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.

Advertisements

The Furniture Makers: Tom Snyder and Astrid Smith [Video]

In this video, we visit with Tom Snyder and Astrid Smith of Williamsburg Art Conservation to see how they upholstered the leather bottom chairs in the hall of the Washington house replica.

Watch other videos and read more about rebuilding the Washington house here.

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

Drawers, Knickers, or Pants: Why Do We Call Them That?

There truly is a National Day for absolutely everything and even a National Underwear Day! That’s right! Undergarments have their own appreciation day and, to be precise, it was August 5.  At first glance, National Underwear Day may seem rather silly but actually we probably don’t give enough thought to the importance of underwear. Before August ends, we want to remedy that by taking a look at underwear from a historical perspective.  Have you ever wondered why there are so many names for our various undergarments? It turns out that all the names we have for underwear today are rooted in the past.

Cooling in Basement

Woman in a shift and petticoat.

Underwear as we know it today didn’t really get its start until the 1800s.  Prior to that, people like the Washingtons and the Lewises actually didn’t wear much at all under their numerous layers of clothing.  Women wore nothing under their shifts (which were loose-fitting, waistless dresses that acted as the first layer of a woman’s wardrobe and were sometimes the outer layer in hot weather or workday situations).  Men’s shirts were initially similar to shifts in that they were all-purpose – base layer, outer layer, sleep shirts, etc.  But, men were actually the ones who began the trend toward true undergarments.

In Washington’s day, men wore breeches on the outside, but they also wore a similar lighter weight garment underneath, which came to be known as “drawers.” Why drawers, you ask? The prevailing theory is that the name comes from the fact that early versions of this undergarment were actually two separate legs that had to be “drawn” up and tied in place, hence why we still refer to underwear as “pairs” even though they are single garments now – “a pair of drawers”, “a pair of underwear.”

St Panteleimon

Icon of saint Panteleimon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai) dating from the 13th century. Credit: Wikipedia

Eventually, women adopted men’s undergarments for themselves, with some modifications.  This is the point where the ubiquitous term “pants” has its beginnings.  “Pantaloons”, “pants”, and “panties” all come from the same remarkable origin, a Catholic saint, martyred in the 1st century A.D. named Saint Pantaleon. Now, Saint Pantaleon had nothing to do with pants himself but centuries after his death, he became a focus of religious zealotry in Venice, Italy, where many men wore a peculiar type of breeches that were rather poofy.  Because the men who were also a part of the cult of Saint Pantaleon wore these same poofy breeches, they came to be known as “pantalones.”  Additionally, because of their rather flamboyant behavior and dress, pantalones became the stereotypical way to depict Venetian characters in comedic plays, which travelled across Europe.  Eventually the most distinctive characteristic of these comedic characters, the poofy breeches, became iconic and took on the name “pantaloons.”

Interestingly, pantaloons became a popular fashion accessory among women in France, as an undergarment that was intentionally meant to be seen under slightly shorter dresses.  When the fashion reached England, it was primarily among men, and eventually the word “pantaloons” was shortened to “pants” and applied to any outerwear bottoms generally.  Among women, they remained undergarments, which got continually shorter and smaller as the centuries passed, and are now referred to with the diminutive “panties.”

The Italian Comedians by Antoine Watteau

“The Italian Comedians” (c1720) by Antoine Watteau shows several characters in costumes with pantaloons typical of commedia dell’arte theater popular in European from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Credit: National Gallery of Art

Alice Manfield, Guide Alice, Mt Buffalo c1900

Portrait of Alice Manfield (Guide Alice) (1878-1960), mountain guide, naturalist, chalet owner, photographer, and early feminist figure based at Mt Buffalo, Victoria, Australia. Photographer: Unknown. Credit: State Library of Victoria.

And now the term “knickers.” Although this name for both male and female underwear got its start in the United States, its current usage is much more common in Great Britain.  In 1809, Washington Irving wrote A History of New York under the pen name Dietrich Knickerbocker.  Knickerbocker was depicted in newspaper illustrations wearing loose-fitting, almost baggy, breeches tied or buckled at the knee.  This style of knee breeches had become highly fashionable among young men in America, and the press surrounding the book and Knickerbocker himself added to the trend.  Eventually, the style became known as “knickerbockers” but the breeches weren’t an undergarment.  Men wore them to play sports (one of the first professional baseball teams was called the New York Knickerbockers, and knickerbockers were standard baseball uniforms well into the 20th century) and for casual wear.

Knickers or Drawers

Kncikers or Drawers, 1880s, Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Once again, though, women saw a handy piece of clothing, and altered it for their own purposes.  At this point in women’s fashion, hoops and cages were being used to hold skirts out and add volume.  Things were a bit drafty under those cages, and knickerbockers seemed like the perfect solution.  In order to capitalize on this trend, manufacturers had to differentiate the bottoms that men were wearing for manly pursuits from the bottoms that ladies were wearing under their hoop skirts, and so “knickers” were born.  Much like pantaloons, knickers kept getting shorter and smaller until they were basically the same thing as panties.

And there you have our brief history of underwear for National Underwear Day!

Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

I Spy: Toys & Games from the 18th to the 20th Centuries

Toys Board (27)cropped darker shadows

Editor’s Note: The toys and games shown in this I Spy photo, which include artifacts recovered by our archaeologists, are now on display in the Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  On your next visit, be sure to see if you can find all the toy and game artifacts on our I Spy list!  In the meantime, read further to learn a bit about how children played in the past and see if you can find the artifacts in the photo listed at the end.

Children in the 1600s and early 1700s were thought of and treated like miniature adults, but in the 1800s, children were regarded as distinct from adults.  They were thought to need a special time to grow and learn and were seen as innocent and unspoiled by the harshness of the adult world.  “Play” was designed to teach boys and girls about specific gender roles they would later adopt in adult society.

Porcelain Doll Parts and Tea Set:

Girls have always been encouraged to play with dolls and tea sets.  The forms and materials have changed over time, but these miniature toys have always been used to introduce little girls to adult tasks and responsibilities. “Baby” dolls (that looked like babies) were not produced until after 1850.

Marbles:

Marbles are the most common toys found in North American historical archaeological sites. 18th century marbles were clay, and could range from gray to brown in color depending on impurities in the clay used. Glass marbles were manufactured, primarily in Germany, beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dice:

Several different games were played with dice in the 18th century as well as today. Instead of plastic, 18th-century dice were made of bone, ivory, or – like ours pictured here- wood.

Other Games:

The 20th century saw a massive increase in the number of toys produced as costs came down and as children became a focus of marketing campaigns. Board games were, and still are, a large part of the toy world. While “Checkers” has been around since 3000 BC, “Mousetrap” has not, but both are now produced with plastic.

Can you find these artifacts in the photo above?

  • 4 monkeys escaped from a barrel
  • 9 porcelain doll parts
  • 13 marbles- 12 clay and 1 glass
  • An airplane
  • 8 “Hi-Ho Cherry-O” cherries
  • 2 and ½ checkers
  • A broken 3-piece tea set
  • A “Sorry” piece
  • A jeep
  • A broken die made of wood
  • A yellow toy car hood
  • A metal dagger
  • A mouse that is not yet trapped
  • A rider-less motorcycle

*Bonus- A lost monkey arm

Ferry Farm’s Oldest Artifact

Many visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm are surprised to learn that about a quarter of the 750,000 artifacts excavated by Ferry Farm’s archaeologists were created by Native Americans. However, given that indigenous people were living in the land we call Virginia for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of these Native American artifacts are stone flakes that are the byproduct of stone tool manufacture (think sawdust or wood shavings from carpentry, but stone) and date to the Archaic period (or 10,000–3,200 years before the present day). A very few are even older. In fact, Ferry Farm’s oldest datable artifact is the basal fragment of an ancient jasper dart point made by a people belonging to what we call the Clovis culture.

Clovis points from Iowa's Rummells-Maske Site

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa. These are in the collection of the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist. Credit: Bill Whittaker / Wikipedia

The Clovis culture were some of the earliest inhabitants of North America, and was named after the Clovis “type site” (an archaeological site where a certain culture or artifact type is first recognized) near the town of Clovis, New Mexico. The Clovis people made distinctive projectile points immediately recognizable by their lanceolate or narrow oval shape that tapers to a point at one end and the presence of “flutes” on their bases. These flutes are narrow channels where flakes of stone were carefully removed from both sides of the point to make it thinner. The fluted point could then easily be slid into a notched wooden or bone shaft- a process called hafting- to make a knife or dart (more on darts below). The sides of the point would be ground near the base to dull them so the point could be secured in its haft with sinew or cordage without cutting through these bindings.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point

Base or Proximal end of a Jasper Clovis point recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point diagram

The Clovis people were well known for being picky about their lithic (stone) materials and traveled long distances to procure them. The closest quarry from which they could have obtained jasper to make Ferry Farm’s point is in Culpeper, at least 35 miles away. The people who made this dart point may have manufactured it here as we also have numerous flakes of this same jasper.

Jasper Flakes

Jasper flakes similar to the material of the Clovis point — a byproduct of stone tool manufacture — that were excavated at Ferry Farm.

Clovis points date to a fairly narrow period from roughly 13,500 to about 12,800 years ago, and are found almost everywhere in North America, from the Southwest to New England. One of the interesting things about Clovis culture is that it is so widespread- no later cultures made artifacts that are found across such a vast area. It’s even more interesting to consider that these points got deposited all across North America in such a relatively short time span of maybe 700 years. This begs the question: What moved? Was it the people making the Clovis points? Or was it the technique of making the Clovis points? Was there a particular group of fluted-point-making people sprinting across the North American or were there already enough people on the pre-Clovis landscape that it the idea of making fluted points just spread from group to group? Archaeologists are working to answer these questions.

As mentioned, one use for Clovis points were in darts. These darts were not like you throw at a dartboard in a bar. In this context, a dart is like a spear but with a more flexible and lightweight shaft that can fly farther and with greater velocity. Greater distance and speed are achieved by launching the dart with a spear thrower called an atlatl (pronounced “at-lattle”). The atlatl essentially acts as an extension of the arm, creating a longer lever that pushes the dart farther and faster by applying more force with less energy. Although Clovis points were probably multi-purpose tools used as both knives and projectile points. As projectile points, they were likely used on atlatl darts for hunting. Although the extent to which Clovis people relied on meat from such huge creatures is debatable, they probably used their fluted points to bring down a few mammoths and mastodons, at least in the western United States.

What do you think the owner of the Ferry Farm Clovis point was doing with theirs when they lost it? We may never know, but what we do know is that it gives us evidence that people were living along the Rappahannock River nearly 13,000 years ago. We can still find their tools and those tools piece together the whole story of Ferry Farm’s landscape and people!

Joseph Blondino, Archaeologist
Field Director, Dovetail Cultural Resource Group

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor, The George Washington Foundation

How George Ended Up on the $1 Bill

When you hear the name George Washington, what is the first image that pops into your head? For many people, it is the picture of the first president that adorns the U.S. paper dollar, but have you ever wondered how he ended up there? Since today is National Dollar Day commemorating the day in 1786 when United States Congress established the dollar as the official unit of account for the federal government, we thought we’d briefly explore the history of George on the dollar.

Current US $1 bill

The current $1 bill featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

Although paper currency has been around for centuries, the practice was first used in western world around the 17th century. During the colonial era, physical money was quite scarce in the American Colonies; instead, the economy operated on a barter system using goods as payment for services. With the advent of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money to help fund the war effort but the bills were not worth much and depreciated in value quickly. After the war, when writing the new U.S. Constitution, the form of currency for the new country would prove a priority. In fact, Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution gives only the United States Federal Government the power to coin money for the country and, by 1792, the U.S. Mint was established.

At the same time, states were still allowed to issue their own currency as well but they lacked accountability so many of them were worthless.  Leading up to the Civil War, there were around 10,000 different kinds of paper money in circulation in the United States. Thus, throughout the early years of our country, foreign money and bartering were still widely used.

In fact, it was during the early 19th century that the slang term “buck” began being used. Henry Howe, an American author and traveler, wrote of his time on the Ohio frontier where “a muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a raccoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, ‘the almighty dollar’”[1]. Thus, when referring to the price of something, many people referred to it as a “buck”.

During the Civil War, the United States government funded its war effort by printing new forms of currency. It was at this time that the first official paper currency was created. The federal government even printed fractional notes during the time because the metal normally used to make coins was needed for the war. One of the bills created at the time was the official one dollar bill in 1862. This early version of the bill featured then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.

The money printed during this time period became known as “greenbacks” because it was not backed by anything. The worth was simply given to it by the government saying it had worth. This meant that the government had to closely control printing and also find a way to prevent counterfeiting.  Today, many people think of the U.S. Secret Service as the people who protect the President but the service was actually formed at this time to deal with counterfeiters.

US $1 1880

An $1 note from 1880 featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

After the Civil War, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over production of U.S. Currency. It was in 1869 that George Washington’s face first appeared on the one dollar bill. The design of the dollar changed quite a bit up until 1963 when the bill we recognize today was first created. Unlike most of the rest of our paper money, the one dollar bill has not been redesigned since then and there are no plans to do so.

Currency is redesigned at intervals to forestall counterfeiting. As recently as 2016, then Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew planned a complete redesign of the twenty dollar bill to replace Andrew Jackson with a picture of Harriet Tubman. Lew planned the design to be released in 2020 but it has been delayed until 2026.

Regardless, Tubman will not be the first woman featured on U.S. currency. We have had women (including Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, and Helen Keller) featured on U.S. coins.  In the 1860s, Pocahontas was featured on the twenty dollar note. In the 1880s, Martha Washington was featured on the $1 silver certificate. This bill with the portrait of Martha Washington is the only time a woman has ever been on U.S. paper money as the primary portrait.  Another series released in the 1890s was called the Educational Series and featured Martha next to her husband. Many coin collectors and currency experts consider it to be the most beautiful currency ever created by the United States Government. It was shortly after this that our paper money shifted to what we know it as today with denominations of one, five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred becoming the most commonly used bills.

US $1SC 1886

The $1 silver certificate from 1886 featuring Martha Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

The U.S. Currency Education Program says around twelve billion one dollar bills are in circulation as of 2017. That’s a lot of Georges. Ironically, the portrait appearing on the bill, is one that the man himself was likely not particularly fond of. Painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, it is often referred to as The Athenaeum Portrait. Today, the original painting is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Despite being the most recognized painting of George, it is an unfinished work. In the painting, George’s cheeks are puffed out and his lips pursed in discomfort. Around the same time he complained about his new set of dentures not fitting him correctly and causing him pain. Due to his constant concern for his appearance and demeanor, he would probably not appreciate our widespread use of this portrait. He probably much preferred the bust created by Jean-Antoine Houdon, something even his family said was the most accurate likeness of him.

Athenaeum Portrait vs One-Dollar Bill

Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum Portrait” (L) vs the $1 bill portrait (R). Credit: Anna Frodesiak / Wikipedia

Houdon's Washington Bust

Bust of George Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon and widely considered the most accurate likeness of Washington. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1] Howe, H. (1851). Historical collections of Ohio. Cincinnati: H. Howe at E. Morgan & co’s.