Dig These Dishes! We Recreate an 18th Century Table Setting Using Only Artifacts.

On a typical day at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm, visitors experiencing the house tour are ushered into the main hall upon which a dining table is set out before them with 18th-century reproductions of plates, glassware, wine bottles, and serving dishes. This setting creates an interactive experience for our visitors, transporting them back in time to the mid-18th century when the Washington family lived here on site.

Last month, however, an unexpected sight greeted a tour group as they entered the hall. The dining table was set, not with reproductions, but actual plates, jugs, and serving dishes that could very well have graced the Washington family’s dinner table over 250 years ago.  The principal difference is that nothing on the table was complete – all were fragmented versions of the originals. 

Dining table in Hall set up for dinner.

The setting was a special photoshoot for The George Washington Foundation and an occasion to display and highlight the array of vessels, many mended, residing in the Archaeology Department’s collection.  Everything on the table was archaeologically recovered from either Ferry Farm or Historic Kenmore and represent vessels that date to the Washington family’s occupation of Ferry Farm or Betty Washington Lewis’ time at Kenmore. 

The Archaeology Department at Ferry Farm has been mending vessels over the past couple of years for our museum displays at the Ferry Farm and Kenmore Visitor Centers. This mending was also done for research purposes as the curatorial department worked to furnish the replica house with accurate, period-relevant household items.

So what is on the table? Creamware and white salt-glazed plates and serving dishes, glass tumblers and wine glasses, German stoneware jugs, dark green glass wine bottles, a porcelain teacup, coarse earthenware porringers, forks and knives with bone handles, silver spoons, and Mary Washington’s creamware enamel-painted punch bowl.  Many of the ceramic tablewares and a few of the glass tumblers were mended using archival glue.  Some of the objects were able to stand on the table unaided, while others needed mounts for support, such as the wine glass.

Fragments of dinner and glasswares

To help envisage the original shape of some of the fragmented vessels and make them recognizable, we first sculpted their shapes out of foam, covered them with fabric, and then attached the incomplete vessel fragments in their correct positions. This process allowed us to present a more “complete” and familiar view of some of the tablewares, such as the two large stoneware jugs, the creamware pepper pot, the glass tumbler, and the two wine bottles. All of these items would have been very difficult to display simply using the fragments themselves. 

Having such an array of different ceramic styles on the table is more a function of what we have mended in our collection versus what Mary might have actually had on her table.  But for our purposes, we are happy showcasing all of the different ceramic types presently in our possession.

Welcome to the Washington dining table! Enjoy!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director