Search for Washington House Furnishings Takes Exciting Turn!

As Meghan talked about in her latest blog post, we are currently taking on the immense task of finding accurate and well-made reproduction furnishings and household items for the reconstructed Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We recently completed two successful shopping expeditions and acquired an array of items for the home from earthenware tankards to creamware cups and saucers.  While, many of these pieces will be familiar to anyone who loves to pick through local antique stores, there are some unique items whose names and purposes are might not be that familiar to the modern person.

The first two items, a bourdaloue and wick trimmers, were purchased at auction in Richmond.  The auction sold props used on the AMC show “Turn: Washington’s Spies” which wrapped filming this year after four seasons.  “Turn” takes place from 1776 to 1781 and follows a farmer and his childhood friends as they form a group of spies called the Culper Ring.  The show used many good reproductions of everyday 18th century objects and the auction proved an excellent resource for items to use in the house at Ferry Farm.  The third item, a demijohn, was found at an antique store on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Bourdaloue

Bourdaloue

A replica bourdaloue purchased at the “Turn” auction.

While this might look like a gravy boat to modern eyes, it is actually a bourdaloue, which is a smaller and more feminine version of a chamber pot.  They could be china, tin, and even leather.

In an era without public toilets, the bourdaloue provided a lady with a portable and relatively clean means of relieving herself away from home.  The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape and a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other and allowed usage from a squatting or standing position.  The bowl would then be given to the lady’s maid who disposed of the waste discretely.  Bourdaloues slowly disappeared from everyday life after indoor plumbing and bathrooms made their way into everyone’s home.

Legend is that the bourdaloue got its name from a Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue, who would preach for hours at church.  Ladies used the vessel as easy way to relieve themselves without missing a moment of his amazing sermons.  While amusing and repeated often on many websites, there is no historic proof whatsoever for this claim.

Wick trimmers or “Candle snuffs”

Wick Trimmers

Wick trimmers

These odd scissor-like utensils were a must-have in the day when candles were the only lighting in a house.  Also known as “candle snuffs,” wick trimmers were, as the name declares, used to trim a candle’s burning wick. Trimming the wick kept your candle burning well, kept it from getting too hot, and kept it from smoking too much and creating excessive odors.

For centuries, the only source of light after-dark was either a fire in the hearth or a flame from a candle.  Candles for everyday use by most people were not made of lovely beeswax (which was terribly expensive) but rather from tallow, a fat from cows or sheep. Tallow candles were cheap and easy to make. You twisted a thread of flax, cotton, or hemp and repeatedly dipped it into melted fat.  The quality of a candle depended on the fat used.  The better the fat the firmer and less smelly the candle.

However, the wicks of these candles were not particularly efficient.  To keep them burning bright, they needed to be trimmed occasionally. Trimming was done to prevent soot build up or guttering, which is when the candle melts too fast and the wax or tallow starts to spill over the edges creating a mess.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, candle makers started braiding rather than simply twisting strands of cotton for wicks, creating a “self-trimming” or “self-consuming” wick.  This technique allowed the wick to curl back into the flame maintaining the height of the wick and therefore the flame.  This also meant more of the wick is burnt, leaving a less sooty snuff that needs to be cleaned.[1]

With this improvement to candles, wick trimmers were no longer essential to keeping your evening candles burning their brightest. Electricity further sped the decline of the trimmers in households and their purpose was forgotten by most people.  However, if you are a candle enthusiast, you might want to think about picking up a pair because proper wick maintenance can help even modern candles burn brighter and with less sooty mess.

Demijohn

Demijohn

Demijohn

You may not know the official name but you have no doubt seen a demijohn if you frequent antique stores or consignment shops.   This glass vessel with a large body and small neck surrounded by wickerwork were used to ship large amounts of wine and spirits to merchants who would then parcel the alcohol out for sale to customers.

The origin of the word “demijohn” is murky.  Some say it comes from the French “dame-jeanne” and others say it is a corruption of the name of the Persian glass-making town of Damaghan.[2] Regardless, by the early 18th century, the word begins to appear in literature and advertisements.

Demijohns are sometimes called carboys.  However, demijohns usually carried alcohol or non-corrosive liquids, while carboys carried strong chemicals, mostly acids like aquafortis (aka nitric acid).

Today, these glass wares are usually found in homes used for decorative purposes or even made into terrariums.  The older demijohns and carboys have usually been stripped of their wicker exterior to allow for a more visually appealing curio.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Paul R. Wonning, A Brief History of Candle Making: A Short History of the Candle (History of Things Series Book 5), Mossy Feet Books, 2014.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary; “The Philology of Slang,” Littell’s Living Age, May 9, 1874, pg 369.

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Just What is Colonial Revival?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Kenmore’s Holy Grail

“The drawing-room walls are covered with pictures, some very fine, from the ancient masters, but most of them portraits of our most distinguished men, six or eight by Stewart. The mantelpiece, tables in each corner and in fact wherever one could be fixed, were filled with busts, and groups of figures in plaster, so that this apartment had more the appearance of a museum of the arts than of a drawing room.” Those are the words of Margaret Bayard Smith upon entering the drawing room at James Madison’s Montpelier in 1828.  Smith was a noted journalist and socialite in 19th century Washington, DC, and a good friend of Thomas Jefferson, in addition to James and Dolley Madison.  She is best remembered for her detailed diary entries, recounting her lengthy visits to the homes of well-known figures in American society at the time.  Her record is a treasure trove of information for the curators trying to piece together the original appearance of some of those great houses.  And she was not alone! Many a traveler in the 18th and 19th century wrote down their observations of daily life at Montpelier, Monticello, Mount Vernon and similar places in letters, diaries, journals, and even occasionally in newspaper columns.  Altogether, these contemporary descriptions of times long past are some of the best resources we have for creating a picture of what a house looked like once upon a time.

M-108, Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The Drawing Room at James Madison’s Montpelier. Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site.

Margaret Bayard Smith

Portrait of Margaret Bayard Smith by Charles Bird King (c. 1829). Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Alas, Mrs. Smith never made it to Kenmore.  Nor, apparently, did any of the other wonderfully prolific travel writers of her day.  Amazingly, not a single contemporary description of Kenmore, either its interior or exterior, has ever surfaced.  It would seem that not one visitor to the Lewis home was moved to write down any impressions of the awe-inspiring plasterwork ceilings that quite literally defied imagination.  The English carpets on the floors inspired no comment.  No one ever reported the gossip of an evening’s entertainment at Kenmore to a friend.  None of the Lewis family members themselves ever described a family dinner.  This lack of description is baffling, and it has been a frustrating problem for those of us working on Kenmore’s restoration and refurnishing over the last 15 years.  But more than bafflement and frustration, it’s become an intriguing mystery.  In short, a description of Kenmore from the 18th century has become our Holy Grail.

Let’s begin with the premise that it is highly unlikely that NO ONE ever wrote anything about Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Someone, somewhere, surely put pen to paper and wrote about their surroundings in the Lewis house.  It is simply that we haven’t found these accounts yet.  They exist, but they’re hidden away somewhere.  So the real question is why haven’t any of them come to light yet? There are several possible reasons.

First, history has not remembered Fielding Lewis the way it has George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Although his role in early American history was a rather important one, it didn’t make headlines at the time, and it doesn’t show up in many history books today.  Documents related to Fielding and his family were not given the same status and protection by later generations as those related to the Founders and early presidents.  Ironically, most of the existing letters written by Fielding Lewis survive only because he was writing to George Washington, and therefore they are held in the same repositories that hold the Washington Papers (Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress, etc.).  In our own lives, we often discard quite a bit of correspondence and other paperwork because it seems trivial, or because it doesn’t have anything to do with an important person or event.  Many original documents related to Kenmore may simply did not survived.

Lewis Papers

While there are some Lewis family documents in our collection, there is no description of Kenmore during the Lewises time among the family’s papers.

Another possible explanation for the lack of descriptive accounts is difficulty that many historic sites have to deal with: The Civil War.  In almost any effort to trace the historical roots of, well, anything, in the United States, there tends to be this deep, black abyss when you reach the years of the Civil War.  Repositories for legal documents, like courthouses and libraries, were ransacked and destroyed all over the South (and in parts of the North, as well).  Newspaper printing offices were wrecked.  Family records, stored in attics and Father’s desk, were destroyed in fires and bombardments.  Correspondence was disrupted, and what made it through rarely described beautiful houses, but rather focused on the horrors of war.  Fredericksburg, which saw one of the earliest examples of urban warfare rage through its streets in 1862, was particularly hard hit.  If documents describing Kenmore existed prior to the War, it is entirely possible that they did not survive it.

The third possibility has something to do with Kenmore’s name.  As those who have been on tour know, the house was not called “Kenmore” when the Lewis family lived in it.  In fact, the Lewis family did not give the house a name at all.  It wasn’t until 1819, when the Gordons owned the property, that the name “Kenmore” appears in court records (the Gordons named the house in honor of the ancestral home in Scotland, Kenmuir).

So, any documents describing Kenmore from the Lewis era would not have used the word “Kenmore.” It is entirely possible that researchers have in fact come across descriptions of Kenmore, but they didn’t know what they were looking at because the house described was not identified as Kenmore.  It’s also possible that descriptions of Kenmore do survive in repositories that have no connection to the Lewises, the Washingtons or even Virginia, in which case they would have no idea what they were looking at, without the word “Kenmore” to Google.  It seems like a trivial issue, but it’s actually a real problem!

There you have it.  Could it be that one of the most beautiful houses in colonial America was seemingly ignored by correspondents of the day? It seems unlikely, and so our search for own Holy Grail continues.  If any of our readers happen to be combing through obscure 18th century documents in the future, we would appreciate you keeping an eye out for us!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

 

Inside the Archaeology Lab: Putting Artifacts on Exhibit

Here on Lives & Legacies we’ve shown you a variety of important tasks that take place inside the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. You’ve seen how we wash, catalog, label, and then mend vessels with archival glue. One goal of all this work is to piece together whole artifacts from the many broken bits found and share that whole artifact with our visitors as part of the exhibits in our museum gallery.  Right now, a new exhibit of white salt-glazed stoneware vessels is on display at Ferry Farm. It took numerous staff and volunteers working hundreds of hours to get the vessels on display ready to be exhibited. Here’s how we did it!

Seven reconstructed white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware vessels make up a new exhibit at Ferry Farm.  These pieces, which include two dinner plates, a fruit dish, three ointment pots (used for mixing medicines and cosmetics), and a tea ware or condiment pot lid, were all excavated from the Ferry Farm site. These ceramics were popular during the mid-18th century and most likely graced the tables of the Washington family.

white-salt-glaze-fruit-dish

White salt glaze stoneware fruit dish, 1740-1765. The dish is decorated with a molded “dot, diaper, basket” pattern and would have been displayed prominently in the Washington house at Ferry Farm. An almost identical dish has been excavated at Mount Vernon and additional sherds with a similar pattern were recovered across the river at Kenmore. This may signify a Washington family preference for the motif or indicate that someone within the family acquired multiple fruit dishes and gave them as gifts, something George Washington was known to do.

In preparation for the exhibit, I spent the better part of three weeks in August and September finishing the documentation for the individual vessels and then meticulously gluing them together. This relatively small amount of time spent at the end of the project was only the tip of the iceberg – the total amount of time spent getting these pieces ready for exhibition encompassed a year and a half! Preparing these pieces to be displayed involved the hard work of numerous archaeology lab staff and volunteers.

November 2014 – January 2015: Executive decisions are made…
First, discussions were held within the archaeology department about studying Ferry Farm’s archaeological collection of white salt-glazed stoneware. Such a study would answer questions about the material setting of the Washington household and help with interpreting the forthcoming Washington house replica to the public. The project was given the go-ahead.

January 2015: Getting the lists together…
Using our searchable artifact database, we generated a list of every piece of white salt-glazed stoneware in our collection.  A total number of 1,623 artifact bags were on this list, representing over 2,800 actual sherds.

database

Screencap of the artifact database.

February 2015: Puzzle-solving begins!
We started pulling the 1,623 artifact bags from storage, and by my records, we were still pulling artifact bags in June.  Lab staff, volunteers, and, on rainy days, the excavation field crews helped with pulling the artifacts.

After making sure the sherds were labeled correctly, we laid them all out on one of the lab tables, which had been covered in a black foam board to make it easier to see the all-white ceramics. The sherds were first separated by decorative variations, such as plain white salt-glazed, slip-dipped, scratch blue, or dipped with iron oxide, and next by vessel part, such as rims, bases, and bodies. Then the cross-mending began.

white-salt-glaze-artifacts-on-table

Sherds of white salt glaze stoneware waiting to be mended together.

Over the next eleven months, countless hours were spent at the table looking for mends between the sherds.  Having identifiable vessel parts, such as rims and molded and decorative elements, helped in the matching process, but there were hundreds of plain white, non-descript sherds to try and fit together.  Pieces that mended were taped together with painter’s tape, which doesn’t leave an adhesive residue on the artifacts.

A friendly competition began and whoever had the most mends at the end of each month won a free lunch!  In all, everyone spent countless, addictive hours each week scrutinizing the sherds and patiently putting together “puzzles” for which, unfortunately, the majority of the pieces were missing.

lauren-mending

“Do these match?”

vessel-209-pot-lid-recto-before-treatment

Puzzle solved!

January 2016: Minimum Vessel Count…
After eleven months, we cried “uncle” to the cross-mending and started the minimum vessel count by figuring out how many and what types of individual WSG vessels were represented in our collection.  Under the supervision of Mara Kaktins, The George Washington Foundation’s ceramic and glass specialist, the sherds were separated into what we believed were individual vessels using the bases and rim styles.  By late April, our choices were firm and over sixty white salt-glazed vessels were identified.

July 2016: Putting the paperwork in order….
Treatment reports were started on the most complete vessels, which would be included in the new exhibit.  Each report listed all the sherds that made up each vessel and their condition. Photographs were taken to help with the mending and gluing.  The remaining white salt-glazed sherds on the table were separated into bags according to decorative and body type, their contexts recorded in a spreadsheet for our records, and then returned in storage.

August 2016: Finally, the fun part – gluing!
I started gluing the vessels using a product called B-72, an archival glue that can be removed, if necessary, and that we mix ourselves in the lab.  The design of the upcoming exhibit, including the layout, mounts and signage, was created by Meghan Budinger and Heather Baldus, the Foundation’s curatorial team.

lid

White salt glaze stoneware lid, 1720-1780. This lid could have been used with any of several different vessels related to serving tea, such as a tea pot, a punch put (a large version of a tea pot), or a tea canister. Tea was an important part of 18th century life, and displaying fine teawares demonstrated social status.

September 2016: Finishing touches…
The white salt-glazed stoneware exhibit is now installed and ready for the enjoyment of our visitors to Ferry Farm. A total of 614 days from report prep to exhibition!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor