Just What is Colonial Revival?

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

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

Philadelphia Exposition 1

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

Philadelphia Exposition 2

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

Postcard 1

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

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

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

Peace Ball 1

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

Peace Ball 2

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

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

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

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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Keeping Secrets, 18th Century Style

In today’s world we keep our valuables, like money, important documents, jewelry, etc. locked safely in a bank vault or safety deposit box.  These options for safe-keeping of valuables were not available in 18th century America, and so our ancestors had to be a bit more creative in hiding their important items from would-be thieves or prying eyes.

Probably the most romanticized method for securing valuables was the use of hidden or secret compartments in furniture.  There is no shortage of novels or plays that use a secret compartment to hide the key to the mystery.  In actuality, these secret compartments were fairly rare and usually reserved for only the wealthiest of people, those who could afford not only to commission custom furniture, and perhaps pay for the joiner’s silence about the location of the hidden drawer or concealed box.   Still, when a curator encounters an 18th century case piece, one of the first things they look for is any sign of just such a feature.

Two candidates at Kenmore for hidden compartments have thus far revealed nothing.  Betty Lewis’s desk, now on display in the Chamber, is a likely suspect because of how it would have been used during it’s time in the Lewis household.  Betty’s desk was the hub of her “command central.”  She ran every aspect of the household from that desk, including the management of funds and the storing of expensive foodstuffs, like spices and sugar.  The spices were kept under lock and key and doled out to kitchen servants as needed, while money would have been kept under strict supervision.  Either could be a candidate for storage in a secret compartment in the desk.  Although the desk contains a multitude of tiny drawers and divided pockets, many with tiny key locks, we haven’t yet found a truly hidden space.

Another, perhaps even more intriguing, possibility is the bookcase-on-desk currently displayed in Fielding’s Office.  This piece does not have a Lewis family provenance, but its history includes a span of time when it was used in the back room of a store, as the proprietor’s desk.  It, too, has a variety of drawers and doors, many of which were marked by the shopkeeper as to what went in each.  Surely, this piece must have at least one hidden compartment, a place for the shopkeeper to hide the day’s earnings or extra cash.  But sadly, nothing has surfaced yet, despite our best efforts.

What Kenmore’s desks may lack in hidden compartments, is made up for by the house itself.  During Kenmore’s most recent restoration, a group of painters made an exciting find.  While stripping old paint from woodwork around a window on the second floor, a small section of paneling fell out of place.  At first, the painters were concerned that they had inadvertently broken original material, but upon closer inspection it quickly became clear that the small panel was intended to come loose from the surrounding woodwork.  Behind the panel was an open cavity between the decorative woodwork and the brick masonry of the wall.  And, to everyone’s astonishment, embedded in that masonry was a tiny drawer-front, with a little handle.  It turned out that during the original construction of the house, this small drawer had been built into the brick below the window in such a way that it could be accessed through a false panel in the woodwork.

The drawer was empty when the painters found it, but there are a variety of theories about what it might have originally held.  Money or important documents are the most likely items, but suggestions have been made that Fielding might have concealed a gun there for personal protection, especially during the final months of the Revolution, when the Washington and Lewis family members were at risk of being kidnapped by the British for ransom.  Other theories have suggested that because Fielding was a frequent correspondent with General Washington, he concealed their letters in the drawer so that they wouldn’t fall in to enemy hands.

Does the secret compartment’s location under a window that overlooks the town of Fredericksburg and all the way down to the riverfront where Fielding’s ships were docked provide a clue? And why would the compartment be placed in this particular room to begin with? It was simply a bedchamber, probably used by guests.

While we may never know what secrets the hidden drawer contained in Fielding’s time, we do know that today it has become a time capsule of sorts and holds the business cards of anyone who has worked on Historic Kenmore.

As with many aspects of Kenmore, there are many questions about this little drawer.  While we may never know the true story behind it, it allows for some imaginative possibilities!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations