the establishment of the Meissen porcelain factory in 1710.

Porcelain (2)

Saucer fragment (rim and body) with hand painted landscape motif and gilding

But the intrigue doesn’t end there.  In 1712, Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit, learned the secrets of how the Chinese manufactured porcelain with the help of Chinese he had converted to Catholicism.  He published a letter detailing the process, in what was arguably an act of industrial espionage, and it began circulating through Europe.  To further complicate matters, Samuel Stölzel, an employee of the Meissen factory, which fought hard to prevent its employees from blabbing about their secret for making porcelain, fled the factory’s oppressive conditions in 1719. He made it to Vienna, where he promptly spilled the aforementioned secret.  Within a few decades, porcelain was being produced widely across Europe.  Although Chinese porcelain was still highly valued, their exports began to drop off.

Porcelain (3)

Rim sherds from a hand painted teacup.

As evidenced by all this thievery and espionage, porcelain was a big deal.  Owning porcelain was a sign of status and refinement.  If you were of the European upper class, it was imperative that you own these fancy dishes AND show them off whenever possible.  It was no less imperative for the gentry class in British North America.  Archaeological analysis of the Washington family’s porcelain illustrates that they were very much a part of this culture of conspicuous consumption when they lived at Ferry Farm.

Porcelain (4)

Rim and body sherds from a hand painted punch bowl in the Imari palette.

Our current mending project, piecing together porcelain sherds recovered from Ferry Farm, revealed dozens of distinct dishes once owned by the family.  George Washington’s mother Mary owned porcelain predominantly from China.  Interestingly, all were teawares as opposed to dinner wares.  While dinner was definitely a time to show off one’s ‘good china’, colonial tea time was arguably an even better opportunity.  Serving tea in the 18th century had a large ceremonial aspect and was an opportunity for those participating to show off how cultured they were while serving a beverage (also from the distant locale of China as well as India) linked closely to high status.  Perhaps Mary, a widow on a budget, decided to put her limited resources into more conspicuous teawares rather than dinner plates and bowls.  Previous analysis in our archaeology lab indicates that Mary preferred a ceramic called white salt-glazed for her dinner dishes.

Porcelain (5)

Hand painted partial teacup with scalloped rim.

Porcelain (6)

Matching saucer for teacup for teacup immediately above.

It has also been interesting to discover the china patterns that Mary favored, which include landscape scenes, abstract geometrical designs, and floral patterns.  While she did not appear to own ‘sets’ of china she did have cups that matched saucers, a further illustration of refinement.  As complete sets of china were not common in the middle of the 18th century, one could attempt to match up similar color palettes.  Although we’ve identified dozens of motifs in our collection, there is little evidence for Mary matching the palettes of her porcelains.  Her table, as with most colonial households, was a lot more varied in colors and patterns than we expect in the modern day.  Mary’s porcelains were delicate and skillfully hand-painted with brushes sometimes containing no more than a few bristles.  Many of the teawares are also gilded, which was a premium type of decoration for the time.

Porcelain (7)

Two chocolate/coffee style cups. Hand painted and likely gilded.

In addition to teacups and saucers, our archaeologists have identified one tea canister and a few coffee or chocolate style cups, which tend to have taller and straighter sides and be of a smaller diameter.

With this mending experiment under our belt it’s on to the next one in our never ending quest to learn as much as we can about the Washington family!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Advertisements

George Washington Slept Here… Twice!

Watching the Fire

The black darkness of night — before electric lights – is hard for us to imagine today. We assume life simply stopped as our ancestors awaited day’s return, though historical research suggests it did not.  People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and even visited neighbors in the dead of night. In one instance, George Washington wrote John Hancock, saying “From the hours allotted to Sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress.”  Night did not necessarily mean sleep for early Americans.

Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found substantial documentary evidence that, before the Industrial Revolution, people “experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.”  This ‘segmented sleep’ was referred to as first sleep, watch or watching, and second or morning sleep.[1]  It seems that people of the 18th century did not immediately go to bed with the onset of darkness.  They waited until about two hours after dusk.  Once they went to bed, they slept for four hours but, not long after midnight, they awoke and remained awake for an hour or two. Eventually, they fell back asleep, slept for about four more hours, and awoke around dawn.

The idea of segmented sleep has been supported by some scientific studies, the most notable of which was conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the study, Wehr removed electric light from people’s lives.  After a four-week adjustment period, the study’s subjects moved away from sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours and actually reverted to sleeping for four hours, being awake for one or two, and then sleeping for four more hours. How many of us who suffer with ‘insomnia’ might simply be hanging on to an older sleeping pattern altered by the relatively new technology of electric light?

Segmented sleep, however, may not even be the oldest human sleeping pattern. Research published in Current Biology in 2015 raises the possibility that, in actuality, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an even older sleeping pattern than segmented sleep.  Scientists studied some of Earth’s last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers and found that all three groups slept for 7 to 8.5 hours per night without a period of wakefulness.  The study’s primary author, Jerome Siegel of UCLA, “doesn’t dispute Ekirch’s analysis; he just thinks that the old two-block pattern was preceded by an even older single-block one.” Siegel speculates that segmented sleep arose when humans moved away from the equator into latitudes with longer periods of darkness.

So during the many centuries that humans followed the segmented sleep pattern, what did people do during watch, that time in the middle of the night between first and second sleeps?  The short answer is almost anything!  Most people seem to have simply remained quietly in bed, perhaps pondering their dreams or even praying.  They may have talked with their bedmate, who was not just a spouse but could have have been another servant in the household or another traveler overnighting at the tavern. Beds were often used to full capacity, even if that meant sleeping with a stranger.

If people rose from bed during watch, it might have been to use the chamber pot or privy.

Work took place too, since fires might need tending or the next day’s baking started.  The ancient Roman poet Virgil even mentions women servants spinning yarn during watch.

On farms, a full moon could practically turn night into day. Work schedules changed to take advantage of the light.  “For several nights every September,” writes Ekirch, “light from the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is more prolonged than usual because of the small angle of the moon’s orbit.  Well known in England as the ‘harvest moon’ . . . farmers on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from the moonlight to gather crops. ‘Sometimes,’ Jasper Charlton wrote in 1735, ‘the harvest people work all night at their hay or corn.’  Nearly as useful was the ‘hunter’s moon’ in October, when a full moon next appeared. ‘The moon of September,’ declared a writer, ‘shortens the night. The moon of October is hunter’s delight.’”[2]

If there was no moon or work to do, night brought a respite from the hard routine and strict rules of the workday for laborers, tradesmen, servants and slaves.  Enslaved people especially relished night as a time to run away, to sneak away and visit family on other plantations, to gather together for celebrations, to earn money through extra work, or simply to do whatever personal chores had piled up while working for master or mistress.

Hogarth's Night

“Night” by William Hograth, one painting from his Four Times of the Day series completed in 1736, depicts “disorderly activities under the cover of night” on Charing Cross Road in London. For the fascinating details about what is happening in the painting, visit Four Times of the Day on Wikipedia. Public domain.

The darkness of watch afford ne’er-do-wells opportunity to steal and poach.  Even Washington noted how night was a time for thieving when he complained about slaves using dogs to “aid them in their night robberies” of his sheep.

Because of segmented sleep, night, at least in George Washington’s day, seems to have been a surprisingly active time.  People were awake for a couple of hours each night and during that time did almost anything imaginable from personal errands and household chores to farm labor and crime to prayer and meditation.  The 18th century may have literally been a darker time but it was not necessarily a time for more sleep.

This Saturday, September 14, experience an 18th century night during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm.  After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider.  The event will take place rain or shine.

$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.

[2] Ekirch, 171.

History in the Night Sky

Historic Kenmore at night.

Historic Kenmore at night.

The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends.  This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way.  The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.

Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.

Imagine a clear, crisp early November night.  George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern.  George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg.  During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window.  Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today.  Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.

As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light.  On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”

Great Bear Big Dipper

This map of the constellation Ursa Major. the “Great Bear,” highlights the asterism known as the Big Dipper. An asterism is a star pattern that can be found within an officially-recognized constellation. So, technically, the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation but is simply part of the Ursa Major constellation. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially designates which star patterns are constellations. Map by Rursus,

They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations.  For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear.  Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail.  Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars.  Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.

In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw.  Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.”  Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water.  In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for enslaved people to follow when running north to seize their freedom.  The Dipper pattern can indeed assist someone navigating by the stars to find the North Star.

Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River.  Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear.  Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky.  This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.

It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky.  The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view.  Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes.  In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles.  Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky.  They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Light pollution

Milky Way from Mount Saint Helens with light pollution from Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ray Terrill

If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories.  More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern.  The same sparkling stars are still there.  We just can’t see for the light.

On Saturday, September 14, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm.  After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider.

$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs