Dressing the Past: Costuming Challenges at Ferry Farm & Kenmore

Twelfth Night 2016 19

The cast of Twelfth Night at Kenmore in their period clothing. In our educational programming, we must dress staff and actors of different body types who portray a variety of social classes and time periods.

We have been working tirelessly to improve the accuracy of the costumes that actors and staff wear when performing for or interacting with the public at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm. This is no easy task, but it improves the visitor experience and helps them better understand the Washington and the Lewis families in the context of the 18th century.

This blog post addresses some of the challenges and successes we’ll continue to experience as we expand our costuming after the reconstructed Washington house and the new historic landscape at Ferry Farm opens to the public.

Some of the challenges we face are no different than what other sites face. The modern expense of this specialized clothing, the difficulty of fitting multiple wearers, questions of time period to portray and achieving the small true-to-life details of historic clothing are all important to the success of dressing the interpretive staff. But we’ve come a long way and are on the path to sustained success.  We’ve been working on all of the pitfalls mentioned above and have made great headway. Below is an examination of some of the difficulties we’ve faced and the ways we have met them straight on.

Expense of this Historic Clothing

Cloak

Cloaks are necessary to keep actors and staff warm but they are among the more expensive pieces of clothing needed to properly dress as someone from the 18th century.

The cost of well-made, accurate period clothing is one of the greatest hurdles we’ve or, for that matter, any historic site or museum experiences. Eighteenth century clothing is a highly specialized type of clothing that is often imitated with mixed success. For example, a good quality off-the-rack great coat costs about $325, while a custom-made high-end 18th century men’s great coat costs about $1,000. There were pieces in our costume stock that did not fit our criteria and had to be removed – meaning they had to be replaced with new (and more expensive) articles of clothing. Correcting past clothing choices is its own challenge, but it is far from insurmountable. We make very careful decisions about what was a priority and where we should spend resources first and we have begun acquiring garments that we deem priorities.

One-Size-Fits-No One

Because of the number of people we costume, we sometimes have to use the same costumes on different people (not at the same time, of course!). This is a challenge because both men’s and women’s 18th century clothing was fitted to the individual. A tailor would custom-make waistcoats, coats, and breeches to fit the wearer; even when the ensemble was fashioned out of a hand-me-down suit.  Mantua makers (dress makers) would custom-make women’s gowns and petticoats to fit snugly. We must make our clothing fit a variety of wearers.  We are now quite proficient in the art of pinning and mysteries of knot tying. It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way toward creating a more accurate fit.

Another important part of fit for women is the undergarments. Stays, bum rolls, and hoops create the ideal 18th century shape. Stays were 18th century support garments, much the way corsets were in the 19th century. We recently made acquiring stays a priority and purchased some in a variety of sizes.  This has improved the actor’s appearance in addition to helping her achieve the proper 18th century posture.  Bum rolls accentuate the behind (no, really!) and hoops accentuate the hips.  These help create a period appropriate look that we are now pleased to share with visitors.

The True-to-Life Details

Costume details

Small details like the fan, necklace, brooch, and hair style create a fully realized character with a stronger connection to the past.

Just as it is today, the small details make the 18th century outfit. Attention to men’s and women’s shoe buckles and hats, men’s knee buckles, and women’s jewelry and stays polishes the look that makes history come alive. Our men’s and women’s hats are correct to the period and we have a nice but limited collection of accouterments.  Because 18th-century-style shoes are expensive and we can’t exactly buy a pair of shoes in every size, we have been using buckles on plain black shoes to disguise their modernity. As we move forward, we are working on better solutions to best achieve the small details needed to make a costume fully 18th century.

1750s vs. 1770s

Another challenge we face as the Washington house and Ferry Farm’s new historic landscape gradually come on-line is that we’ll have to costume staff for both the 1750s – the period we interpret at Ferry Farm – and the 1770s – the period we interpret at Kenmore.  This is important for a number of reasons. First, we want to demonstrate clearly that the events that took place at the two sites took place in two different time periods. This sounds obvious, but visitors will better internalize the time difference between the sites with the aid of clothing. Secondly, it would be flat-out wrong to dress the staff portraying our historic figures at both places in clothing from the same period. As a museum, we have a responsibility to make the visitor experience as accurate as possible.

Despite the challenges, our devotion to accuracy in the period clothing worn by our staff will improve the visitors’ experience and help them better understand the Washington and Lewis Families.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Photos: Building George’s House – North Chimney

Brickmasons Ray Cannetti, Robert Hall, and Kevin Nieto recently finished building the second of three chimneys for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Located on the house’s north side and made from hand molded brick by the Old Carolina Brick Company, this chimney includes two fireplaces. One fireplace each on the first and second floors.  These images show Kevin working on the second story’s fireplace as well as the entire chimney after it was completed and the scaffolding around it was removed last week. To see photos of the east chimney being built click here.

Photos: “Much Ado About Nothing” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Historic Kenmore returns this coming weekend with two more performances of Much Ado About Nothing.  Catch one of the final shows at 7:00 p.m. either on Saturday, June 17 or on Sunday, June 18.  Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket and a picnic. Thank you to sponsor Lewis Insurance Associates. More event details are here. In the meantime, enjoy these scenes from last weekend’s performances!

Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington

“I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”[1]  — George Washington

Before his first brush with battle, three military adventures worked together to charm and inspire young George Washington’s fascination with the military and helped push him to pursue a career as a soldier in Virginia’s militia and then as commander of the Continental Army.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

The boy Washington was first charmed by the military service of his older half-brother Lawrence.  In 1739, the colorfully-named War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain began. Ostensibly sparked by the Spanish coast guard boarding a ship captained by Robert Jenkins and cutting off his ear, the war was another one of those conflicts over trade, colonies, and the spoils of the New World so often fought between Europe’s empires in the 18th century.

In June 1740, a commission from George II arrived in Virginia for Lawrence. He was made a captain in one of four infantry regiments of colonial Virginians being raised for service in the war.  On May 30, 1741, Lawrence wrote to his father Augustine describing his role in the Battle of Cartegena de Indias when the British launched an amphibious assault on the city of Cartegena de Indias in Colombia.

Lawrence reported to his father that the British “destroyed eight Forts, six Men of War, six gallioons and some Merchant ships” but “what number of Men they [the Spaniards] lost we know not; the enemy killed of ours about six hundred & some wounded, & the climate killed us in greated [sic] numbers.”  In the end, the British suffered a crushing defeat but more because of disease than battle casualties.

Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741 by Luis Fernández Gordillo

“Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741” by Luis Fernández Gordillo. Credit: Wikipedia / Naval Museum of Madrid.

Virginia’s regiments suffered greatly.  “Some are so weak as to be reduced to a third of their men,” Lawrence wrote but he also revealed that “vastly to my satisfaction” he had been serving “on board Admiral Vernon’s ship.” Vernon was the naval commander during the battle and was greatly admired by Lawrence. He was so admired, in fact, that Lawrence named the family’s Little Hunting Creek property bequeathed to him after Augustine’s death Mount Vernon.

NPG 881; Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1753 (NPG 881). Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lawrence ultimately concluded that “war is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination.” His experiences aboard an admiral’s flagship probably protected him some from the horrors of war.  War did not turn Lawrence off of military service.  He was awarded the post of Adjutant General for all of Northern Virginia’s militia along with the rank of major.

George was about 10-years-old when Lawrence returned home from war.  How many war stories did his older brother share with him?  We do not know but we do know that George and Lawrence were close, especially in the aftermath of their father’s death.  It seems a safe bet to conclude that Lawrence’s military service also likely influenced his effort in 1746 to have fourteen-year-old George join the Royal Navy.

George’s captivation with military adventure was further strengthened by the exploits of Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg.  On September 10, 1747, fourteen-year-old George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to a 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures, which would have been of great interest to a young man like Washington.  That George willing spent hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was with military exploits.

 

Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (1600s)

Portrait of Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (c. 1600s) Credit: Wikipedia.

We do not know the impact, if any, of Schomberg’s exploits upon George’s military thinking. One incident does stands out, however.  While in Ireland commanding the army of William of Orange, England’s new king, against supporters of James II, England’s old king, Schomberg decided that his raw and undisciplined troops would not fare well in battle.  As a result, he held his army behind defensive works instead of confronting the enemy and their superior numbers.  This much-criticized action bares notable similarities to Washington’s main strategy during the Revolutionary War.  Washington defeated the British because, overall, he did not fight the British. Instead, he maintained his “army in being.”  Washington wisely avoided confrontation, when possible, with the professionals who made up the best army in the world.  The American army was inexperienced and initially amateur but as long as the army existed, the newly independent United States would also exist.  The Continental Army had to survive even if that meant avoiding, instead of confronting, the British Army.

The final adventure that inspired a fascination with military things in young George Washington was his trip to Barbados.  In 1751, nineteen-year-old George and his older half-brother Lawrence traveled to that Caribbean island in the hope that the tropical climate would relieve Lawrence’s tuberculous.  This was George’s first and only trip away from the North American continent and to another part in Britain’s vast Empire.

 

Early in their stay, Washington made the first of several visits to Needham’s Fort guarding the south side of Carlisle Bay. He met Captain Petrie, the fort’s commander, and dined with him at the fort more then once.  The fortress seems to have impressed the teenage Washington for he recorded in his journal that it was “pretty strongly fortified and mounts about 36 Gunes within the fortifin and 2 facine Batterys.”[2]

Needham's Point, Barbabos by Reinhard Link

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

Furthermore, he and Lawrence stayed at the house of Captain Croftan, who commanded James Fort on the bay’s north side.  Even Croftan’s house, Washington noted, “command[ed] the prospect of Carlyle Bay & all the shipping in such manner that none can go in or out with out being open to our view.”[3]

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

On the return voyage to Virginia and Ferry Farm, George judged that because Barbados had “large intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an Enemy to Land” the island itself was essentially “one intire fortification.”[4]

As Jack Warren ably concludes, “George Washington’s encounter with the British military establishment in Barbados seems to have had a crucial impact on his aspirations . . . .  After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment– an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

washington-portrait-1772

Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

These three military adventures – Lawrence’s service in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the written exploits of Schomberg, and George’s trip to the heavily fortified imperial outpost of Barbados – all worked to inspire Washington’s fascination with military matters and drove him to eventually pursue the life of a soldier in the French and Indian War and then, most importantly, in the War for Independence.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, May 31, 1754, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0058 [accessed May 22, 2017].

[2] Washington in The Daily Journal of Major George Washington in 1751-2 Kept While on a Tour from Virginia to the Island of Barbadoes, J.M. Toner, ed., Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1892: 52.

[3] Washington in Toner, 47-8.

[4] Washington in Toner, 62.

Good Clean Fun: An Experiment in Colonial Soap Making

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is busy reconstructing the Washington House and, behind the scenes, we are equally busy creating educational and interpretive activities to take place inside and outside the house.  One common colonial chore you may eventually see being done outside the house is laundry.  While doing laundry is still part of our routines, the way we do it today looks a lot different from methods used a few hundred years ago.

History Campers doing laundry

Children learning how to do laundry using 18th century methods during History Camp at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

To begin with, in the past, most households had to make their own soap.  I’m not talking about lavender-infused goat’s milk soap with rosehip essential oils and colloidal oatmeal exfoliant.  I’m referring to a very basic soap composed of animal or vegetal fats combined with lye water.  The end result was considered a success if it removed dirt without burning your skin off.  Consequently, we figured it would be a good idea if we made some soap, just to get an idea of how it is done.

For our soap making experiment, we needed two basic ingredients: lye and animal fat. Fortunately, I raise pigs and had plenty of lard to contribute to the effort so we already had our first ingredient.  Soap making was often a fall or early winter activity as this corresponded with the butchering of pigs and cows.  Alternatively, a household could save up their old cooking grease to turn into soap (yum).  The lye, our second ingredient, was easy to obtain….online!  I did briefly look into making our own lye and quickly realized this was a task far too time consuming.

Colonists, however, not having the benefit of Amazon, wouldn’t have had a choice.  To make lye, they began with a hopper filled with many fires worth of hardwood ashes.  After enough ashes were secured, water would be filtered through it and collected below.  The resulting liquid was boiled down to create the correct concentration, which involved a lot of guess work.  If the lye was too weak it would not react enough with the fats to create soap.  If it was too strong, the soap would impart nasty chemical burns.  Colonial soap making involved quite a lot of effort.

Along with purchasing the lye online, we took yet another shortcut and used crockpots instead of a fire.  This way we could regulate the temperature and keep it steady.  Imagine standing in front of a hot fire and stirring a pot of caustic lye and smelly animal fat for hours and hours? No, thank you, I’ll use the crockpot!

Our first step was to melt the lard in the pot and then slowly add in the lye water.  The resulting chemical reaction was quite interesting.  Initially, the clear lard turned a creamy caramel color before it thinned into the consistency of melted butter.  Then it began to turn darker and separate into what can only be described as an ‘applesauce’ texture.  After what seemed like an eternity of stirring, the mixture progressed into a ‘mashed potato’ phase (hungry yet?).  This fluffy concoction was transferred to a mold and left to set up for a few days.

Four Stages of Soap Making

These four pictures show the consistency of the soap in four stages: caramel (top left), melted butter (top right), applesauce (bottom left), mashed potatoes (bottom right). Credit: Elisa Gale

Our helpful instructor taught us the ‘zap’ test to roughly determine the pH of the soap, which was also a technique used by colonials.  This involves touching the tip of your tongue to the soap.  If you get a strong taste or ‘zap’, it means the pH is off, the soap is too alkaline, and could irritate your skin.  If you taste nothing or only get a slight zap, it’s safe and good soap.  After much soap licking, it was determined that we had indeed produced legitimate soap.  This conclusion was further supported by our crockpots filling up with happy suds when we rinsed them with water.

Soap and Suds

The photo on the left shows the newly made soap cooling in a parchment paper-covered wooden mold while the photo on the right shows suds in a slow cooker. Credit: Elisa Gale

Zap test

Zap test!

If you were a colonist, making soap is where doing your laundry started.  It took months of preparation just to make soap, a product so cheap, easily obtainable, and ubiquitous in today’s society that we rarely give it a second thought.  If you’re interested in learning more about how soap was made come to Ferry Farm this Fourth of July where there will be a traditional soap making demonstration!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

ms 856 copy

Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

Clark, F. (2009) Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218

George Washington’s Troublesome Teeth

It’s probably the myth that is more enduring and widespread than any other about George Washington.  At some point from someone, you have heard that George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood.  It is not true.  In reality, his dentures and dental tribulations were more complex than the familiar myth says.  The true story, even when it is uncertain, reveals much more about his life and about life in general in the 18th century.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798)

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798). Washington’s dental troubles are even apparent on his face. As the result of his dentures, he kept his mouth closed tightly and the false teeth caused the area around his lips, his lower jaw, and his chin to protrude slightly. Credit: Clark Art Institute

George Washington had a tooth pulled for the first time in 1756 at the age of 24.  Four years later, George Mercer described Washington’s appearance in a letter, saying “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”   By the time of his first inauguration as president in 1789, George had only one tooth left.

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821)

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821) Credit: National Gallery of Art

The causes of George’s dental problems will never be known with certainty.  According to John Adams, Washington himself “attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”  Furthermore, Adams hints at one additional potential factor: the common use of mercury in medicine during the 18th century.  Adams described how his doctors gave him sizable quantities of mercury when he was inoculated for smallpox.  The result was, he said, “that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger.”  Adams complained that his doctors “rendered me incapable  …of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington.”

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

For what it’s worth, nineteen-year-old Washington contracted smallpox in November 1751 during a stay in Barbados.  Constantly attended by Dr. John Lanahan, he was sick for 25 days before finally fighting off the deadly disease.  We have no records to tell us precisely how Lanahan treated Washington.  If we consult pages 28-29 of A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox published in 1735 by Dr. William Hillary, we find a three-phase course of treatment for pox sufferers. “The first, by bleeding in the first Stations of the Disease; when the Fever is violent: The second by introducing the Practice of Purging, (and Bleeding) in the most dangerous Circumstances attending the second Fever.”  The third phase was employing all known methods to reduce inflammation.  All phases were typical medical practice at the time.

The purging phase of smallpox treatment is when mercury may have become involved.  The most popular concoction to induce purging in the 18th century was called calomel.  It “was a white tasteless powder which consisted of mercury chloride. When taken in small doses calomel led to the evacuation of the bowels.  If taken over time or in heavier doses, calomel induced heavy salivation, bleeding gums, mouth sores, tooth loss.”  Again, in describing his own brush with smallpox, John Adams noted that his doctors “salivated me to such a degree” with “Milk and Mercury” that all his teeth became terribly loose.

Young Washington survived his smallpox attack but literally carried the scars of the illness for life.  Back at Ferry Farm in January 1752, Mary Washington twice purchased some ointment from Dr. Sunderland (Sutherland?) to deal with George’s pox-caused facial scars.  The same bill also included a “mercurial purging” for someone. [1]  We should not definitively conclude that medicinal mercury caused George’s life-long dental troubles.  Like most things in history, his difficulties probably had a mix of causes common to the 1700s, including diseases and  “ poorly balanced diet . . . as well as genetics.”

Regardless of the reasons for George’s defective teeth, Washington ultimately proved “very wise about the message an image can send, and knew that . . . he had to look the part of a leader… which meant at least having teeth.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Now Incomplete Set

A set of Washington’s dentures as once owned by the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dental School, University of Maryland. This older image shows both the lower and upper portions. Only the lower portion of these dentures is now present and on display at Baltimore’s Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry. Credit: National Museum of Dentistry

Baker's Ad in the VA Gazette

John Baker advertised his services as a Surgeon Dentist in the January 2, 1772 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Accordingly, as he lost more teeth, George replaced them with partial dentures and then eventually full dentures.  Surgeon Dentist John Baker, who we first wrote about here, became George’s regular dentist in 1772.  Baker stayed at Mount Vernon in October 1773 and received two substantial payments of £8 total from Washington that same month.  Baker was the first to make false teeth for George, creating a partial denture of ivory for wiring to his natural teeth.

The tooth loss continued, however.  In 1783,Washington asked Baker “for some of the Plaister of Paris, or that white powder with which you take (in wax) the Model of the Mouth for your false teeth—and directions how to mix, & make use of it—When you have done this, I can then give you such a Model as will enable you to furnish me with what I want.”  It seems it was time for another new set of dentures.

A month later, though, Washington took on a new dentist: Jean-Pierre Le Mayuer, who probably made him another partial denture.  Additionally, Le Mayuer practiced the relatively common 18th century dental technique of transplanting, in his words, “good living teeth in the Room of those which were broken or otherwise decayed.”  At first, Washington seemed skeptical about the practice.  He needed to replace his teeth but “(not by transplantation, for of this I have no idea, even with young people, and sure I am it cannot succeed with old).”  Eventually, his mind seemed to be changed somewhat by Richard Varick’s testimony of Le Mayuer’s skills.  That said, there’s little recorded describing the care Le Mayuer provided Washington.

Despite George’s skepticism, Le Mayeur’s use of human teeth in his practice was not unusual for the time. A patient’s own pulled teeth might be used in their dentures.  Teeth from other people, especially the poor and enslaved, were bought and even harvested from the dead for use in dentures or transplanting.  In fact, “Wherever Dr. Le Mayuer practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads ‘Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.’  While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated ‘slaves excepted.’”  Did this mean Le Mayeur would not pay for teeth from slaves or is it a Frenchman’s corruption of the word “accepted”?  It seems, in fact, he was willing to pay for the teeth of enslaved people for, in May 1784, Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon while George commanded the Continental Army, recorded just over £6 “cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.”

Washington definitely used human teeth in his dentures but we do not know if they were teeth from slaves.  He probably did use his own in some dentures.  Back in 1782, when John Baker was still his dentist, George wrote to Lund Washington instructing him that “In a drawer, in the Locker of the Desk which stands in my Study, you will find two small (fore) teeth; which I beg of you to wrap up carefully, & send inclosed in your next Letter to me. I am positive I left them there, or in the secret drawer in the locker of the same desk.”  It is believed “Washington hoped that these original teeth could be used within new dentures that were being fitted for his use.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Complete Set

Washington dentures made by John Greenwood. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

John Greenwood

Engraving of John Greenwood by Roy Peintre. Credit: Library of Congress

“The only complete set of Washington’s dentures that still survives . . . is made of animal and human teeth, lead, and ivory.”  John Greenwood, who served as Washington’s dentist throughout the 1790s, made them out of hippopotamus ivory, horse or donkey teeth, human teeth, gold wire springs, brass screws, and lead.  Greenwood left a gap in this set for the one remaining tooth Washington had left.  Inevitably, that tooth finally had to be pulled and Washington presented Greenwood with this tooth as a gift, which hung on his watch chain inside a glass locket.

 

George Washington suffered a lifetime of dental troubles.  The causes of those troubles and the attempted solutions were typical of the 18th century and teach us much about both Washington’s life and the lives of his fellow early Americans. The real story of Washington’s false teeth, even when uncertain, reveals more about his life and his times than any stale wooden myth.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 103.