Why Did Yankee Doodle Call a Feather “Macaroni”?

Vintage July 4th Postcard

A vintage Independence Day postcard with the beginning lyrics of “Yankee Doodle”.

In honor of the Independence Day tomorrow, I want to talk about a pressing question I had as a child pertaining to one of our most popular patriotic songs “Yankee Doodle”.

We all know the first verse.

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

The question is why did he call a feather in his cap “macaroni”?

Macaroni does not refer to the tasty cheesy pasta dish that we all love and know.  It refers to an elaborate short-lived fashion trend in England at the end of the 18th century.  The trend started with upper-class youths who returned from their Grand Tours of mainland Europe with a great appreciation for continental style and taste.  They brought back the luxurious fabrics of the French as well as the pasta dishes of the Italians, thus macaroni was used to refer to the fashion trend.[1]

The macaroni style consisted of a tight-sleeved coat with short skirts, waistcoat and knee breeches.  Macaroni emphasized pastel color, patterns and ornamentation like brocaded or embroidered silks and velvet.  On their head, they wore tall wigs with a rising front and “club” of hair behind that required an extensive amount of pomade and powder.  This wig was usually garnished with a large black satin wig-bag trimmed with bow.  The feet were clad in red-heeled slipper-like leather shoes with decorative buckles of diamond, paste or polished steel.  Additionally, as much ornamentation as possible was added with large floral nosegays, hanging watches, swords and tasseled walking sticks.[2]

What is This My Son Tom (1774) published by R. Sayer & J. Bennett

In this print titled “What is This My Son Tom” and published by R. Sayer & J. Bennett in 1774, an “honest farmer” is seen with his adult son, who has large, elaborate hairstyle and stylish clothes following the macaroni trend. Credit: Library of Congress

To be “macaroni” was to be sophisticated, upper class, and worldly.  An elite figure marked by the cultivations of European travel, wealth and taste.

So what did the British troops, who first sang the song about their colonial cousins, mean when they said that Mr. Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni?

The song was not meant to be a compliment but rather a joke.  A “Yankee Doodle” was a simpleton who thought that just putting a feather in his hat would make him macaroni or fashionable when, in reality, he was just a country bumpkin.  He lacked class, could never mingle in high society, and was too simple to even realize it.

It was obviously a broad generalization of Americans because in the colonies there was a broad range of fashion.  America didn’t have a global metropolis like London but wealthier colonists like Historic Kenmore’s Fielding and Betty Lewis could afford the luxurious imported fabrics and trendy ornamentation.[3]  Even with the delay in news from England the wealthy always tried to follow the a la mode styles.

The average colonist would probably not have had a pastel silk waistcoat or stripped knee socks, however.  For them, linen, wool, cotton and linsey-woolsey were all common clothing fabrics in more natural or sedate colors.  An average person may only have had 2 or 3 outfits so durability was preferable to style.[4]

What seems like just a silly sounding verse in a marching tune actually illustrates how the British viewed and had always viewed the colonies.   They looked down on the overseas colonies; after all if it wasn’t for the support of the Crown the initial colonial settlements might not have survived. They felt that the American colonists owed them a great deal for protection, for purveying their culture, for providing them with manufactured goods.[5]

So, if the British were insulting Americans in “Yankee Doodle”, why is it such a common American patriotic song now?  Why would Connecticut even make it their state anthem?[6]

As is often the case with insults leveled at a supposed inferiors by people who sees themselves as superior, the colonists appropriated the negative image of a Yankee Doodle and gave it a positive meaning.  No longer was this motley “macaroni” viewed as a garish fool but rather became a symbol of a homespun American identity.

Yankee Doodle from Uncle Sam's panorama of Rip van Winkle and Yankee Doodle (1875) by Thomas Nast

One of six scenes from the story of Yankee Doodle showing an Uncle Sam figure tipping his feathered top hat to the departing British represented by Britannia and the crowned lion and unicorn on King George III’s coat of arms. This scene and five others were pasted together to form a long panoramic strip on a late 19th century children’s toy made by McLoughlin Bros. and illustrated by Thomas Nast. Credit: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

America was a place where your status in society was based on merits of work, enterprise, and earned wealth.  Your value didn’t come from an inherited title or a fancy ensemble but rather from your own abilities and hard work. In America, anyone could indeed stick a feather in his cap and rightly call it macaroni.   The British could keep their macaroni men, Americans would rather be a Yankee Doodle.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Hair, Authenticity, and the Self-Made Macaroni, Amelia Rauser, 2004, pg 101

[2] McNeil, Peter. “Macaroni Dress” https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-styles/macaroni-dress

[3] The Revolution and the New Republic, 1775-1800 http://www.americanrevolution.org/clothing/colonial7.php

[4] Baumgarten, Linda. “Looking at Eighteenth-Century Clothing” http://www.history.org/history/clothing/intro/clothing.cfm

[5]  “Iron Tears,” a British View of American Revolution, Interview with Stanley Weintraub, July 3, 2005. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4727956

[6] Yankee Doodle, Connecticut State Song. https://statesymbolsusa.org/symbol-official-item/connecticut/state-song/yankee-doodle

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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

Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

What’s Growing in Ferry Farm’s Garden?

As many of you know, the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm was reconstructed and furnished as accurately as possible using historic documents, paintings, letters, and, of course, archaeology. Now that the challenge of getting the house built and open to visitors has passed, it’s time to turn to the rest of our plan for interpreting Ferry Farm’s landscape. This will eventually include constructing outbuildings, finishing the work yard, and improving the garden.

Even though the present garden is located at Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center and not yet near the Washington house replica, we used archaeological discoveries to decide what goes into the garden this spring. Using data from past excavations on Washington-era contexts, we drew some conclusions on what the Washington family and their enslaved workers cultivated here. While most organic material left behind over 250 years ago is long gone, as archaeologists, we sometimes get lucky and find biological and botanical remains that have withstood the time in the ground. We get especially lucky when we do find botanical remains like seeds and wood because, depending on the elements, they usually decompose easier and faster than bone.

Visitor often ask how we find some of our tiniest artifacts such as seeds. For important contexts and Washington era features, we don’t want to miss a single (tiny) thing, so we use a water screen. Instead of the usual quarter-inch screen we use for dry sifting dirt, we use a gentle stream of water from a garden hose and spray away the dirt through a window screen. We then use tweezers to pick out the tiny artifacts left behind.  Objects like the straight pin in the photo below and seeds could otherwise fall through the standard quarter-inch screen.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-Cate-Courtney-24May2013H

Water screening

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-16May2013

Picking out the artifacts after water screening.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-StraightPin-17May2013

Straight pin

In 2015, we had flora remains from a mid-18th century storehouse cellar feature that had been captured by our fine mesh water screens sent to Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanical consultant for analysis.  Without getting extremely technical, I will say that we gained some very useful data to use to plant our garden this year. Seed specimens discovered archaeologically and used in cultivation consisted  of peas, green beans, wheat, and corn. Seeds included hackberry and, of course, cherry. The only nut uncovered was a hazelnut shell.

Along with this archaeological evidence, we also know that some tobacco was grown on the Washington farm because of court records. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was Virginia’s premier export and most valuable cash crop but places along the Rappahannock River like Ferry Farm were not great tobacco land.  In these areas, as our excavated seeds show, planters moved onto corn, wheat, and other crops, knowing they would never get rich on tobacco.

Using all of this information, we planted similar crops in the demonstration garden along with other crops widely grown in 18th century colonial America.

While seemingly insignificant at first glance, these tiny charred remains of flora give us a snapshot in time of the diets of the Washington family and enslaved workers at Ferry Farm. These definitely are not the only plants they were eating, but we do know via archaeology that these were stored by the family in the mid-18th century. Using the other archival resources listed above, we will continue to fill in the gaps and enhance our garden and landscape according to the historical and archaeological records.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Digging Ferry Farm – Laying in the Grid [Video]

Before digging, archaeologists must survey the land and place a grid on their dig site so they can locate artifact discoveries on the landscape and make maps and other records. In this video, Archaeologist Joseph Blondino of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group explains how this survey is done, shows us the tools used, and then lays the grid for this year’s archaeological excavation at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

When a Toy Hatchet is so Much More: Trench Art at Ferry Farm

Lead Hatchet - Flat Side

Lead toy hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This is a Memorial Day story of a tiny hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  For such a diminutive object it speaks quite loudly to our local history in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Initially, archaeologists at Ferry Farm assumed it was a pewter toy souvenir given out or sold in 1932, when our country and Fredericksburg celebrated the 200th anniversary of George’s birth.  Indeed, cheap pewter toys were very popular during the time period.

 

A closer look at the provenience, or the location on the Ferry Farm landscape, where the artifact was recovered paints a more complex picture.  Provenience is very important in archaeology because whatever is excavated around an artifact paints a more complete picture than one object all by itself.  A reexamination of all the artifacts from the context where the hatchet was found revealed that nothing from that strata (we excavate in layers) had any 20th century artifacts in it, nor did the two strata above it.  In fact, the youngest artifacts from these strata were all mid-19th century.  Additionally, although the archaeologists who excavated the hatchet didn’t know it at the time, the excavation unit from which the hatchet came sat right inside the Civil War-era trench that runs across the property.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This revelation shut the door on our ‘it’s a 20th century souvenir’ narrative but opened the door to an even cooler one.  A close examination of the hatchet showed that it didn’t have mold seams, which are always present on cast pewter toys.  Furthermore, for some reason, it had one smooth side and one textured side leading us to believe that it was handmade, not machine cast.  This was supported by a thorough internet search to find an identical toy hatchet, which came up empty, further supporting our new theory that this piece was a one of a kind.  The textured side resembled the grain of wood so we surmised it had been cast in a simple hand carved wooden mold.  All of these clues, combined with its location within a Civil War trench, made us suspect that the hatchet was crafted by a soldier, possibly from a lead minie ball.  The hatchet is likely ‘trench art’.

Lead Hatchet - Mold Side

Textured side of the lead hatchet. See photo at the start of post for at image of the smooth side.

Trench art is defined as objects either made by soldiers and POWs or by civilians using military items such as brass shell casings or lead bullets.  This simple lamp, owned by the author, was made using a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

Lamp - Artillery Shell

Lamp fashioned from a portion of a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

To further support our identification of the hatchet as trench art, we took the artifact to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where the amazing Katherine Ridgeway analyzed it using XRF or X-ray florescence analysis.  This non-destructive technique determines the composition of metal.  We also brought along a few minie balls recovered from the same unit for comparison.  It turned out that what we thought was a pewter hatchet was actually a lead hatchet with a similar compositional profile to minie balls, which are mostly lead with trace amounts of other metals such as tin and nickel.  While minie balls vary in their composition due to their imprecise method of manufacture, the hatchet was still a close match.

Minie Balls

Minie Balls – rifled musket bullets. From left to right: .557 Enfield Minie Bullet, Burton Pattern Minie Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minie Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

One can just imagine a bored Union soldier whittling the mold and then melting down some of his bullets to pour into it.  He likely chose the hatchet form because of the famous cherry tree story, in which young George Washington owned up to hacking his father’s cheery tree with a hatchet by proclaiming ‘I cannot tell a lie’.  The soldier would have been well-versed in the Washington cherry tree myth, which was set at Ferry Farm by Mason Locke Weems in his first biography of Washington, published in 1800. By the 1860s, the story was nationally known.  Additionally, letters Union soldiers wrote while encamped at Ferry Farm indicate they knew the site’s connection to Washington. They even went so far as to send home cherry seeds for their families.

While the identification of the hatchet is now secured, we have so many more questions.  Who was this soldier?  How many hatchets did he make and why did this one come to be left behind in his trench? Was it a souvenir for himself or did he send one home to his family or share with fellow soldiers?  Did he survive the war?  Unfortunately these are mysteries that will likely never be solved but that make for great pondering on this Memorial Day.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Lecture – The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia [Video]

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation, presented “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia,” the final talk in this year’s annual lecture series. Dave presented three case studies in 18th century garbage disposal at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Colonial Williamsburg, and Historic Kenmore.

Thanks to the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia for hosting the series once again this year. To learn about other events and happenings, visit kenmore.org.