All That’s Fit to Buy: Shopping in the 18th Century

It seems we are all pre-occupied with the subject of groceries lately – how we’re going to get them, which store has what, which items are hard to find at the moment.  The current shopping situation is an alien one to us in our modern world of on-line ordering and nearly instant delivery.  The stress of not being able to get something we need or want at a moment’s notice causes us anxiety, makes us worry about future procurement and how we’ll find what we need.  However, this new reality wouldn’t be at all unusual to those who lived here in Fredericksburg in the 18th century.  In fact, it was their daily way of life, and in some ways,  a form of entertainment and a social outlet.

Empty bottled water shelves

Shelves at a store in Ohio emptied of bottled water on March 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Dan Keck / Wikipedia

To get into the mind-set of someone like Betty Lewis, who was shopping for her own immediate family, a household staff of enslaved labor, and probably her aging mother, as well, we must take a look at how shopping has evolved in America.  Much of what we do today has its roots in the colonial period.  In the early 18th century, shops were few and far between.  In fact, the concept of a free-standing building purpose-built to be a shop didn’t really exist.  The first places where locals could find various goods for sale were really private homes.  These makeshift shops might be a single room in a house, or goods for sale might be found in various storage spaces throughout the house.[1]  Customers, usually neighbors and acquaintances, might come in on social calls and peruse the goods while taking tea and visiting.

Without formal supply chains or reliable access to any one kind of good, early merchants did not specialize in anything, but rather sold whatever they happened to come across. Their customers rarely arrived with a list, but rather decided what would be useful to them once they saw what was available.  And what was available could really run the gamut.

The contents of one such in-home shop in rural Virginia in 1728 was described by an inventory taker as being arranged between a small storage building on the property and “in the dwelling” itself.  A shelf in the storage building held hose, hats and fabric, while underneath it on the floor were books, shoes, various tools, beads and spectacles.  A single crate on the floor held stoneware, glassware, and pewter vessels, as well as needles, combs, sugar and more books.  In the house, the inventory listed more hose, gloves, 2 boxes of smoking pipes, chaffing dishes, chamber pots and punch bowls.[2]  Not only is there no real theme to the goods for sale, they appear to be heaped together in a jumble, leaving the customer to dig through it all.

As the 1700s progressed, colonial American shops became more formal affairs with their own dedicated buildings, purpose-built as commercial structures, often sporting identifiable features like large display windows in front, and a large counter inside, separating customers from the merchant and more expensive goods.  While the wide, and sometimes bizarre, variety of goods available did not decrease, their arrangement on shelves and tables began to have a bit more thought behind it.  It was the first inkling of visual display and marketing in America, and as the number of shops increased, it was more and more necessary to attract customers.

The contents of a free-standing shop in 1801 Virginia was inventoried for tax purposes and shows quite a transition.  One entire wall of the shop was covered with shelving and cubby holes.  The cubbies held buttons separated by size, 124 types of “paper”, razors, knives and forks (each wrapped in individual paper packages) and ribbons.  The shelves held fabrics by the yard and books.  A series of three trunks arranged under the shelving held glassware, while creamware was housed in 3 crates.  Barrels of dry goods that needed to be measured and weighed sat at the end of the counter, where a set of scales was at the ready.[3]  This shop was clearly a general mercantile, offering a bit of everything, but by the end of the 18th century, shopkeepers did tend to specialize.  One might be known for fabrics, while another sold furniture, and another was more of a grocer.[4]  Even so, almost every establishment always had an assortment of odds and ends for sale, and so a customer might come away with fabric and lace for a new dress, and a bottle of castor oil, since it was available.

So this was the shopping world that Betty Lewis operated in.  Many of her receipts and accounts with local Fredericksburg shops still survive in the Kenmore manuscript collection, as do a few shop accounts from the Lewis store.  They show that Fredericksburg was typical of the 18th century evolution in shopping.  For instance, William Potter’s account at the Lewis store for the year 1744 (before Fielding Lewis took over the operation from his father) shows that the Lewises were offering the “jumble” approach to goods for sale.  Potter purchased hanks of silk, buttons, yard goods, pipes, sewing notions, butter, a trunk, rum, soap, wig curlers, and finally, bacon.[5]

Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Historic Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: George Barnick / Wikipedia

By 1766, Fielding had obviously expanded his mercantile operation to carry a more streamlined assortment of housewares, many of which reflected his ability to procure high end products from England through his trade ships.  James Winn’s account with the Lewis store in that year shows purchases of a set of 10 glass tumblers, creamware plates, soup spoons, brass sconces and amazingly, a “turkey stript” which is not a reference to poultry but more likely to a striped Turkish rug, which would have been an exceedingly hard thing to find in 18th century Virginia.  While the Lewis store seemed to be catering to its urban clientele, they were also carrying that ubiquitous assortment of odds and ends that changed week to week.  On the same day that Winn purchased his striped Turkish rug, he also bought a ladies’ hat and 12 pounds of coffee.

ms 109 excerpt

An excerpt of James Winn’s account with Fielding Lewis, showing his purchase of “turkey stript”

The surviving accounts also show that Betty was a shopper of her time, picking up a thing or two on every outing, debating what would be useful to her, and what might come in handy down the road when it was no longer available in the shops.  By the end of the 18th century, Callender & Henderson was the primary general mercantile store in Fredericksburg, while Andrew Parks ran a shop selling luxury goods and housewares.  Betty Lewis did business with both.  From October of 1796 through January of 1797, Betty purchased sugar cones, a purple shawl, and quite a few pieces of nice fabric from Mr. Parks, as well as “1 wire sifter” which was noted on the account to be from Baltimore, as all good wire sifters should be.[6]  Betty’s purchases with Callender & Henderson in 1794 ranged from snuff to limes, turpentine to mustard, grammar lesson books to molasses.[7]  An account with the same store in 1796 showed what items Betty purchased on each shopping trip.  On January 5, she procured both a pair of shoes and Spanish Brown pigment for paint.  On May 26, she came away with a cask of cut nails and molasses.  And on June 27, Betty had a banner day at the shops, purchasing a dozen buttons and 2 barrels of pickled herring.[8]

ms 856 excerpt

An excerpt of Betty Lewis’s account with Callender & Henderson, showing a range of purchases in 1796.

Back here in our modern world, suddenly feeling very reminiscent of the 18th century, I myself recently bought eggs from the barber shop, toilet paper from a local restaurant and yogurt from the butcher.  All odd sources to our minds, but Betty Lewis wouldn’t have batted an eye.  You buy what you can find where you can find it, and if you can’t get what you need, change the plan.  Did Betty go out on June 27, 1796 with the intention of buying two barrels of pickled herring? I highly doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that the Lewis household had fish for dinner that night, even though the menu may have originally called for game hens.

[1] Hodge, Christina J. Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America. Cambridge University Press, 2014; pp. 122.

[2] Martin, Ann Smart. “Commercial Space as Consumption Arena: Retail Stores in Early Virginia.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 8, 2000, pp. 204. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514414. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hodge, pp. 130.

[5] William Potter in Account with John Lewis, 1744.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 102.

[6] Betty Lewis in Account with Andrew Parks, October, 1796 – January, 1797.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 426.

[7] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

[8] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 856.

I Spy: Sewing

Sewing was an important and necessary skill that all girls in the 18th century learned from a young age.  A family’s clothing, bed and table linens, and other items made of fabric were in constant need of repair. These repairs and other sewing tasks were considered women’s work. Along with practical applications, sewing skills included fancier needlework used to make decorative luxuries.

To showcase these artistic needlework skills, girls and young women made samplers. One tool used to make such samplers was a special embroidery hook called a tambour hook. One of these hooks was found by archaeologists in the remains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm. Young Betty Washington probably used this special tool, made of a bone handle and a portion of a steel hook, to add decorative touches to fine needlework projects.

Tambour Hook

Tambour hook used for neddlework excavated by archaeologists from the reamains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Using the picture and list below to find sewing-related artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm!​ Click on the image to enlarge.

Sewing I Spy

Sewing tools

Can you find these artifacts?

  • 3 gold military buttons
  • 2 ‘hook & eye’ hooks
  • 6 thimbles
  • A black button with a star
  • 3 pair of scissors
  • 7 button blanks (one hole)
  • 13 buckles
  • 2 sets of cufflinks
  • A wooden tambour hook handle

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

Toys Board (27)cropped darker shadows

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

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

Porcelain Doll Parts and Tea Set:

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

Marbles:

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

Dice:

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

Other Games:

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

Can you find these artifacts in the photo above?

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

*Bonus- A lost monkey arm

Summer Stinks!: The Odoriferous 18th Century

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.

Virginia is a hot place during summer and even for much of autumn.  While we once wrote about how people in pre-air conditioned colonial times dealt with the heat in a previous blog post aptly titled, “The heat is beyond your conception”, I want to talk today about another bane of colonial Americans’ comfort in summer,  namely smells and particularly body odor.

Today, history comes scent-free.  We must study the past without using smell, one of our main senses, and, as we will soon see, that is probably for the better.

An 18th century summer smelled of human and animal waste, garbage, stagnant water, and body odor.  These odors permeated every breath taken by colonists, whether very rich or very poor.  Noted philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once complained about the aroma of “stagnant urine” the hung about the Palais Royal in summer.[1]

How did colonists attempt to deal with the ubiquitous human stink before deodorant and regular bathing?  What were the deodorizing options available to the likes of George or Betty Washington? What could they have possibly used to keep the dreaded stink of summer away or, at the very least, subdued?

Bathing

We’ve previously written about bathing in the 18th century in detail but toward the end of the 1700s, baths, or the immersion of the body in a tub of water, were becoming more popular with more affluent Americans.  As the intrepid Elizabeth Drinker wrote of her first experience in a shower, “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett [sic] all over at once for 28 years past”. [2] The wealthy tended to bathe more because they also had the luxury of milder soaps. Generally, the main soap available at the time was not normally used in washing the body because it was made of harsh cleaning agents.[3]  Additionally, few experts advised taking more than one bath a month for health reasons.[4]  There was actually a widespread fear that bathing could make you sick. Most importantly, very few people could devote time or energy to the immense task of fetching water and warming it for a bath.  People’s daily washing consisted of a splash of cold water from a basin usually in the kitchen or bedchamber.[5]  They washed the bits that showed namely the face, the feet, and the hands.  This daily washing helped George or Betty start off their day smelling fresh but it didn’t last long in the brutal Virginia summer.

Wash Basin in Bedchamber

Wash basin in Historic Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin

Close up of the wash basin in Kenmore’s bedchamber.

Wash Basin Pitcher

Pitcher that goes with bedchamber wash basin.

Clothing

In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey advised brother, Edward, who was preparing to come to Virginia, that “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible . . . 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.”  Light and thin fabrics made of natural fibers like cotton and linen absorbed sweat from the body and dried relatively quickly.  Additionally, lighter undergarments could be washed more regularly than the outer garments which usually weren’t laundered.

Toward the end of the 1700s, a weekly changing of underwear was recommended and more frequent cleanings lead to more incentives for perfuming washtubs, chests and drawers.[6]  Besides laundering, people also infused garments with a lovely fragrance or sewed up sweet smelling sachets to put in their pockets.

The English Husewife contains an interesting recipe to perfume gloves that involved soaking them in a mixture of angelica water, rose water, cloves, ambergris, musk, lignum aloes, benzoin, and calamus.[7] Meanwhile, The Toilet of Flora provided instruction on using violet and cypress powder to make sachets that could be secreted in a ladies pocket.[8]

Even ornamentation and jewelry didn’t escape the quest to hide the stench of summer.   Recipes for perfumed chaplets and medals created a smelly paste substance that could be concealed in jeweled smelling boxes or worn as wax decorative medal.[9] Similarly, little sponges soaked in essential oils could be hidden in jewelry to give the wearer a sweet aroma.

Perfuming

As shown by all this perfuming of jewelry, clothes, and clothing storage, perfumes and waters were the most common way people in the 18th century tried to cover the stench of summer.  Perfumes are strong concentrations of scents that last for a long time while waters are the more diluted eaux de toilette or eaux de cologne.  All were available for purchase in colonial stores for those of means.[10]  Additionally, there were dozens of handy books that supplied many easy to follow recipes for various lovely smelling perfumes and waters.  The Toilet of Flora had about 6 perfume and 60+ recipes for waters.[11]

Toilet of Flora frontispice

Frontispiece and title page of a 1779 edition of “The Toilet of Flora”.

Before continuing, we should define some terms to help navigate the confusing and complex world of perfumery.

PERFUME is made of essential oils or an aroma compound as well as fixatives and solvents.  ESSENTIAL OILS are oils from a plant usually extracted through distillation.  Compared to fatty oils, they are lighter and tend to evaporate without a trace. A perfume usually contains 15 to 20% pure essence.  A perfume’s FIXATIVE helps the scent last. Today, we use synthetic fixatives but, in the 18th century, popular fixatives were benzoin (aka gum of Benjamin) labdanum, storax, ambergris (basically whale vomit), castoreum (the castor sacs of a mature North American beaver), and musk (the glandular secretions of the musk deer).   Lastly, a perfume’s SOLVENT dilutes the perfume oil. The most common solvent being some type of alcohol/water mix but coconut oil or liquid waxes like jojoba oil can be substituted. Perfume is very strong and lasts for about five to eight hours.

EAU DE TOILETTE is light-scented cologne with a high alcohol content, 5 to 15% perfume essence and is usually scented with something floral or fruity like lavender, lilac, orange or lemon.  An eau de toilette has a light scent that lasts around 3 to 4 hours. EAU DE COLOGNE is composed of two to four percent perfume oils in alcohol and water.  The first eau de cologne was made in Cologne, Germany in 1709 and contained many different citrus oils.  An eau de cologne has a light scent that only lasts a couple of hours.

One particularly perfume recommended in The Toilet of Flora contains musk, cloves, lavender, civet and ambergris.[12] While it likely smelled nice, it was probably expensive to make so would not have been an item produced for everyone.  Nor did some think that perfume was appropriate for a woman of good repute to wear at the time. They instead recommended eau de rose or eau de lavender as a more appropriate alternative.   As one guide stated, “In no circumstances should real perfume be applied to the skin.  Only aromatic toilet waters – distilled rose, plantain, bean, or strawberry water – and eau de cologne were permissible”.[13]

Perfume Bottle

Portion of an 18th century perfume bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Needless to say, while perfume and waters masked some smells, they were not viable deodorizers for many who couldn’t afford the luxury.  George Washington, being a practicing gentleman, probably used an eau de toilette in the morning when washing.  It is believed that George regularly purchased bottles of scent from Dr. William Hunter’s apothecary in Newport, Rhode Island, the forerunner of today’s Caswell-Massey.  Of the 20 scents Hunter offered, George settled on Number Six and even bought some bottles as gifts.  Number Six is still available for purchase today so that even you can smell like George!  Betty probably used an eau de toilette or scented soap in the morning. It would have been inappropriate for a young lady to wear a perfume, but she may have worn it on special occasions as a married woman.

No matter if they used a scent, laundered clothing, or bathe, the fact remains that an 18th century summer just stunk.  People tried to mask it with whatever concoctions they could invent but it took another 100 years before deodorant and antiperspirant were invented to save humanity from the smell of itself during the hot humid summer months.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1986: 27.

[2] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.

[3] “Wash-Balls” in The Toilet of Flora, London, 1779: 199-207.

[4] Corbin, 178.

[5] David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, Daily Life in the Early American Republic, 1790-1820: Creating a New Nation, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2004: 46.

[6] Corbin, 179.

[7] G.M., The English Huswife, J.B., London, 1623: 142.

[8] Toilet of Flora, 196.

[9] Toilet of Flora, 6

[10] Nivins and Warwick advertisement, Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), Apr 4, 1766, pg 4, col1; https://research.history.org/CWDLImages/VA_GAZET/Images/PD/1766/0021hi.jpg

[11] Toilet of Flora, 50-114

[12] Toilet of Flora, 57.

[13] Corbin, 183.

Lecture – Foodways in the 18th Century [Video]

On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, Park Ranger Deborah Lawton of George Washington Birthplace National Monument presented a lecture titled “Foodways in the 18th Century” that explored the new dishes and changing tastes of the time.

Join us on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 for “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia” with Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation. Dave will explore some of the aspects of colonial waste disposal and put these practices into a larger context that in turn may make modern persons question their own sense of normalcy. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit kenmore.org.

Rooms at Rest

Visitors to Kenmore on the evening of April 13th will have the opportunity to see the Dining Room in a very different light, both literally and figuratively.  In preparation for our evening program Letters from the Past, we will be putting the room “at rest,” an arrangement that would have been very familiar to the Lewises during their time in the house, but may look a little odd to us in the present day.

As we have discussed on several previous occasions, household furnishings in the 18th century were thought of as completely mobile.  Almost nothing had a permanent location.  If the large dining table was needed in the Passage for a casual summer supper, then it was moved there.  If the sofa was a favored reading place, it could be moved in front of a cozy fireplace on a cold night, or it might be placed directly in front of an open door to catch a breeze on a hot summer day.  Furniture was even constructed with this mobility in mind.  Tables were drop leaf or tilt-top, so that they could fit through doorways, and could be placed flat against a wall.  Castors were added to the feet of some pieces to aid in their movement from one room to another.  And of course, all of this movement was aided by the fact that gentry households had small armies of enslaved labor to see to it.

And when a room was not in use (or at rest), most of its furnishings were pushed against the walls, leaving the center of the room open and available for any spur of the moment need.  We are used to seeing beautifully appointed rooms, like Kenmore’s famous Dining Room, perfectly staged with a table set with silver and china, the chairs arranged around it, the sideboards loaded with auxiliary glassware and decanters, all at the ready to serve a formal meal.  In reality, these entertaining rooms were probably very rarely in this state of readiness.

Kenmore's Dining Room at Rest

Kenmore’s Dining Room at rest.

On any given day, the Lewis Dining Room was largely empty.  The 15 dining chairs listed in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory were lined up against the walls.  The two drop leaf dining tables, one oval and one square, would have their leaves down, and would be lined up with the chairs.  All of the silver, china and glassware would be carefully locked away in the room’s closet.  The empty cellarette and wine cooler would be shoved under the bare sideboard.  Anyone passing through the room could take advantage of the empty space in the middle of it to admire the Brussels carpet in its entirety, and to view the dazzling plasterwork ceiling from directly under its center.  While a room was at rest, the open space could be used for any variety of purposes, from hanging laundry to having lessons for children in the family, but by and large it would have simply remained closed up and quiet, especially at Kenmore, where the cost of heating such a cavernous room was a real consideration.

Often it was necessary to immediately transition a room to its resting state following a formal meal, such as in preparation for dancing (as we show in our annual holiday Twelfth Night at Kenmore performance) or for an entertainment, such as a musical performance or a dramatic reading.  Guests might leave the room temporarily to share a drink in the Drawing Room, while house slaves cleared the remains of dinner and moved the furniture, but they might also simply pick up their own chairs and move them out of the way while the switch to entertainment mode took place.  As an English traveler in America noted in his diary, while he and other guests watched, the servants “in the manner of the country, carried away the table when they carried away the cloth, and drove loiterers away with an army of brooms…the men had previously carried their chairs to the wall, the women to a window.”[1]

During the Letters from the Past event, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy a candle-lit dramatic reading in Kenmore’s Dining Room, just as their 18th century counterparts might have done.  The room will be at rest, allowing our visitors the chance to sit directly under the plasterwork ceiling and view the space in an entirely different, but very typical for the 18th century, way.

In honor of National Siblings Day, Letters from the Past will read between the lines of George Washington and Betty Washington Lewis’ personal correspondence. Only a small portion of the letters between the siblings still exists. This program will focus on a series of seven letters written in 1789 and 1790 in which brother and sister grieve the loss of their mother, and bicker about the things all siblings bicker about. Not sure eighteenth-century English is your favorite style of reading? We will have twenty-first century “translators” to help us put all of it into some modern perspective.

This dramatic presentation takes place at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, April 13 from 5:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m.  A reception with light refreshments will be held from 5:00 – 5:30 p.m., and the program will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17.  Reservations are encouraged as space is limited, but walk-ins are welcome.

For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 (New York, 1809). Vol. 1, Pg. 327.  As quoted in Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy.  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 (New York, 1989), Pg. 80.

The Hazards of Winter in Washington’s Day

dsc_0042

Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm after a December snow in 2018.

Many people find winter miserable. It can be hard dealing with freezing temperatures, inclement weather, and long nights.  With much of the nation experiencing record-breaking cold and windchills today and the current temperature at George Washington’s Ferry Farm as we publish this post only 20 degrees Fahrenheit. it may not feel like it but our modern conveniences negate some of the brutality of the season. Colonial Americans did not have these luxuries.  For them, winter was not just difficult but deadly.

OUTDOORS

Winters outdoors in the 18th century were dangerous for many reasons that we take for granted.  Modern infrastructure and weather forecasting have reduced the dangers of winter for us today.

Colonial Americans did not have a permanent network of solid roads and sidewalks they could rely upon.  Roads and walking paths were often dirt and subject to seasonal change.  When the weather turned icy and snowy, the road into town could disappear while a well-worn path through a forest became much more perilous.

Furthermore, lakes and ponds vanished under layers of snow, which gave the impression of a solid surface and created the illusion of a quick but deadly shortcut.  It was common for people and sleds to venture across the frozen water sometimes with lethal results as newspaper reports show.

Williamsburg, January 28. The Weather has been so excessive bad, for some Time past, that there has been scarce any passing the Rivers, for Ice, or travelling for Snow.  And we have Accounts from several Places, of Persons being frozen to Death, and others drowned, by attempting to cross the Rivers.  No Post has come from the Northward these 6 weeks; and we may reasonably conclude, that as the Weather is so severe here, it is worse there. – Virginia Gazette, January 28, 1738

For the last two days the weather has been severely cold. On Thursday night the Mercury in Fahrenheit’s Thermometer was 26 degrees below freezing point; and yesterday morning the Delaware river was frozen, so that many persons crossed on the ice.  Nearly opposite to Spruce Street it broke under a young man, and he fell into the water.  With great difficulty he was saved, after being nearly exhausted with the cold. — Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

gazetteoftheusandphiladelphiadailyadvertiser2cdecember242c1796

Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

A heartbreaking example of drowning after falling through ice happened in 1793 when a group of cousins tried to cross what was thought to be a solid frozen river in their sleigh.  The ice broke, taking all under the water.  Assistance was rendered by people on the shore but only one person could be saved.

gazetteoftheunited-states.28new-york5bn.y.5d292c24march1790

Gazette of the United-States, New York, NY, March 24, 1790

Fluctuations in temperatures, unpredictable by the rudimentary weather forecasting available at the time, were also very dangerous.  Many underestimated just how quickly freezing temperatures could take their toll and suffered frostbite or succumbed to exposure while trying to carry on with daily life.  On one particularly cold February day in New York, frigid temperatures even froze wine and beer.   In Boston, during the same cold snap, “two or three persons were found frozen to death the beginning of this week, and … many people in the country had their ears and cheeks frostbitten going to public worship.”

frozenbeer

Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

INDOORS

Indoors, dealing with freezing temperatures in the 18th century was a constant struggle made more difficult because fire was the only source of heat.  Fire in the open hearth was not efficient, consumed copious amounts of fuel, and only provided warmth within a small area. Almost 90% of the heat produced by a fire in a traditional colonial fireplace escaped up through the chimney. Not only that, but chimneys were drafty, letting in cold air.  This ineffectiveness meant that a family’s living space became restricted and fires were kept going almost constantly.

The quest for warmth lead to many house fires.  The Washington family even experienced a house fire first-hand sometime in the 1740s at Ferry Farm. A small fire began near the fireplace in the hall back room and did enough damage to ensure major repairs. The upper floor would have been well smoked and whole parts of the first floor ceiling were ruined. The home was damaged, but not lost, and repairs ensued.  Archaeological evidence of this fire includes a root cellar filled with fire related ash, burned artifacts, and fire-damaged plaster.

Although it is unreliable, there is some documentary evidence, of a fire at Ferry Farm in a letter to George Washington from Robert Davis dated May 25, 1795.  Written 55 years after the fact, Davis’s memories are interesting but contradict the physical evidence found by archaeologists. He wrote…

“I am not sure but I was once a play Mate of yours many years ago, was Colonel [Augustine] Washington who lived on Rappahannock & opposite to Fredericksburgh your Father, whos Estate Joined a Plantation of Mr Anthony Strathers on the River side—from Mr Strather, a Mr Robt Shadden had a Store house, with him I lived as a young Assistant in the Store, Colo. Washington was very kind and indeed a second Father to me and I Remember it well, that it give me a very sore Heart that on a Christmass Eve, his great house was burned down & that he was Obliged with his good family to go and live in the Kitchen.”

A more contemporary letter hints at the fire as well but provides no real details other than some sort of fire happened.  Writing to Augustine Washington on October 9, 1741, Richard Yates opens his letter with “In the midst of your late calamity wch. you suffer’d by fire, for which I am sincerely concern’d…”[1]

While the Washingtons’ fire was apparently not a newsworthy event at the time, colonial-era newspapers carried plenty of thrilling details about many other fires for their readers.

For example in 1774, the Governor’s house at Fort George in New York City, caught fire and the Virginia Gazette, although far from New York, published stories of a narrow escape out a second story window, lost jewels and valuables, and the death of 16-year-old “servant girl” Elizabeth Garret.

Along with the increased danger of house fires, the cold also made fighting out of control fires much more difficult Another Virginia Gazette story discussed efforts to battle fires in freezing temperatures on an evening in Boston. The Gazette reported, “In this cold season were several alarms of fire breaking out which were happily extinguished before any considerable damage was done, excepting one…”  This was the joiner’s shop of Mr. Benjamin Sumner, “which before the inhabitants could be collected, was all on fire.”  People worked to extinguish the fire “notwithstanding the uncommon severity of the weather, which was so cold that the water thrown from the engines upon those building, that were in the most danger, instantly congealed into ice.”  Despite the difficulty with the extreme cold, the fire was put out, many houses were saved, no one died, and only a few people had their hands and feet frozen.

bostonfire

Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

Some were not so fortunate.  The same newspaper dispatch about the Boston fire noted that on a December night in 1772 Michael Law of Putney lost not only his house but four children.

twelfth night 2019 for blog (2)

Snow begins to fall on Historic Kenmore on the evening of January 12, 2019.

Winter has always been a difficult time for people. The constant battles with the cold and lethal dangers of the season were in the forefront of colonial Americans’ minds.  As Mary Palmer Tyler reminisced in the 19th century about the brutality of winter in her youth in the 18th century, “Truly the people of this age know little of the horrors of winter.” [PDF]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Richard Yates to Augustine Washington, October 9, 1741, printed in Moncure D. Conway, Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (New York, 1892), pgs 68-69.