In this video, we make switchel, a summertime beverage popular in the 1700s. Its ingredients contain a lot of potassium which replenishes the body’s electrolytes. Learn more about switchel and other methods used to say cool in the 18th century on this blog post.
“You must be hot in that. I don’t know how colonial people wore such things.”
“I am a little hot, yes. It is hot out today. Aren’t you hot in what you’re wearing?
“I’m sweating buckets.”
“That’s funny, because I’m not.”
I have a variation of this conversation every time I’m in 18th-century dress. Modern visitors can’t fathom how early Americans managed to keep cool in the sweltering summer heat.
Most methods are intuitive; hydration; light clothing; seasonal lifestyle changes; etc., but they seem to be just beyond the grasp of those who have never known life without air conditioning. Most modern readers will find these methods interesting, but few would be willing to give up the miracle of AC.
Water in parts of England was not much better than the water in Virginia and Virginians used English methods to transform water into something potable. Virginian’s drank something called “small beer” and, in the observation of Reverend Gwatkin, “their [Children’s] common drink which is toddy or a mixture of rum water and sugar. In general is made pretty weak, the proportion being about a glass of rum to 6 of water.” Gwatkin also observed that the women of the colony drank water and speculates that is one of the reasons they outlived the men.
Some enslaved Virginians were given rations of milk, but many relied on the local streams and dug wells that white Virginians did not trust. Even in instances where the water may have been compromised, a thirsty and exhausted enslaved man or woman were likely to partake anyway.
Virginian’s seemed content to drink low-alcohol solutions to rescue themselves from thirst, but other British North Americans developed a different beverage to beat the heat. Switchel, which is also known as haymakers’ switchel, haymakers’ punch, and by many other names, was essential to New England farmers working out in the fields.
Recipes for switchel varied, but common ingredients included water, ground ginger, and a sweetening agent (molasses, sugar, honey, etc.). As a number of lifestyle blogs will tell you, this beverage is refreshing and hydrating. Of course, 18th century Americans knew nothing of hydration or electrolytes; it wasn’t until 1887 that these properties were discovered. Fortuitously, the switchel ingredients contain potassium, an electrolyte replenisher.
Dressing for the heat
One of the most important methods of keeping cool was dressing for the weather. Modern Americans dress for the heat, but may not be doing as good a job as their 18th century counterparts. Their secret: natural fibers. Cotton, linen, and wool whisk sweat away from the body and dry relatively quickly. On a hot summer day, I’ve gone from wearing 18th century clothing to a rayon skirt and polyester blend top and my 18th century clothing was MUCH more comfortable.
In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey wrote a letter to his brother, Edward Hawtrey, who was preparing to come to Virginia. Stephen who had experienced the Virginia heat and writes, “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible for the heat is beyond your conception . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.” Eighteenth century clothing was not a cure-all, as Stephen Hawtrey’s advice demonstrates. Weather-appropriate clothing had its successes, but the opportunity to “chill out” at home seemed to keep spirits up.
Other ways to keep cool
Gentry woman Sarah Fouace Nourse wrote in her diary about a particularly hot day. So hot, in fact, that after dinner and before tea she stayed in her breezy room and wore nothing but a shift [the most basic of women’s undergarments] and a petticoat [a skirt, probably of light fabric in this situation]. On even hotter days she would go into the basement for relief, where she could be found taking meals and working. In 1774, Landon Carter wrote that he wanted a bed for the passage for the summer months
By the time of Mary, George, and Betty Washington, gentry houses had “passages” in which the members of the family could keep cool. These spaces were more than just a hallway that ran from the front door to the back door. In the summer, they became a place to socialize and a respite from the heat. William Lee wrote Carter, promising him “a line to repose on in a hot afternoon in ye cool passage;” an enticing alternative indeed to the hot, humid, and sticky weather that makes up the Virginia Summer.
They may have not had air conditioning but early Americans could call upon a variety of intuitive methods – keeping hydrated, wearing light clothing, and making lifestyle changes – to keep cool during the hot summer months.
Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
 Small beer only contained 2%-4% alcohol. [n.d.]. Gwatkin’s Chorography of Virginia: “an account of the manners of the Virginians”
 Christina Regelski, “A glass of wine . . .is always ready:” Beverages on Virginia Plantations, 1730-1799,”
 “Svante Arrhenius,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Svante-Arrhenius.
 Steven Hawtrey to Edward Hawtrey, 26 March 1765.
 Wenger, Mark R. “The Central Passage in Virginia: Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Living Space.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (1986): 137-49.
I like many people in America have a dog. His name is Edward. Edward is a large black lab who sheds everywhere, snores like a grown man, and has a borderline obsession with socks. He is my best friend and has been my constant companion for nine years. I consider him a member of my family. It’s true that he doesn’t physically contribute to the running of the household. He never picks up his toys and more than once he has thrown himself a ticker-tape parade in the living room with newspaper to celebrate his fabulousness. Still, he is the center, the heart, of my home. Edward’s value comes from him being himself and providing unconditional love, loyalty, and lots of laughs.
The sentimental view of dogs as faithful and adoring companions is a pretty recent phenomenon. For much of our history, human and canine relationships have been one of cooperation, not out affection, but rather survival. This noticeably changed around the end of the 18th century and two of the main reasons are philosophy and middle-class urbanity.
Enlightenment and the Rise of Sentimentality
The Enlightenment’s ideas dominated the 18th century world and gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. These concepts were based on the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge is reason. The Enlightenment ushered in an age of fundamental social, scientific, and philosophical change.
One of these deep philosophical shifts led people to start thinking of animals as valued in their own right rather than based on their usefulness to humankind. The idea of sensibility or the perception of others’ emotions, particularly among the vulnerable, became quite fashionable. Having a pet, like a dog, became an acceptable way to demonstrate this sensitivity. By the end of the 18th century, the representation of the dog as faithful, loyal, and adoring was a fixture in popular culture. Broadsheets and magazines regularly published stories extolling the noble virtues of the canine and even noted their ability to think, problem solve, and communicate with people.
This admiration for the dog was endorsed by many notable writers and philosophers of the time. Poet Alexander Pope said that “histories are more full [sic] of examples of fidelity of dogs than of friends”. Clergyman Humphrey Primatt became an advocate for animal’s right in 1776 when he published what essentially amounted to a declaration of rights for animals. Even the esteemed Benjamin Franklin wrote “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.”
Urbanity and the Middle-Class
Shifts in philosophical thinking were not the only reason that dogs began to make their way from the fields into people’s living rooms. Colonial America, by the late 18th century, saw the rise of more affluent urban communities, a development that made keeping pets more feasible and desirable. In prosperous cities, the middle-class found pets as a way to express their status. Instead of having hunting dogs like the gentry to show wealth, they had lap dogs like pugs, pomeranians, papillions, shih tzus, malteses, or King Charles Spaniels. These dogs were usually adornments for the lady of the house. They were given bejeweled collars and carried around to mimic the style of English aristocracy. This view of dogs as adornment was not a particularly sophisticated or humane trend but, once the dog was in the house, affection grew as their qualities became more apparent and they began to be treated more as family. Dogs were no longer an accessory but a companion and sometimes even a confidant.
This evolution of dogs from ornament to friend can be seen in two notable examples: newspaper advertisements and portraiture.
The first newspaper printed in Virginia was the Virginia Gazette in 1736. It became quite common to see “lost or stolen” ads placed by people looking for their dogs. Colonists placed ads with substantial rewards for the return of their cherished pets. William Finne, advertised in 1777 that his, “very remarkable black shaggy dog of Pomerania breed, called Spado,” had been “Lost or Stolen,” and he was offering the sum of twenty dollars for its return. Likewise, when a bulldog named Glasgow, who could usually be found snoozing behind the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, went missing his owner placed an ad in the paper asking for his return with a twenty shilling reward. These two ads perfectly illustrate the era’s changing attitudes toward the family dog and their position in the house. Like today, when the family dog went missing, it created a void and, like us, early Americans were willing to publicly pronounce their concern and love for the missing pet and offer a significant reward for their return.
Portraiture is another example that illustrates the people’s increasing affection for the family dog in the 18th century. Today, we all love taking pictures of our dogs doing pretty much anything. Facebook feeds and social media accounts are filled with the cute antics of owners and their puppies. In the 17th and 18th century, there was a similar trend of having pictures to show off the family pet. More families in the second half of the eighteenth century had their portraits painted and many of these included a cherished pet. This showed families made a concerted effort to include the dog in their documentation of their domestic life.
While these theories and examples are not definitive proof of the changing relationship between humans and pets from one of survival to affection, they do illustrate a great attention starting to be paid to the dog. Dogs’ position during the eighteenth century did move from outside the residence to inside the house as a family member. There is still a great amount of research that needs to be done on the subject but the abstract nature of verifying emotional attachments and affection is difficult. There is one thing for certain. Once you let a dog into your life it will change forever and you can’t help but fall in love with them whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st.
George Washington’s Ferry Farm is busy reconstructing the Washington House and, behind the scenes, we are equally busy creating educational and interpretive activities to take place inside and outside the house. One common colonial chore you may eventually see being done outside the house is laundry. While doing laundry is still part of our routines, the way we do it today looks a lot different from methods used a few hundred years ago.
To begin with, in the past, most households had to make their own soap. I’m not talking about lavender-infused goat’s milk soap with rosehip essential oils and colloidal oatmeal exfoliant. I’m referring to a very basic soap composed of animal or vegetal fats combined with lye water. The end result was considered a success if it removed dirt without burning your skin off. Consequently, we figured it would be a good idea if we made some soap, just to get an idea of how it is done.
For our soap making experiment, we needed two basic ingredients: lye and animal fat. Fortunately, I raise pigs and had plenty of lard to contribute to the effort so we already had our first ingredient. Soap making was often a fall or early winter activity as this corresponded with the butchering of pigs and cows. Alternatively, a household could save up their old cooking grease to turn into soap (yum). The lye, our second ingredient, was easy to obtain….online! I did briefly look into making our own lye and quickly realized this was a task far too time consuming.
Colonists, however, not having the benefit of Amazon, wouldn’t have had a choice. To make lye, they began with a hopper filled with many fires worth of hardwood ashes. After enough ashes were secured, water would be filtered through it and collected below. The resulting liquid was boiled down to create the correct concentration, which involved a lot of guess work. If the lye was too weak it would not react enough with the fats to create soap. If it was too strong, the soap would impart nasty chemical burns. Colonial soap making involved quite a lot of effort.
Along with purchasing the lye online, we took yet another shortcut and used crockpots instead of a fire. This way we could regulate the temperature and keep it steady. Imagine standing in front of a hot fire and stirring a pot of caustic lye and smelly animal fat for hours and hours? No, thank you, I’ll use the crockpot!
Our first step was to melt the lard in the pot and then slowly add in the lye water. The resulting chemical reaction was quite interesting. Initially, the clear lard turned a creamy caramel color before it thinned into the consistency of melted butter. Then it began to turn darker and separate into what can only be described as an ‘applesauce’ texture. After what seemed like an eternity of stirring, the mixture progressed into a ‘mashed potato’ phase (hungry yet?). This fluffy concoction was transferred to a mold and left to set up for a few days.
Our helpful instructor taught us the ‘zap’ test to roughly determine the pH of the soap, which was also a technique used by colonials. This involves touching the tip of your tongue to the soap. If you get a strong taste or ‘zap’, it means the pH is off, the soap is too alkaline, and could irritate your skin. If you taste nothing or only get a slight zap, it’s safe and good soap. After much soap licking, it was determined that we had indeed produced legitimate soap. This conclusion was further supported by our crockpots filling up with happy suds when we rinsed them with water.
If you were a colonist, making soap is where doing your laundry started. It took months of preparation just to make soap, a product so cheap, easily obtainable, and ubiquitous in today’s society that we rarely give it a second thought. If you’re interested in learning more about how soap was made come to Ferry Farm this Fourth of July where there will be a traditional soap making demonstration!
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Recently I was contemplating Augustine and Mary Washington’s family bible. Like many families at the time, the Washingtons recorded the births of their children on their bible’s end pages. As I casually perused the handwritten notes that I had read so many times, I discovered something that I had never noticed before: each of Mother Washington’s labors, while carefully recorded, was only done so to the nearest hour. No minutes, no “…quarter after…,” no “…5:38…” were detailed. I quickly realized two things at once: 1) the Washingtons owned a timepiece, and, 2) that timepiece only possessed only one hand for determining the hour.
These times were clearly not chronicled using a sundial, given the arrival of George’s younger brother Samuel Washington on November 16 at three in the morning. Clearly, at 3 am, there was no sunlight from which to read the early-hours culmination of Mary’s labor on a sundial! The timepiece used to record these births had to be a pocket watch, case clock, table-clock, or a wall clock.
Compare the Washington family’s biblical records with that of the Sarrett family. John and Mary Sarrett recorded deliveries in their mid-eighteenth century bible as well. However, recording the specific time was not deemed important during these happy occasions, or was perhaps not possible because they may not have owned a timepiece.
In Worcestershire, England, the mid-eighteenth century Kings family did record birth times. Carefully written
among the pages of their New Testament, the deliveries of their children were noted, with the day, month, date, and the nearest hour of their birth. Sometimes, if the birth was not especially close to an hour, they improvised: daughter Anne was delivered “…between 4 and 5 in the afternoon….”
Solar Time Versus Clock Time
Luxuries such as watches became popular in England starting at the end of the seventeenth century, when advancements in manufacturing and technology made timepieces smaller and more accurate. A social climate that fostered the ownership of such elegant accessories and scientific instruments (such as sundials, compasses, scales, barometers, and clocks) evolved and thrived at this time (Priestley 2000:7; Shackel 1987:156-165). Their high cost, luxurious status, and the knowledge needed to read and understand scientific instruments limited their ownership to well-off, educated consumers. This began to change during the mid-1700s.
With their increased accuracy, consumers of these timepieces soon realized that standardized time did not match solar time: due to the earth’s tilted axis and elliptical orbit the days were not of equal length throughout the year. At the height of winter, the solar day is almost a quarter hour slower than the clock, but by mid-December the clock is that much faster than the solar day.
Some one-handed timepieces featured incremental marks that allowed minutes to be recorded with some degree of precision. Though the mechanical clock had existed for several centuries (Stephens 2002:20), most colonists had little need for measuring time to the nearest hour, much less to the minute. People organized the activities of their day according to the rising and setting of the sun and around the exigencies of weather and light that favored some tasks over others. In the United States today, we continue to tell time in relation to the middle of the day, noting whether the hour is a.m. – ante meridiem (before the middle of the day)- or p.m. – post meridiem (after the middle of the day). Since daylight provided the best conditions to do most tasks in an era when expensive candlelight, ethereal firelight, or moonlight provided the only other options, it made sense to arrange one’s tasks according to this crucial reference point. (That said, people in the 18th century were surprisingly active at night as we explored in this blog post last year.)
At Monticello, Jefferson installed a clock at the entrance to the mansion house. It was simultaneously visible from both the yard and the entrance hall with one significant difference: from the yard, the clock had a single, hour hand but the interior, household face featured three hands. This interior clock allowed time to be segmented to the nearest hour, minute, and second. While outdoor tasks were sufficiently general that timing to the hour was appropriate, indoor tasks could be scrutinized to the nearest second.
Augustine Washington’s Pocket Watch
There was no a wall clock, table clock, or a case clock like Jefferson’s in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory. Either the probate assessor missed the clock during his survey, or the times noted in the Washington family bible reflect the use of a pocket watch. Pocket watches were especially popular among those who invested in timepieces, outselling furniture, or ‘case,’ clocks throughout the 1700s.
Indeed, a splendid watch was noted in Father Washington’s probate inventory under the heading “plate.” The “plate’’ category represented items plated in silver, and included things such as teaspoons, soup spoons, and a sword. At £5, Augustine’s watch represented the single most expensive item of plate recorded in their home: over four-and-a-half times more expensive than Father Washington’s sword!
Augustine’s pocket watch allowed him to check the time and document the births of his and Mary’s children’s to the hour. By checking the time, he demonstrated his pride in the ownership of a timepiece and in the esoteric knowledge needed to properly read it..
George may have taken this very timepiece with him in the late winter/early spring of 1748 when he joined a team of surveyors hired by Fairfax to transform parts of the Shenandoah Valley into farm-sized lots (Flexner 1965:34-38). During his March travels, Washington noted:
Tuesday 15th. …It clearing about one oClock & our time being too Precious to Loose we a second time ventured out and worked hard till Night….
Wednesday 16th. We set out early & finish’d about one oClock….
Thursday 17th. Rain’d till Ten oClock….
Wednesday 23d. Rain’d till about two oClock….
George recorded all of the times only to the nearest hour, indicating a single-handed timepiece. I considered that he used a pocket sundial. However, since some of the times were recorded during rain events, and given the nature of backwoods surveying, it had to be a pocket watch: no member of the surveying team could have carried a bulky case clock around the valley and across swiftly-flowing rivers.
There’s a good chance that this pocket watch was the same elegant, silver-plated timepiece that his father proudly used to record George’s own birth. Surely George enjoyed showcasing his graceful, refined pocket watch amongst the more experienced backwoodsmen and surveyors with whom he traveled in 1748. It otherwise seems difficult to justify recording such trivial details to the nearest hour. The piercing gleam of the weak winter sun against his magnificent silver-plated pocket watch distinguished George as a sophisticated gentleman, despite the rustic conditions in which he was surrounded.
With their watches and clocks, Augustine, George, and others living in the 18th century now measured the fruits of their labors in greater detail and that labor became commodified, helping to usher in the modern era.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
2015 Who Owned the Wicked Bible? University of Leicester Library Special Collections Staff Blog, October 23. http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2015/10/23/who-owned-the-wicked-bible/
Flexner, James Thomas
1965 George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775). Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
Priestley, Philip T.
2000 Early Watch Case Makers of England 1631-1720. National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc, Cornerstone Printing Services, Lititz, Pennsylvania.
Shackel, Paul A.
1987 A Historical Archaeology of Personal Discipline. Ph.D. dissertation, University of New York at Buffalo.
Stephens, Carlene E.
2002 On Time: How America has Learned to Live by the Clock. Smithsonian Institution Press. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.
It’s Election Day! From early morning until after dark, voters in Virginia and across the United States are walking into libraries, schools, firehouses, community centers, city halls and, occasionally, even private homes. Once inside, they are given a paper ballot, punch card or, though still relatively rare, may be directed to a touch screen. The voter steps up to or into a voting booth walled off with some type of barrier. There is an atmosphere of quiet deliberateness. The individual voter alone marks the candidates of their choice. When finished, they place their ballot into a secure ballot box. The ballot requires no signature nor is the voter required to make a public declaration revealing who they are support. White propertied men of the 18th century like Fielding Lewis, Augustine Washington, and George Washington would be surprised by our 21st century voting process.
In early America, Election Day was an intensely public affair and often times an excuse for everyone, whether allowed to vote or not, to travel to the county seat for the election but also to visit neighbors, conduct business, and simply have a good time. There was a holiday atmosphere that could get quite uproarious!
The festival atmosphere was fueled by a common, though technically illegal, vote-getting technique: alcohol. The law said that candidates could not provide drinks to votes from the time the election was announced until after votes were cast on Election Day. To work around this restriction, candidates simply enlisted spouses, family, friends, or servants to distribute the spirits.
George Washington first ran for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1757. Each county sent two representatives to the house. In this first election, Washington came in third in a field of three and garnered only 40 votes. The next year, he stood again. He won with 310 votes – the most of the four candidates. While certainly not the sole reason for his victory, in 1758, Washington reimbursed friends £39 for 34 gallons of rum, 3 pints of brandy, 13 gallons of beer, 8 quarts of cider, and 40 gallons of rum punch served to voters. He wrote one of these friends, James Wood, saying “I am extreme thankly [sic] to you & my other friends for entertaining the Freeholders in my name—I hope no exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated and all had enough it is what I much desird [sic]—my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”
Although 18th century candidates couldn’t directly supply alcohol to voters, they were expected to be present during voting and were also expected to warmly greet all voters. Today, in most states, there are restrictions against candidates or a candidate’s supporters from campaigning at or near a polling place while voting is taking place. The candidate was present, in part, so that he could thank the voter for their vote.
Voting in the 1700s was not secret. There were no ballots. Virginians practiced the long English tradition of a public voice vote. Before family, friends, neighbors, and the candidates themselves, a freeholder – a propertied white man allowed to vote – “came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote. The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference.” The freeholder’s name was recorded in the poll book in a column under the name of his choice. “The candidate for whom he had voted, arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.”
While the secret ballot is sacred today, public voice votes of the 18th century and the poll books in which the votes were recorded provide historians with valuable knowledge about the elections of the time and about who voted for whom. They also hint at personal connections within communities. For example, we know that Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, voted for William Fairfax, Esqr and Colonel James Colvill for Prince William County’s two seats in the House of Burgesses in 1741. We know that Fairfax won one seat with 246 votes and Colvill won the other seat with 175 votes. While we should be cautious about reading too much into Augustine’s support for Fairfax, George would go on to cultivate connections with William and other Fairfax family members. After Augustine’s death, George aspired to be like William’s cousin Thomas Lord Fairfax, “socially prominent, well-connected, and involved in important affairs.”
Americans have been voting for an exceptionally long time. We were voting even before a United States of America existed. The methods have changed over four centuries and although we no longer literally voice our vote, your vote is still your voice. Be heard today. Go vote!
Manager of Educational Programs
 Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010: 88.
 Poll for Election of Burgesses in Prince William County, 1741, Deed Book E, pg. 524, Prince William County, Va.
In today’s electrically-lit world, we have very little notion of exactly how dark it can be in a house without any artificial light at all. In fact, our modern eyes have become so accustomed to bright lighting at all hours of the day and night, that we would probably have an even harder time adjusting to the candlelight of the 18th century, were we to magically time travel back to that period, than those who actually lived then. Our ancestors were used to it, though, and had a variety of ways to make the most of the light they had after the sun went down.
Sources of light after dark were the usual suspects – candles, fires in the fireplaces, maybe the occasional oil lamp. The best way to increase the light given off by each of these sources was reflection. Mirrors were placed behind candlesticks and lamps to double their light, and the lamps and candlesticks themselves were usually made out of reflective polished metal. Candelabra or girandoles, which were fixtures intended to hold multiple candles at a time, were often made of glass and decorated with quantities of hanging crystals or glass pendants, all intended to increase reflection of candlelight.
Being able to transport your source of light was also important. Without flashlights or anything else battery-operated, people in the 18th century had to find ways to carry flame with them when they moved from room to room or left the house after dark. Chamber sticks were candlesticks with handles on them, most commonly used to light a person’s way to bed (hence the name). Enclosed lanterns, made either of metal punched through with holes, or glass panes, were also used both indoors and outdoors.
Of course, if most of your light is coming from candles, keeping those candles lit could be a challenge. Glass shades, or what we often call “hurricanes” today, were not simply decorative in the 18th century. They were intended to protect candles from drafts (and had the added benefit of providing another reflective surface). The beeswax or tallow candles most commonly used in the 18th century tended to melt quickly, and so candlesticks that could automatically push the candle up as it burned were invented. These candlesticks ensured that every last useable bit of candle was put to good use.
There were other secrets to bringing some light into a dark night during the 18th century. If you want to learn more about lighting, join us for Night in Washington’s Day, an evening program at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from 6:00-9:00p.m. on Saturday, November 12! For more details, visit www.kenmore.org/events
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations