From Servants to Sovereigns, Lousy Hair Days (Part I)

When Mr. Gilchrist [the hairdresser] opened my aunt’s head, …its effluvias [bad odor] affected my sense of smelling disagreeably, which stench however, did not surprise me when I observed the great variety of materials employed in raising the dirty fabric. False locks to supply the great deficiency of native hair, pomatum with profusion, greasy wool to bolster up the adopted locks, and gray powder to conceal at once age and dirt, and all these caulked together by pins of an indecent length and corresponding color.  When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas [small insects] running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I …asked …[Mr. Gilchrist] whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body?  He assured me that they could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter which… caught and clogged [them]… and prevented their migration.  Here I observed my aunt to be in a good deal of confusion, and she told me that she would not detain me any longer from better company; for …the operations of the toilette were not a very agreeable spectacle to bystanders, but that they were an unavoidable evil; for, after all, if one did not dress a little like other people, one should be pointed at as one went along.

-August, 1768 London Magazine. Quoted in Corson Fashions in Hair: The First five Thousand Years, pp. 337-338.

You’ve probably heard of – or even used – the term “lousy” to refer to an unpleasant situation, but were you aware that it refers to the state of being infested with lice? “Louse” is the singular form of the plural “lice.” The continued popularity of terms such as “lousy” and “nitpicking” reflects the enduring legacy we’ve inherited from a long history of human lice infestations.

Louse

A louse as depicted in Hooke’s Micrographia. Credit: National Library of Wales. Public Domain.

Lice feast upon the blood from their reluctant hosts, and their rapacious bites make the scalp itch incessantly. During the colonial era, desperate hosts combated these voracious pests by cutting their hair short or shaving it off altogether!

In the 1700s, the most popular hair styles for adults combined greasy pomade with by a liberal (and frequent) application of hair powder (often wheat flour-based). The resulting impenetrable pasty blend of lard and starch provided an irresistible condiment for pests of all kinds. Hair thus embellished demanded careful maintenance. The frequency of hair care depended upon individual preference, availability of a trusted hairdresser, the presence of pests, and how the hairstyle’s veneer of pomade-and-powder responded to the weather (hot weather and rain, for example, prove devastating).

Combating pests was so stressful that many found wearing a wig (or ‘peruke’) less troublesome than maintaining one’s own hair. Wigs can be removed, cleaned, boiled, combed, and have requisite unguents applied by a hairdresser without the wearers being involved. A cleaned and dressed peruke was presented to its owner without the time and discomfort associated with having these procedures applied directly to his scalp.

Until the later decades of the 1700s, wearing wigs was essential for most fine gentlemen. Women might wear wigs if some illness caused the loss or thinning of their own hair, but wearing them as fashion accessories was frowned upon for ladies during the 17th and much of the 18th centuries. Well-heeled ladies grew their own hair long and – especially in the final decades of the 1700s – piled it ever higher upon the top of their head. Architecture was even influenced by the tall styles of both men and women, as doorways became higher or arched to accommodate soaring headdresses.

Whether part of a wig or confined to one’s own locks, prolific hair was fashionable and wool pads increased their towering heights dramatically. Purchasing separate lengths of curled hair to augment feminine hairstyles was especially popular among refined ladies. Thomas Jefferson purchased such curls for an esteemed female family member from a Williamsburg wig shop in 1770.

Laborers, however, required practical hair styles that could withstand the strenuous environmental conditions and exertions of their physical tasks. The 18th century hairstyles of dedicated workers reflected the minimal time they possessed to style and maintain their hairstyles. These people wore their own hair in easy-to-maintain styles: under most circumstances they simply couldn’t afford the time, products, or talented hairdressers required of fancy hairstyles.

The greasy pomade-and-powder enhanced styles of refined men and ladies attracted dust in addition to insects. Scalps were tickled by crawling insects, plagued by biting lice, and irritated by an accumulation of products: they itched! Men could reach under their wig for a quick scratch or, if alone, could remove their wig for a well-earned scrape. For those men and women who wore their own pomaded hair, a clumsy, direct manual scratching by hand disturbed their inflexible tresses. Head scratchers (or grattoirs), such as the one shown below, allowed people to itch their scalp while minimizing the damage done to their elaborate styles, stiffened as they are by layers of pomade and powder. The hairpins that festoon elaborate hairstyles also provided a means of relief: discretely shifting those hairpins back and forth across one’s scalp strategically satisfies itchy crowns. Of course, the lard-infused pomade attracted not only pore-clogging dust, but additional insatiable insects and even rodents.

ScratcherWithInset

This head scratcher, or ‘grattoir,’ allowed its owner to scratch their scalp without disturbing their stiff, pomade-and-powder-encrusted hairstyle. It features a wooden handle and an ivory hand (inset), a popular motif in these essential tools.

Bugs were such a fact of life that etiquette about the manner in which to deal with these pests while under the scrutiny of company was carefully considered. ‘Pest protocols’ were included in The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a conduct manual written in the late 16th century that young George Washington copied word-for-word as part of his gentlemanly education during his time at Ferry Farm. There were 110 rules, and Washington carefully numbered each one. Dealing with those ever present vermin infesting bodies was number 13 on his edition:

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks etc. in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the clothes or companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

From servants to sovereigns, blood-sucking head lice were a nuisance for all. Speaking of itchy crowns, King George III encountered a louse on his dinner plate! He blamed the kitchen staff for this uninvited dinner guest.

Is this Your Louse

“Is this Your Louse?” King George III queries a member of the kitchen staff after discovering a louse on his dinner plate. Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. Lewis Walpole Library.

The eggs of these pests, called nits, are really small. Nitpicking is tiresome. Fine-toothed combs, just like those found at Ferry Farm (see photo), enjoy millennia-long application in the battle against these parasites worldwide.  But, some cautioned that combing hair caused headaches if done too frequently! Combing once every week or two was ideal. Between fear of water, ineffective soaps, and an aversion to combing, hairstyles might go weeks or even months without being combed.

FF-Combs

These bone grooming comb fragments are from Ferry Farm. Their delicate teeth are missing because they have broken off and decayed over time.

Keeping hair short, or shaving it altogether, was an effective deterrent against these pests.  Unlike one’s own hair, wigs could be boiled and baked to ensure lice and their eggs (‘nits’) are destroyed.  However, without proper maintenance, wig hair could host just as many pests as natural hair. In 1664, Samuel Pepys was dismayed to discover that the brand new peruke he purchased was infested with nits and lice.

Hairstyle historian Maria Jedding-Gesterling claims that some desperate hirsute fashionistas tucked insect traps within their towering coiffures. Fabrics soaked in blood or honey lured hungry fleas into these pierced ivory traps. And for those people who had surrendered in the war against insects, wearing clothing that was flea colored provided a savvy strategy for hiding those intimate, tiny bedfellows. Flea-colored clothing became popular in the mid-1770s, even among the Court at Versailles.

Is your head itching? Mine is!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

For young scholars/general interest:

Fisher, Leonard Everett. 2000 [1965]. The Wigmakers. Benchmark Books, New York.

Galke, Laura. 2015. Wigs, 1715-1785. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 1, Pre-Colonial Times through the American Revolution, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Mary D. Doering, pp. 301-303. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Huey, Lois Miner. 2014. Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History. Millbrook Press, Minneapolis.

Hunt-Hurst, Patricia. Wigs, 1776-1819. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 2, The Federal Era through the 19th Century, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Patricia Hunt-Hurst, pp. 267-268. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Trasko, Mary.  1994.  Daring Do’s:  A History of Extraordinary Hair.  Flammarion, Paris.

Vincent, Susan J. 2009. The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Berg, New York.

 

For mature researchers:

Arnold, Janet.  1970.  Perukes and Periwigs.  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.

Bristol, Douglas Walter, Jr. Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Brown, Kathleen M. 2009. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Corson, Richard.  2012 [1965].  Fashions in Hair:  The First Five Thousand Years.  Peter Owen, London.

Cox, J. Stevens.  1965.  The Wigmaker’s Art in the 18th Century.  George S. MacManu Company.  Philadelphia.

Cruse, Jen. 2007. The Comb: Its History and Development. Robert Hale, London.

Durbin, Gail.  1984.  Wig, Hairdressing and Shaving Bygones. Shire Publications, Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks.

Festa, Lynn.  2005.  Personal Effects:  Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century.  Eighteenth-Century Life.  29(2):47-90.

Galke, Laura. 2018. Tressed for Success: Male Hair Care and Wig Hair Curlers at George Washington’s Childhood Home. Winterthur Portfolio 52(2):1-51.

Jedding-Gesterling, Maria

1988 Regency, Rococo and Louis XVI (1715-1789).  In Hairstyles: A Cultural History of Fashions in Hair from Antiquity up to the Present Day, edited by Maria Jedding-Geserling.   Hans Schwarzkopf, Hamburg.  Pp. 119-148.

Kern, Susan. 2010. The Jeffersons at Shadwell.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Kwass, Michael.  2006.  Big Hair: A Wig history of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.  The American Historical Review 111(3):631-659.

Moore, William. 1780. The Art of Hair-Dressing and Making it Grow Fast, Together With a Plain and Easy Method of Preserving it; With Several Useful Recipes, Etc.  Printed for the Author by J. Salmon, in Stall-Street, Bath.

Perry, Gill.  2004.  Staging Gender and “Hairy Signs:” Representing Dorothy Jordan’s Curles.  Eighteenth-Century Studies 38(1):145-163.

Pointon, Marcia.  1993.  Hanging the Head:  Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Richardson and Urquhart.  1778.  The New London Toilet: or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Simple and Useful Receipts for Preserving and Improving Beauty.  Printed for Richardson and Urquhart, London.

Sherrow, Victoria.  2006. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

Stewart, James. 1782.  Plocacosmos:  or the Whole Art of Hair Dressing; Wherein is Contained, Ample Rules for the Young Artizan.  Printed for the Author, No. 12, Old Broad-Street, London.

Warwick, Edward, Henry C. Pitz, and Alexander Wyckoff.  1965.  Early American Dress:  The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods.  Bonanza Books, New York.

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The Tale of the “Black Dogg”

FerryFarmFF10-273-50-1552.small

The heavily worn coin, known as a “black dogg” and pictured above, is a unique archaeological find at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. It was originally circulated in the French Caribbean and certainly traveled some distance to find its way to British Virginia.  The coin may have traveled this distance in the pocket of a sailor whose ship first visited the West Indies, as the Caribbean islands were known in the 1700s, and then docked at Fredericksburg to unload its cargo.  Fredericksburg was a port town in the 18th century and marked the furthest point up the Rappahannock River that small ocean-going vessels could travel before encountering rapids.  These sailing vessels were a familiar sight to the Washington family as they looked down upon the river from their home atop the bluff (Read this blog post about a Fredericksburg ship’s voyage around the Atlantic in 1732).

The coin’s poor condition is a tribute in part to how popular it was as currency. Some black doggs featured a high pewter content. Their darker color, when compared to other coinage of the time, is how they came to be called black dogs or black doggs in the British colonies. British colonists used the term generally to refer to non-British, small change coinage that came from the West Indies.  It was not a complimentary term, and these coins were typically the lowest value available.

While the French government provided coinage for its Caribbean colonies, hard currency proved difficult to come by for these islanders. French Caribbean coins such as our black dogg were widely circulated. An amalgam of copper and silver alloy coin bits, these debased silver coins provided much needed small change for remote colonies.

A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America (1755) by William Richard Seale

“A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America” (1755) by William Richard Seale. Credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

In 1779, France issued a coin for their Caribbean islands featuring a crowned “C” in relief on the front. The reverse side was blank, and individual islands often elected to stamp them with initials emblematic of a particular island.

FerryFarm10-273-50-1552

The black dogg’s front featuring a barely visible crowned “C” in relief.

Although Ferry Farm’s black dogg is in poor condition given both its many years in the soil and its popularity while in use, the “SV” counter stamp is clear, and refers to the island of Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent was a prize the British Crown enjoyed after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763. However in 1779, the year this coin was made, the French regained control of the island for a few years. Saint Vincent was eventually returned to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, which ended the hostilities between allies France and Spain and their adversary Britain that had resulted from the American War of Independence.

FerryFarm10-273-50-1552-Black Dogg

The black dogg’s reverse featuring a stamped “SV” for Saint Vincent.

At the same time, this coin may be a counterfeit produced in England. Birmingham produced many counterfeit coins, which were sometimes referred to as “stampe” or “stampee.” Since a counterfeit coin possessed some silver content, it provided some value for its users, but it was not minted by a government.  Caribbean islanders were so desperate for hard currency that even coins that were easily recognized as counterfeit circulated freely, much to the dismay of colonial governments.

Correspondence of the time occasionally refers to people buying “a dogs worth” of a given product. In this context, “dog” referred to the currency used, not our four-legged friends. A dogs worth would represent a very small quantity. For poor people and the enslaved –  whose commerce involved trading or purchasing items of low value – coins worth a fraction of a pence were popular indeed.

Although the black dogg coin found at Ferry Farm was of little value in the 1700s, for us today, it is an excellent representation of the far-flung British empire and of a thriving global network of trade that even reached Fredericksburg and the Washington family at Ferry Farm.

If you’d like to learn more about 18th century coins and the colonial economy, watch the lecture “Credit and Coinage: The Economy of Colonial Virginia”.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

Lecture – Credit and Coinage: The Economy in Colonial Virginia [Video]

On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Cash Arehart, Site Supervisor of the Capitol Building at Colonial Williamsburg presented a lecture titled “Credit and Coinage: The Economy of Colonial Virginia.” Using Kenmore’s Fielding Lewis as an example, he discussed currency, credit, the tobacco economy, and the Transatlantic trade and how they all converged to make Col. Lewis a successful and prominent businessman in Fredericksburg and Virginia a successful colony within the British Empire.

Join us at the library on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 for “Curiosities of Kenmore,” when Meghan Budinger, the George Washington Foundation’s curator, will talk about some of the most exciting and unusual objects in Kenmore’s collection and that are rarely seen by the public. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit kenmore.org or livesandlegaciesblog.org.

How the Enlightenment Transformed Cats into Pets

We look at our cats today as the furriest, purriest companions known to humankind. But most cats in colonial America worked for their status as the designated house cat.  It wasn’t all lazy days trying to squeeze into the smallest box possible or snoozing in that tiny sliver of sunlight on the living room floor. I’m a proud companion of a seven year-old fat cat named Jeffrey, who spends much of his time doing these very things.

Jeffery 1

Jeffrey in his favorite spot- the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Jeffery probably would not have enjoyed being a working cat in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, according to archaeologists; many civilizations have treated cats as companions for at least 8,000 years! But cats were often expected to serve a practical purpose, too. Along with companionship, cats were expected to work at jobs like pest control and to even serve as weapons.  This extreme version of work was proposed in an early German explosives and artillery manual that depicts a weaponized cat and bird set loose into an enemy town.

Weaponized Animals

From a “Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses” by Franz Helm (1584). Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 109.

I expect neither pest control nor explosive assaults from Jeffrey, however. The only thing he “attacks” is the lawn and, more often than not, cardboard boxes.

Jeffery 3   Jeffery 2

Cats as Work Animals
For thousands of years, cats accompanied sailors to sea, including European sailors travelling to the colonies. Rats carrying fleas and disease are common stowaways on ships. As a result, cats were — and still are — used as pest control during sea travel.  Even today, sailors have “ship’s cats” to control vermin onboard their vessels. Not only do they prevent disease and destruction of foodstuffs but they keep vermin from damaging ropes and electrical wiring, which could prove CATastrophic (heh heh heh) if not for ship’s cats.

Winston and Blackie

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stops ‘Blackie’, ship’s cat of the HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing over to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Similarly, when Europeans first established their colonies, survival rates were much lower in the beginning due to famine and disease, so pest control was important on land as well as at sea.   Settlers often kept pragmatic, but friendly relationships with cats in order to keep vermin at bay.

Two Cats by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

“Two Cats” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (18th century) depicts cats doing what they were expected to do, which was to kill disease carriers and some birds, like rats, carried disease vectors or could endanger crops. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.

The Enlightenment
We humans of course established bonds with our friendly working critters and some cats were adopted as what we now call “pets”. The 18th century was a transformative time in pet ownership as we have shown with dogs in another blog post. It had not always been acceptable to keep a pet in European countries. The luxuries that our pets enjoy today would be inconceivable to a person before the Age of Enlightenment. Outfits, daycare, even hotels are now available to our furry friends.  In earlier times, pets were deemed wasteful because keeping them devoted resources to an animal that was neither food nor used for its labor. It was even considered sinful to squander resources on non-working animals. Pets were a luxury saved for the bourgeoisie.

During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of their own sensibilities and opened up to a range of new philosophical ideas. There was a shift from the church being the main authority to the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge was reason.  People who were newly questioning authority also undoubtedly questioned why they could not devote resources and attention to an animal for no other reason than enjoyment and companionship.  With this attitude change, animals became viewed more as a non-human member of the household and were eventually valued in their own right. Cats became pets.

“Favourites”
We can see the growing prominence of cats as pets in 18th century poetry, paintings, and songs.

One such poem by Thomas Gray published in 1748 was called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The next-to-last stanza describes the tragic moment.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!

When Gray called the ill-fated cat “a Favourite,” he used an earlier term for “pet”.

European and American portraiture repeatedly depicted people with their pets and cats were common subjects both alone and with their human counterparts. Below, you can see two 18th century portraits of people interacting with their favorite cats.

“Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight” by Joseph Wright (c.1768) Credit: ©English Heritage, Kenwood.

As seen above, Joseph Wright took time to depict two small girls dressing up a kitten.  In children especially, the joy a companion animal brings was irresistible. This critter was undoubtedly a favorite and probably wasn’t expected to do much in the way of work.

Tea-totalism by Edward Bird

“Tea-totalism” by Edward Bird (1795). Credit: ©WAVE, www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk.

Above Edward Bird shows a woman enjoying her tea with her companion cat by her side. She even seems to allow the cat onto the table, which many people won’t allow their pets to do even today.

Finally, an 18th century Polish folk song called  “Wlazł kotek na płotek” or “The Kitten Climbed the Fence” was a very popular lullaby, describing a child and grandmother treating the kitten as a favorite by giving it milk when it climbs the fence into their yard.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, according to the Humane Society of the United States, over 97% of cat owners today consider their cats to be a family member or companion. In a way, nearly all domestic cats in America today are “favorites” rather than sources of labor.  The nature in which Americans treat their pets, whether cats, dogs, chickens, or goldfish, reflects the progression of change from the time of the Enlightenment and into present day. While academic research on such an abstract subject is difficult, it is easy to understand how cats progressed from worker and protector to best friend.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

When Washington Wanted to Know the Weather

Snowing at the Washington House

Snow falls on the Washington house at Ferry Farm in the midst of construction late last winter.

Winter is coming.  For the next three months or so, we face cold temperatures, blustery winds, chilly rains, occasional snow and ice storms, and regular frosts.  Living in the 21st century, accurate foreknowledge of unpleasant or dangerous weather is available at our fingertips.  It was decidedly different in the 18th century.

Just like we are today, people in the past were captivated by the weather and urgently wanted to know what it was going to do. George Washington was fascinated by the weather.  His preoccupation stemmed, of course, from his occupations as a surveyor, soldier, and planter.  Washington’s lifetime of diaries are filled with meteorological observations like this one from December 13, 1799.  “Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”  This particular weather observation by Washington would also prove to be his final diary entry.  He died about 24 hours later.  Given his passion for the weather, it actually seems quite fitting that among the man’s last documented words there would be a weather report.

Accurately predicting the weather certainly would have helped Washington in his surveying, soldiering, and planting and weather forecasting was not completely impossible in the 18th century.  People in Washington’s time had some primitive tools, skills, and knowledge that they could call upon to help them guess what the weather was about to do for a relatively brief amount of time within the limited geographic area around them.

Weather vanes were one common tool used by colonial Americans to help divine the weather.  The direction and intensity of the wind can indeed provide a general idea of weather ahead.  Breezes from the south typically bring warm temperatures and increased humidity.  Winds from the north can mean colder temperatures and drier air.  A sudden shift in the wind direction with strong gusts coming from the west may mean a storm is approaching.

Mount Vernon Weathervane

Weather vane atop the cupola at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson / Flickr.

Along with wind direction, early Americans also got an idea of what might happen with the weather simply by watching the sky.  Over the centuries, folk knowledge from this sky watching was distilled into weather lore, sayings meant to forecast the weather based on these observations of the local sky.  Indeed, some weather lore can be explained scientifically, is actually valid, and does provide an idea of what the weather will be for the short-term.

Let’s examine three example sayings (PDF)

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning

Red sky marks where high pressure is located. Dust and soot captured in the high pressure dome scatter more of the sunlight’s red wavelength while regular air molecules scatter sunlight’s blue wavelength.  An evening red sky in the west indicates an approaching high pressure bringing calm weather.  A red sky in the morning in the east means a high pressure has passed and a low pressure with unsettled weather is likely following behind.

Red in the Morning

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

When halo rings the moon
Rain’s approaching soon

At night, high thin cirrostratus clouds can create halos around the moon. These clouds forecast approaching rain.

When clouds look like black smoke
A wise man will put on his cloak

Thick clouds contain a lot of moisture which helps block sunlight and creates an appearance of black smoke in the sky.  The moisture in the clouds will often fall as rain, of course, necessitating the need for a cloak to stay dry outdoors.

In the 18th century, many weather sayings once shared through oral tradition were finally recorded in almanacs.  The 1700s was a boom time for almanacs and none was perhaps as focused on weather prediction as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which first appeared in 1792 when George Washington was president.

Robert B. Thomas, The Old Farmer’s Almanac original publisher, created long-term weather forecasts based on a theory developed by Galileo in the 1600s. Galileo and Thomas believed that an 11-year cycle of sunspots influenced the Earth’s climate and weather.  To this day, science has not ruled out a connection although sunspot impact on weather is thought to be relatively minor.  Nevertheless, a farmer who wanted to know the best day to plant a certain crop and if that day would have good weather consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The last tool available to 18th century weather prognosticators was the barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure. Generally speaking, a rising barometer means high pressure is approaching and thus good weather is likely ahead while a falling barometer means low pressure is on the way and so is bad weather.  While they were over 100-years-old by his time, it does not appear that Washington owned barometer.  He definitely owned a thermometer but the many weather observations he recorded in his diaries do not include observations taken on a barometer.

twelfth-night-2017-for-blog-1

A snowy evening at Historic Kenmore.

With these primitive tools, skills, and knowledge, weather forecasting in the 18th century was possible but immensely flawed.  One could not know anything with certainty.  The error rate was substantial to be sure.  Forecasting was really little more than making a guess based on some vague general rules of thumb.  The advent of telegraphy in 1835 sparked the current age of modern weather forecasting with its collecting and sharing of both observations and data across large distances and its ever-increasing warning times about weather changes.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs