The Gardens of Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for many things; for being the home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, for its Georgian-style brick architecture, its famous ornate decorative plaster ceilings, and, last but not least, for its beautiful gardens. Unfortunately, today only three out of Kenmore’s nearly 1300 original acres remain but with the help of The Garden Club of Virginia, dedicated volunteers, and generous donors, the remaining landscape surrounding the house was cared for over the last century.

There is a very exciting centennial celebration coming up for Kenmore. The Kenmore Association (presently known as The George Washington Foundation) was established in 1922 to save the historic home from destruction. Kenmore will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a historic house museum next year in 2022.

Similarly, The Garden Club of Virginia was established when eight garden clubs across the Commonwealth of Virginia were invited to attend a conference in Richmond on May 13, 1920. Last year was the club’s 100th anniversary.

Fielding and Betty Lewis, for whom Kenmore was built in the mid-1770s, left no historical records of what gardens they had or where they were located. Even though there is little archival or archaeological evidence of original garden plans or planting, we do know that tobacco, wheat, and corn were grown in Kenmore’s surrounding fields. Furthermore, the terraces on the river side of the house, which are still there today, were hand-built by enslaved laborers. Without precise archival and archaeological data, however, Kenmore’s gardens over the years were based on a general understanding of 18th century gardening styles.

Terrace built by enslaved laborers in the 18th century visible in Kenmore’s gardens.

The creation of the present-day gardens began in 1929 when The Garden Club of Virginia raised funds for their organization’s first project, Kenmore’s gardens. Indeed, as written about previously, Kenmore inspired Historic Garden Week in Virginia, which was held for the first time that same year.

This initial establishment of Kenmore’s gardens was led by landscape architect Charles F. Gillette with contributions by James Greenleaf and Alden Hopkins. Colonial Revival-style gardens were planted with boxwoods around the foundation of the house, along paths, and on the terrace. The west lawn, which faces present-day Washington Avenue, was treated as the “front of house” since carriages entered from that side in the 19th century. This lawn was planted with stately trees. On the east lawn, at the rear of the property facing the Rappahannock River, a four-square garden edged in boxwoods was added.

In 1941, The Garden Club of Virginia brought back Gillette to create what was called Betty Washington’s Flower Garden and to add an enclosing brick wall around the property.

Kenmore’s gardens saw further changes throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when a decision was made by the Kenmore Association to more accurately demonstrate general 18th century garden styles and ideas as well as to introduce more native plants. The boxwoods were removed from around the house’s foundation and from most paths.

On its 70th anniversary in 1992, The Garden Club of Virginia undertook another extensive redesign of Kenmore’s gardens with landscape architect Rudy Favretti. Included in this replanting was another revamping of what was called Betty Washington’s Garden, the creation of an Herb Demonstration Garden, the addition of the Wilderness Walk, and a refurbishment of the east terrace. A kitchen garden was added in 1993 and a redesign of the parterre was completed in 1994. A parterre, or four-square garden, means “on the ground” and indicates the geometrical arrangement of garden beds. The four-square arrangement is a reflection of the late 18th century move toward simplicity of design.

Come visit the gardens of Historic Kenmore today, Tuesday, April 20 for Garden Day in Fredericksburg, part of Historic Garden Week in Virginia hosted by The Garden Club of Virginia.


Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

Agreeable Amusements: Music & Dancing in the Life of George Washington

On September 10, 1748, sixteen-year-old George Washington paid 3 shillings, 9 pence to a “musick master for my entrance.” Young Washington recorded these sparse details in Ledger Book Zero, a personal account ledger listing credits and debits with family, friends, and business associates between 1747 and 1750. This, as far as we can tell, is the first reference to music in the life of George Washington. By no means, would it be the last. Music was an important part of Washington’s life, just as it is with many of us today.

Ledger Book Zero, young George Washington’s personal account book, shows payment to a “musick master for my entrance.”

What was teenage age George paying for when he paid the “musick master for . . . entrance”?  Well, the lack of details makes it impossible to say with certainty.  The most obvious possibility is that he was paying for music lessons.  However, letters written by George himself and a friend indicate that Washington had little to no musical talent. Francis Hopkinson, a colleague during the war, composed a series of songs for harpsichord or piano and dedicated them to Washington. In a letter to George dated December 1, 1788, Hopkins explained his dedication even though George could “neither play Musick nor sing Songs.”  In a reply on February 5, 1789, Washington agreed, writing “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument.” Despite a professed musical inability, it is still possible young George was paying for music lessons in 1748. Often, you might pursue lessons only to discover that you do not have the aptitude.

Regardless, while apparently not musical himself, music surrounded Washington. As Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson notes, “Washington was the head of a household where his wife, her two children, and her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music.” In particular, granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis became fairly skilled at the harpsichord, despite an apparent reluctance to learn. In the summer of 1798, a visiting Polish nobleman enthusiastically claimed that Nelly “plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.”

Another Washington family member with an interest in music was George’s niece Harriot Washington, daughter of Samuel. The first letter in the record between Harriot and her guardian and uncle George was written on April 2, 1790.  Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while President Washington was in New York. The niece asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.”  Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.”  The records consulted reveal no response from Washington. Eventually, Harriot would come to Historic Kenmore to live with her aunt Betty Washington Lewis. She again asked uncle George for a guitar in May of 1792. About a month later, he paid $17 for one. Harriot’s capabilities with the instrument are unknown.

Besides family, another major source of music in Washington’s life was the Continental Army. Music was crucial to 18th century militaries. Fifes and drums issued commands during battle and put a spring in the step during weary marches. Much like the army’s initially amateur soldiers, its fifers and drummers (who were often boys serving with their soldier-fathers) took time to practice and professionalize.

On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued a set of orders. One order dealt with the army’s music, which the General bluntly lamented was “very bad.” He ordered “that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them: Stated hours to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington concluded, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

A notable musical moment in the army’s history was the birthday serenade for General Washington on February 22, 1778 at Valley Forge. The musicians of Proctor’s Artillery played outside the General’s headquarters. Washington’s expense account lists a payment of 1 pound, 5 shillings to Proctor’s band. Joseph Lee Boyle, longtime historian at Valley Forge, explains that “Colonel Proctor commanded an artillery regiment, and this was one of the few, perhaps the only, unit to have musicians besides fifers and drummers. In 1779 ten ‘musicians’ are listed in the band, but not what instruments they played.” Mount Vernon scholars note that this was “the first public recognition of [Washington’s] birthday.”

We’ve seen that music was definitely a part of Washington’s life but it was played by others mostly. George could not play an instrument nor sing. He may have paid for music lessons only to discover his inability. Another reasonable theory, however, is that he paid the “musick master for my entrance” to dancing lessons. Later in life, Washington uses similar phrasing – “Mr McKay entrance to Dancing” – to record a payment of 10 shillings for lessons for stepson John Parke Custis.

Dancing was the leisure time obsession of most Virginians but especially those in the wealthy gentry. For the upper class, explains Amy Stallings, “ being a skilled dancer was an indication of good breeding” and allowed one to “put one’s gentility, accomplishment, beauty, and economic means on display in hopes of impressing—or, in some cases, intimidating—”others. As Philip G. Smucker adds, “Dexterity on the dance floor maintained social status.”

Maintaining social status and the appearance of good breeding skyrocketed in importance to George and the Washington family after the death of father Augustine in 1743. His death created financial hardship and jeopardized the family’s social standing. Without a father, George’s life changed radically. Assisted and supported by both mother Mary and half-brother Lawrence, George was forced to acquire the refined skills and customs of the upper class in Fredericksburg instead of in England while at boarding school.

One of those skills was dancing and the mystery “musick master” perhaps taught teenage George that skill.  Over the course of the 18th century, as Stallings notes, “a market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe.”  Virginia’s urban centers with their greater populations and high number of visitors “often boasted multiple dancing schools . . . Dancing masters operated in at least Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739.” Traveling dance instructors served Virginia’s far-flung rural population. These masters usually “taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week.”

If Washington was schooled in dancing by the “musick master,” he probably learned the era’s popular minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes. These fancy dances typically began any ball and were the best opportunities to show off one’s dancing abilities and good breeding. The minuet was the most important. As Stallings explains, “A man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor.”

A fanciful early 20th century painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The Victory Ball, 1781.” While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown.

Whether he was paying for dancing lessons in 1748 or not, young Washington learned to dance in some fashion, discovering both an extraordinary natural talent and life-long passion for it.  Numerous contemporaries recorded instances of Washington dancing and praised his abilities.

“His Excellency . . .  and Mrs. Greene . . . danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” – General Nathanael Greene to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Middle Brook, New Jersey, March 19, 1779.

“His Excellency General Washington was unusually cheerful. He attended the ball in the evening, and with a dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.” – General Nathanael Greene to Joseph Reed, Morristown, New Jersey, Tuesday, February 29, 1780.

“The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” – James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., Annapolis, Maryland, December 25, 1783.

“He . . . attended the ball of the 22nd of February; opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls.” – Judge Francis T. Brooke (1784).

And finally a word on his dancing from George Washington himself, written on November 12, 1799, just a month prior to his death and turning down an invitation from to a grand function in Alexandria. He wrote,

Gentlemen

Mrs Washington and myself have been honoured with your polite invitation to the Assemblies in Alexandria, this Winter; and thank you for this mark of your attention. But alas! our dancing days are no more; we wish, however, all those whose relish for so agreeable, & innocent an amusement [emphasis added], all the pleasure the Season will afford them. and I am Gentlemen Your Most Obedient and Obliged Humble Servant

Go: Washington

George saw music and dancing both as “agreeable.” From the mostly taciturn Washington, this is high praise indeed.

Join us on Saturday, April 10 for The Arts at Kenmore: Music on the Lawn and hear 18th century music group Colonial Faire performs music from all walks of colonial society – the music of the taverns, the manor houses, on the streets and on the battlefields. The evening’s opening act will include a short talk exploring the importance of music to George Washington and a theater scene depicting Washington’s first dancing lesson. For more information and tickets, visit kenmore.org/events.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

“The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World”: Joice Heth, P.T. Barnum, and …George Washington?

Most of us have heard of Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. During his life, P.T. Barnum was a businessman and politician but was most famously known for being an entertainer. His name became synonymous with circuses, sideshows, and showmanship.

Before he introduced bearded ladies and 800-lb men into his “freak show” circuit, Barnum’s first human “curiosity” in 1835 was an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. Surprisingly, the story of Heth is forever linked to young George Washington.

Joice Heth was advertised by R.W. Lindsay, one of a long line of owners and the last before Barnum, as the oldest living human at 161 years old. Lindsay also claimed she was the former nursemaid to the infant George Washington. As described in The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America, the definitive account of Heth’s life and exploitation, Lindsay exhibited Joice in multiple American cities where she shared imaginative – yet convincing – retellings of her time on the Washington family farm.

According to her story told during these exhibitions, Joice was born in Madagascar in 1674. She was captured at the age of 15 by slave traders. Eventually, she found herself “in service of the Washington Family” on Virginia’s Northern Neck.  The Northern Neck was where Augustine Washington, George’s father, spent his youth and where George was born at Pope’s Creek. R.W. Lindsay even possessed documentation supposedly proving that Joice was once owned by Augustine.

Joice was said to have married an enslaved man named Peter on a neighboring plantation and was baptized in the Potomac River in 1720. She later ran the kitchen and nursery (presumably at Pope’s Creek) and was the first to swaddle the newborn George, or “Georgy” as she affectionately called him. At this point in sharing her account, she recalled several stories of her role in George’s upbringing, enthusiastically recounting the future first president in many tall tales. Heth even told a version of Mason Locke Weems’s cherry tree tale. In her version, Joice said that George broke some branches on a peach tree with some playmates before confessing his part in the misdeed to Augustine.


Handbill describing and illustrating the exhibition of Joice Heth, proclaimed to be nurse to Gen. George Washington age 161 years, at Barnum’s Hotel, Bridgeport, December 11 & 12 [1835] Credit: New York Heritage

At the age of 54, Heth said she was sold to the neighboring Atwood Plantation home of the owners of her husband Peter. There she stayed with the Atwood family – who were cousins of the Washingtons – for several years, outliving most of her relatives. She presumably was then bought in old age to be shown as an exhibit of “living antiquity” and as the last living person to have personally known young Washington.

Astonishing? Yes. Completely fabricated? Yes. Historians agree that Joice was likely born around 1756 when George Washington was 24-years-old. She was never his nursemaid.

Still, her story compelled P.T. Barnum to purchase her in 1835. Barnum, who later became a staunch abolitionist, said in his autobiography that he purchased not Joice herself, but the rights to her story from R.W. Lindsay for $1,000.

Regardless, Barnum exhibited Heth at taverns, inns, concert halls, etc., allowing paying customers to see her in person and to listen to her fantastical stories of how she helped raise the first president. Joice was disabled, and quite old for the time. If she was born in 1756, then she would have been 79 years old in 1835. Blindness, paralysis, and unusually long fingernails added credibility of her claimed age to the curious observer.

Some credibility was lost however, when Joice didn’t remember certain facts or got key information wrong about the first president’s life.  Yet, at the same time, she could remember historical events that occurred in her actual 80 years of life with reliability. Skeptics noted that Joice seemed to have a good memory, and keenly recounted many tales of young Washington, but just not with the accuracy her still-sharp mind would have had if she actually had been there.

Customers were allowed to touch Joice and to take her pulse to prove that she was a real human. A rumor spread that she was an automaton, a mechanical device made to imitate a human being. Barnum himself may have spread this rumor, as popularity of the exhibition dwindled and sales began to drop. He wanted to bring Joice back into the public eye and hoped that people would come back to see if this rumored robotic forgery was real. Barnum continued exhibiting Joice Heth until her death only one year later.

But the story of Joice Heth doesn’t end there. It gets even stranger.

Barnum, ever the entrepreneur, was not ready to let Joice go. Just as poor Joice was exhibited in life, she was exhibited in death. Barnum hired Dr. David L. Rogers, a respectable physician, to preform Joice’s autopsy in hopes of gathering scientific data about allegedly the world’s oldest person. Her autopsy was made public and gawkers were charged 50 cents per person to view the procedure. At least 1,500 people attended the macabre spectacle, only to be told that Joice Heth could not possibly be over 80 years of age, just as Dr. Rodgers had assessed during examinations before she died. Dr. Rogers had visited Joice during her lifetime, and reported her to have “none of the concomitants” of great age. He ruled that she displayed the health of a woman of around 75 years old, which she probably was, and that her blindness likely was a result of an illness experienced in early childhood. Embarrassed, Barnum yielded and stated the he, the great P.T. Barnum, had been swindled by this “Humbug” himself and was convinced of Joice’s authenticity by R.W. Lindsay.

Joice Heth, a real human being, experienced slavery’s dehumanization in both life and in death in a unique way. Historians can only learn so much about Joice because her enslavers – Barnum, Lindsay, and others – took great lengths to hide her actual identity and history in order to exploit her. Even if the story she told was a hoax, she was no doubt a fascinating individual. Why Joice went along with fabricating the story of nursing young George Washington, and what it meant to her to be regarded in this way, is lost forever. Historians note that an enslaved woman who was blind, paralyzed, and elderly would perhaps acquiesce to this way of life as a way to ensure her basic needs were met since she was physically unable to work as a domestic laborer, agricultural worker, or in some other trade. Given her condition and age, who would have bought her besides those seeking to capitalize on the story of her as George Washington’s supposed nanny? Ultimately, her motivations and view of her life are buried under a created identity. What could have been learned from this talented storyteller and incredible woman is lost to history.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director & Lab Technician

Five International Influences on George Washington’s Early Life

An Essay of a New and Compact Map, Containing the Known Parts of the Terrestrial Globe by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin was published in 1750 when George Washington was 18-years-old. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ferry Farm was a unique place to live in the mid-1700s. Situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire, young George Washington, his family, and the farm’s enslaved community found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Ferry Farm, nearby Fredericksburg, and the colonies more broadly were international places made up of a host of different European, African, and Native American ethnicities and nationalities in the 18th century.  Accordingly, we present a list of “Five International Influences on George Washington’s Youth.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each influence helped shape young Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

1) The Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock River as viewed from a window in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.
Voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, on his Spatial.ly blog and used with permission.

Young George could look from a window in the family home at Ferry Farm down the bluff to the Rappahannock River. He saw ocean-going, sailing vessels being loaded and unloaded at the wharves and warehouses of Fredericksburg. These vessels were part of a global trade network, which we’ve written about here and here, that stretched to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, India and China. These vessels were not large but traveled the world nonetheless.  They took the corn, wheat, and timber of places like Ferry Farm to Europe or the Caribbean and returned with Westerwald mugs from Germany, tea from India, porcelain from China, and enslaved laborers from Africa. The sailors on these ships probably represented numerous ethnicities and nations. One easily can imagine young George, so prone to a thirst for adventure, finding any excuse he could to visit the docks and ships down on the river and, by doing so, traveling the world without leaving the Rappahannock.

2) Westerwald stoneware

Those ships carried numerous manufactured goods from all over the world to Ferry Farm. Westerwald ceramics were one such import. Produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s, archaeologists have excavated numerous bits of decorated stoneware tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels used in the 1700s at Ferry Farm.  Several of these excavated vessels sported the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George. The three British kings of the 18th century were all named George and came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714. A gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his Westerwald tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale. The presence of these initialed drinking vessels at Ferry Farm show that, until the Revolution, Washington, like most Americans, viewed himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown (ironically worn by a German head).

G.R. medallion on a Westerwald jug fragment.
A nearly complete Westerwald drinking vessel in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

3) Venetian glass

The vast majority of ceramics in the Washington household came from England. The same can be said about the family’s table glass, but the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family actually came from Venice, Italy.  Found by our archaeologists, this piece of a pincered and buttressed handle is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece, made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  A Venetian glass goblet such as this was a show piece displayed prominently within the house to emphasize that, despite their colonial location, the Washington family strived to maintain a level of European refinement appropriate to their gentry status.

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.
Wine goblet made in the 16th century in Venice, Italy. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4) Barbados

In 1751, George Washington made his only trip off the North American continent, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Visiting the island’s fortifications and meeting members of its military garrison fed George’s growing desire for a military career. As Jack Warren concludes, “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.”

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

5) The Frontier

Military service eventually took George into the frontier wilderness of the vast Ohio country. Tasked by Governor Dinwiddie with delivering a demand to the French to leave lands claimed by Virginia and the British Crown, young Major George Washington embarked on a thousand-mile, ten-week trek to and from Fort LeBoeuf on Lake Erie. He was accompanied by the Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, who served as his French interpreter, and by Tanacharison, known as Half-King, as well as other men from Native American nations. Along the way, he met several French officers and soldiers. Although confined to North America, this trip in late 1753 and early 1754 was, in reality, a foreign trip that exposed Washington to different peoples and cultures. It provided vital diplomatic, military, and intelligence gathering experience to the future Continental Army commander and first president. Washington, notes Paul Royster, “practiced diplomacy to keep the Native leaders allied to the English cause; he interviewed French deserters and reported on the extent of French military posts between New Orleans and the Great Lakes; he reconnoitered the Forks of the Ohio with an eye to the proper site for building a fort; and he inspected and reported on the construction of the new French forts and made estimates of their strength . . . .”

Portrait of George Washington, 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: National Portrait Gallery
The Ohio region from Cumberland to Fort LeBoeuf through which Washington journeyed, overlayed onto the famed map in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Credit: Paul Royster / University of Nebraska.

Conclusion

Although a fourth generation American, George Washington grew up in a time and place – 18th century Ferry Farm and British North America — where international economic and cultural influences on his life were quite numerous. Through the five international influences we’ve briefly examined, we’ve seen how these influences helped Washington maintain his gentry status, which ultimately set him on a path to military and political greatness.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Ear Spoons, Ear Wax, and Their Uses

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.

Ear wax, also as known as cerumen, is a wax produced by the outermost bit of the ear canal, in conjunction with the thousands of oil (sebaceous) and sweat glands.  It is a mixture of natural secretions and dead skin cells. Preferably, this cerumen makes it way out of the ear canal through talking, chewing or the otherwise moving of the jaw, where it then dries up and flakes away.

There have been many imaginative explanations for why humans produce ear wax.  According to a 17th century The Resolver; or Curiosities of Nature Written in French, the accumulation of wax was to protect the ears from fleas, flies and other pesky insects that would like to curl up in your warm ear.  This idea of creepy crawlies working their way into the ear is a long standing folklore that can be found in many European legends.

However, the actual reason we create this waxy substance is that it protects from dust, water and microorganisms entering the ear canal and causing problems.  However, wax build-up can cause some its own annoying difficulties like reduced hearing as well as trapping bacteria that lead to itchy or painful infections.

Over the centuries, humans developed many creative ways to extract and utilize this sticky substance.  From ear scoops to the modern swab, people have long gone against doctors’ recommendations, shoving things in to their ears to extract the golden wax.

Ear spoons, also known as ear scoops or ear picks, are a type of curette used to clean the ear canal of wax.  They are made from a wide range of material including bamboo, precious metals, stainless steel and plastic.  Ear spoons were commonly used throughout Eastern and Western history and many have been found at various archeological digs and are included in many museum collections. One of the more famous ear spoons was a golden pendant with a scoop it is believed, according to family tradition, that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn during their courtship.

Miniature whistle pendant, c. 1525-1530. Family tradition says this pendant with ear scoop was given to Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII. Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As seen by this ear spoon from our archeological study collection (meaning it wasn’t excavated at Ferry Farm), many spoons were far simpler than Anne Boleyn’s gold one.  A more utilitarian, bodkin-style ear spoon in our own study collection dates from the 19th century and is made from steel and also functions as a set of tweezers.

A bodkin is a small sharp pointed tool for making holes in cloth or leather or a thicker needle used for hand-sewing. Some bodkins used by seamstresses were up to 7 inches in length and actually had an ear scoop on one end. The scoop was used to gather wax that was then applied to sewing thread to keep the cut ends from unraveling.  People of means could afford to apply beeswax to their thread ends but the thriftier lady could just use the ready supply of wax from her ear.[1]

Additionally, monks and scribes used ear wax along with urine in the production of pigments for their elaborate illustrated manuscripts.

Finally, ear wax has many common medical uses.  Many health manuals such as Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History recommended using the “filth from the ears” on scorpion stings or serpent bites.  The Theatre of the World from 1663 stated every part the body is somewhat useful including ear wax, which “applied to the nostrils provoketh [sic] to drousinesse [sic] and sleep.”  Further, medicinal recipes from history state that adding “as much ear-wax as can be got” to oil of walnuts was a speedy way of curing wounds and keeping away putrefaction.

Even as late as 1832, in The American Frugal Housewife still promoted ear wax as a way to protect wounds, stating “nothing was better than earwax to prevent the painful effects resulting from a wound by a nail [or] skewer.”  Additionally, it was recommend as a remedy for cracked and dried lips.[2]

This historical medical uses of ear wax are not as bizarre as they sound. Recent studies show that ear wax has a bactericidal effect that can kill 99% of some bacteria strains. The wax contains around ten peptides that prevent bacteria and fungi from growing.

So, this winter when you have chapped lips and don’t have any lip balm handy, you can reach for some of that lovely golden wax in your ear to help solve your problems …or maybe not.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] Mary C. Beaudry, “Bodkin Biographies” in The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives, ed. Carolyn L. White, New York: Springer-Verlag, 2009, 97.

[2] L.M. Child, The American Frugal Housewife, New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1841, 116, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_American_Frugal_Housewife.html?id=D3AEAAAAYAAJ

Spot the Differences: Tools of the Trade

The end of the 2020 dig season at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm last October required we tidy up of all our tools used during the excavation.  We cleaned and stored away the multiple shovels, trowels, and wheel barrels used at the site and hauled the sifting screens back to the shed. We also securely covered the individual features and the overall site with tarp to protect them from the winter weather and roaming animals. The very last bit of cleaning was in the lab – sorting through all our toolboxes and restocking them for the next season.

Our photo illustrates the wide variety of tools we used every day in the field as we dug and recorded our findings. Can you spot fifteen differences between the two photos below? Click on each photo to enlarge it. The first photo is the original while the second photo has been altered in 15 ways.

Original photo
Altered photo

See what changes were made here.

“Dined at the City Tavern”

Christmas in the 18th century was celebrated quite differently than it is today. Unlike today, one of  the most important (and wildest) celebrations of the season took place on January 6th, or Epiphany. Also known as Twelfth Night, this holiday is more comparable to our present-day New Year’s celebrations in style and entertainment. Our stereotypical views of a supposedly refined time period perhaps conjure up images of classy champagne toasts and highly intellectual conversations. However, much like the Christmas season itself, 18th century parties and dinners any time of the year were actually quite different from that stereotype.

On September 14, 1787 George Washington wrote in his journal:

“Friday 14th.  Attended Convention. Dined at the City Tavern, at an entertainmt. given on my acct. by the City light Horse. Spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths.”

It appears he enjoyed a simple enough dinner at City Tavern in Philadelphia after a day of Constitutional planning, right? Washington was famous; certainly everywhere he went, people provided “an entertainment” in his honor. As you look more into this event, you find that Washington’s simple diary entries may not always reveal the whole story of what happened.

City Tavern as it appeared about 1800 from an engraving by William Birch. This print dates from 1850. Credit: New York Public Library.

In this entry, he notes the City Light Horse honoring him at the tavern. The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia was founded in 1774. They fought with General Washington throughout the war, including at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine.  They were part of the icy-cold crossing of the Delaware and the snow-covered winter at Valley Forge. In fact, although operating under a new name, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry remains intact today as a private military organization whose members all must serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Due to its close relationship with George Washington, the troop jumped at the chance to show him its appreciation at the tavern as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close. According to Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the bar tab sent to the City Light Horse remains in the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Archives. Here is the transcription of the bill:

Courtesy of Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

As you can see, the total comes to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence. According to the Bank of England, given inflation and changes over time, today this would be approximately £14,083 or around $18,471.

While that sticker price is shocking enough, as we inspect the bill a little more, we notice what all was purchased for the gathering. There are four separate categories on the bill. The bottom section is the fee for the musicians to play. The next section up lists 16 bottles of claret, 5 bottles of madeira, and 7 bowls of punch drunk by the 16 servants and musicians.  Next, comes a line for items broken at the gathering.

Finally, the top section of the bill deals with 55 guests, all men, who were the main party at City Tavern. The men ordered dinner and several different beverages. First, fifty-four bottles of madeira, probably Washington’s drink of choice. Throughout his life, Washington was said to favor this type of fortified wine from the Madeira islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and a frequent stop for merchant ships travelling between Europe and America in the 18th century. Many prominent families in America took a liking to the wine, as it was relatively easy to obtain. According to records at Mount Vernon, Washington ordered Madeira by the pipe, a large, elongated barrel that held about 126 gallons of wine. Often, he ordered multiple pipes at a time. Today, you can still purchase Madeira wine, but be cautious as it runs 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Similar to its brother, Port, Madeira is often used in cooking and is a staple of French cuisine today.

Next, the sixty bottles of Claret were a French-style wine also popular in America in the 18th century. While Madeira came in both sweet and dry varieties, Claret was typically a dry, dark red. Claret is not a fortified wine like Madeira, meaning it is lighter and only around 13-15 percent alcohol by volume.

The list notes that the gentlemen also consumed eight bottles of “Old Stock”, a term used for whiskey at the time. Perhaps throughout his time as General and President, nights like September 14, 1787 convinced Washington to create his own whiskey distillery later in life. By 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon was one of the most profitable in the country. During the colonial era, it was not customary to age whiskey. The spirits produced at Mount Vernon, as well as, that served at City Tavern were practically straight from the still.

Whiskey mash in the reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon. Credit: Elizabeth Hosier.

The porter, cider, and beer listed on the bill are all similar to the alcohols we call porter, cider, and beer today. Porter was a very popular style of beer in both England and America. In fact, the style was so popular, Washington had his own recipe for it to be produced at Mount Vernon.

Lastly, the list claims the gentlemen also went through seven large bowls of punch. Punch recipes varied from tavern to tavern and from house to house in colonial days, but they were typically rum or whiskey-based and often contained more than one type of alcohol. You can read much more about punch and how it was served here and about Mary Washington’s punch bowl here.

With all this drink flowing, we might conclude this was quite a raucous party, but these were rather typical evenings for the people of the 18th century. Keep in mind that water was not always drinkable due to bacteria, they didn’t always have access to fruit to make fresh juice, and certainly soda wasn’t around yet! They were left with few options: tea, coffee, or booze.

Washington returned to the Convention and by the end of the day after the party, the delegates had finished. Copies of the document were ordered, and just two days later, they signed the Constitution of the United States on Monday, September 17, 1787. Washington stated in his journal:

“The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

What happened that night at City Tavern? Unfortunately, no bill from this night survives to give us any clarification, but Washington provides a hint of just how much steam the delegates needed to blow off. The entry in his journal continued that he returned to his lodgings and:

“retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.”

Momentous work, indeed.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Making Eggnog

Eggnog is a staple drink during the holiday season. Historians debate the exact ancestry of eggnog but most agree that it originated from early medieval “posset”, a hot, milky, ale-like drink.  Eventually, expensive and rare ingredients like eggs, sherry, brandy and Madeira were added and the drink became the trademark of the upper class.

During the 18th century, eggnog found its way across the Atlantic to British North America.  However, since brandy and wine were heavily taxed, colonists substituted more cost-effective alcohol like rum, domestic whiskey, bourbon, and even home-made moonshine.  With access to inexpensive liquor and plenty of fresh eggs and dairy products, the popularity of eggnog soared in the colonies.

Given his connection to numerous myths, it is unsurprising that a “George Washington’s Eggnog Recipe” falsely claimed to be written by Washington himself circulates widely on the Internet.  As popular as the drink was in the 1700s, he certainly drank it and served it to others but “no recipe penned by Washington appears in George or Martha Washingtons’ papers nor in the cookbook that Martha inherited from her first marriage nor in her personal copy of The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, which was the most popular English cookbook in America in the latter half of the 18th century (published in 1747).”

Nevertheless, we decided to make an eggnog using this mythical Washington recipe.  Given the ingredients, I think you might understand why.  Moreover, although it originally dates from the 19th century, it certainly could have been made a century earlier.

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

This potent mixture creates a classic colonial eggnog. Purists who argue that store-bought versions can’t hold a candle to the homemade goodness will be quite satisfied.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

The Christmastime Escape of Stephen and Guile

“My Dear Brother, I wish you to give Howell some advice how to Proseed in regard to two Negroes that Runaway from me a few days before Christmas…”

With those words in the early spring of 1794, Betty Lewis informed her brother, George Washington, of a difficult situation.  She also provided us with a few clues about the identities of two more members of the enslaved community at Kenmore during the Lewis era, and a larger story of resistance and survival.

Betty wrote the letter quoted above from Kenmore on February 9, 1794.  By that time, Betty’s financial situation was precarious at best.  Her land was not producing a crop that could support her, her debts were mounting, and although all of her grown children were living on their own, she was caring for at least two grandchildren and one niece, all living under her roof.  Her youngest son, Howell (mentioned in the letter) actually lived on his own property in Frederick County, and handled much of his mother’s farming and land affairs on occasional visits to Kenmore.  Betty would only remain at Kenmore for another two years before moving to a small farmhouse outside of town, much to the relief of her children.  Her letter goes on to describe the runaway slaves as “the Principal hands on the Plantation,” and continues, “…the hole Crop I made the last year was thirty Barrils of Corn and a Hundred and tenn Bushels of Wheat, if I am so unfortunate as not to get them (the runaways) again, I have no chance to make any thing the insuing year.”

Who were these two men, and what can we learn about their situation? It turns out that the letter from Betty to George is only the first of several surviving documents connected to this story.  On March 25, 1794 – more than 3 months after the men ran away from Kenmore – Betty placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for their return.  The ad provides us with their names: Stephen and Guile.  Stephen’s name is not in any of the four original primary documents that began our Enslaved Community Project (click here to read more about these documents and our research into other members of the enslaved community), which tells us he was likely acquired by the Lewis family after Fielding Lewis’s death in 1781, and may have been rather new to the community at the time of his escape.  Guile, on the other hand, was listed in Fielding’s probate inventory as “Guyle” and valued at £50.  The 1782 Divvy List, written by Betty Lewis after her husband’s death to show which enslaved persons were to go to each of her children, shows that Guile was 9 years of age at that time (so he was approximately 21 years old at the time of his escape).  He had most likely been at Kenmore for his entire life. 

As is often the case with runaway slave advertisements, which were incredibly detailed, this document also provides the only physical descriptions that we have of any enslaved person at Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Stephen is said to be a “black fellow,” about 24 years old, around 5’8” tall, and could play the violin very well.  Betty also described him as “very impertinent and talkative.” Guile was said to have a “yellowish complexion,” about six feet tall and “large in proportion.”  He also had a long scar under his right eye Betty added that he had a “down look and very little to say.” Betty summed up her thoughts on the two men by saying Stephen “…is an artful fellow and I am inclined to think he has induced the other fellow Guile to accompany him.”[1]

Newspaper advertisement placed in the Virginia Gazette on March 25, 1794 by Betty Lewis offering a $20 reward for the returned of runaways Stephen and Guile.

Apparently sometime between writing to her brother in February about the escape, and placing the advertisement in March, Betty had learned a bit more about the two men’s plans.  In her letter to George, Betty speculates that they were most likely headed for Philadelphia, where they probably believed they could gain their freedom.  When Pennsylvania enacted The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, Philadelphia became a center of abolition and activism as well as a major hub for the Underground Railroad.  Many enslaved persons who made the risky decision to flee the South headed for Philadelphia, so Betty’s speculation was justified.  However, in her newspaper ad, Betty changed her opinion, and stated that she had, “reason to believe that they are on the way to Maryland, if not already there – Stephen was formerly the property of Mr. Sprigg, in the neighborhood of Annapolis, and may now be lurking about his negro quarters.”[2] How Betty came into this information is unknown, but it suggests that Stephen may have had a reason beyond freedom for running away.  By choosing to head for Maryland instead of Philadelphia, Stephen indicated that there might be something at his old home in Annapolis drawing him back, possibly a wife or other family members who he was separated from when he came to Kenmore.  The Mr. Sprigg mentioned in the advertisement was most likely Richard Sprigg of Strawberry Hill, near Annapolis.  He was an associate of George Washington’s and frequently corresponded with him, usually about breeding cocker spaniels and mules, and wildlife for game parks.  No apparent connection has been found between Sprigg and Betty Lewis, but evidently Betty acquired one of his enslaved workers. 

If you’ve been following along with the dates of these documents thus far, you might have noticed that a rather long period of time elapsed between the time the men supposedly ran away, and the time Betty first mentioned taking any action on the matter to her brother.  According to the newspaper ad, Stephen and Guile made their escape just before Christmas on December 20,1793.  Betty didn’t mention it to her brother for more than a month, on February 9.  That seems a long time to wait, when she was supposedly so concerned for the future of her property without the labor of the two men.  What could account for it?

There’s actually a fairly good chance that Betty wasn’t aware of the escape for quite some time after it had happened.  The Christmas season was a popular time among the colonial enslaved population to attempt escapes.  To understand why, we have to take a look at what exactly the Christmas season was like for enslaved communities.  First, it is important to understand that there was no one common practice or tradition for the Christmas season amongst the enslaved population in 18th century America.  Customs and rules varied greatly by region, by town, and even from one plantation to the next.  Generally speaking, most masters gave their workforce some time off during the holiday season.  In most written accounts from the period, it seems the amount of time varied between 1 day and a full week, with the most common allotment being 3 days.[3]  During that time, enslaved people were often granted unusual amounts of personal freedom.  They could sometimes be allowed to travel to visit friends or family members on neighboring farms, they could plan their own gatherings or celebrations, and they could take part in gift-giving and receiving, even with the master’s family.[4] 

However, time off wasn’t equally distributed between members of the same community.  Because of the winter season, field hands and manual laborers got the bulk of free time, as there was simply less for them to do at that time of year.  House slaves, however, saw their workload double and triple with the holiday influx of visitors, household preparations, meals, etc.  This was the case for people like Billy and Charlotte, two enslaved individuals at Kenmore who we’ve met in this post and this post.  As the household butler, Billy’s work was nearly unceasing during the season, overseeing all of the food procurement and preparations, taking care of the needs of any visitors staying in the house, and coordinating all of the arrangements for holiday parties and balls, including the culminating celebration on Twelfth Night.  Charlotte, a seamstress, was most likely inundated with making, remaking and repairing all the Lewis family clothing needed for the season’s many special occasions.  Other enslaved individuals at Kenmore known to us from this post and hired out to other farms or businesses, like the rope makers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph, could anticipate a return to Kenmore at the Christmas season.  Most of the agreements Betty Lewis and her sons made for the hiring out of their enslaved workers were for up to a year and often terminated at Christmastime.  For those workers, there might have been some joy in the prospect of returning to a familiar home, family and friends.

In Betty Lewis’s letter to her brother George, she refers to Stephen and Guile as the “principal hands” of her farming operation, indicating that they were not house slaves and therefore were probably among those granted more free time during the Christmas holiday of 1793.  Because of this free time, and because owners and overseers were otherwise occupied, Stephen and Guile may have had their best chance during the year to escape.  And because they weren’t expected back on the property or to be performing specific jobs for quite some time, their departure might go unnoticed, giving them a sizeable head start.  It may have been several weeks before Betty knew that she had lost two important assets to her income, and it was obviously several months before she had enough information to place an ad for their return in the newspaper.

So what became of Stephen and Guile? Did they make it to freedom in Philadelphia? Was Stephen reunited with family in Maryland? As it happens there is one more document in the Kenmore archives that may provide a clue as to how their story ends.  On June 4, 1793, about three months after Betty placed her ad in the Virginia Gazette for the return of Stephen and Guile, she entered into an agreement with her step son John Lewis.  According to a fragmented bill of sale written in John’s hand, he agreed to sell Betty two of his slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for the bargain price of £140.[5]

Fragmented bill of sale from John Lewis to Betty Lewis selling two slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for £140.

The two men were among a group of ten enslaved people originally gifted to John Lewis as a wedding present from his father many years earlier.  It is the only documented occasion on which Betty purchased any enslaved person following her husband’s death, and the only time such a purchase was made from one of her children, most likely indicating that it was a rare occurrence, perhaps made necessary by an emergency situation.  The timing of the transaction seems to suggest that John sold Reuben and Lewis to Betty to help her make up for the loss of Stephen and Guile.  Neither of the runaways’ names show up in the list of enslaved people sold at vendu following Betty Lewis’s death, and no further mention of the incident was made in Betty’s correspondence with her brother George.  Taken together, all of this evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Stephen and Guile were never recaptured, and they never returned to Kenmore.  Perhaps their Christmastime escape was a success.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations


[1] Advertisement, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon. 25 March 1794.  Copy in Kenmore Manuscript Collection, PH677.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. “The Time O’ All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South.” Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (1998): 265.

[4] Ibid, 263-88.

[5] Bill of sale, Lewis, John to Betty Lewis, 4 June 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 385.