In this video, curator Meghan Budinger updates us on the latest arrivals in the final steps of furnishing the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and of re-furnishing Historic Kenmore.
In July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.
The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it. It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.
But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.
The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8). But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.
In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains. In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post. While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time. At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades. Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians. The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle. Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view. In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.
Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house. Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed. Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds. So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.
Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like. The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given. However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.
The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death. This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to. While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information. Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.
In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.
Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers. As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg. Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.
As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
Let’s do our tacks! I know you’ve been dreading doing your tacks, and putting it off as long as you could, but time is running out. It is time to do our tacks, friends.
Whether iron alloy or copper alloy, tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack at a site. Delicate items have disappeared but their tacks remain. There is “tacks-ation without representation.”
Copper alloy tacks often called brass tacks are one of those artifacts that archaeologists occasionally encounter. They tend to occur in small quantities at any given site. Archaeologists also recover iron alloy tacks used in cabinetry, furniture, and architecture but this blog will focus mainly upon brass tacks.
Brass tacks were shiny beacons of taste that drew well-deserved attention to the fine fabric or leather coverings that encased upholstered furniture. Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory lists eleven “leather bottom” chairs in the home’s hall where George and his family dined while sitting upon these chairs. It was likely that brass tacks secured the leather to the frame of the chairs. Leather was an especially popular chair covering in Virginia, due in part to its availability to talented Williamsburg craftsmen.
Furthermore, a couch was located in the passage, and might also have been tastefully tack adorned. While often associated with furniture cushions, tacks were also widely popular on saddles, carriages, and riding chairs. Copper alloy tacks even embellished trunks, coffins, and were employed to hang window coverings.
To date, 127 copper alloy tacks have been discovered by excavators at Ferry Farm. They are scattered throughout the yard spaces surrounding the multiple colonial and antebellum-era dwellings of this site. This assemblage of tacks represents a very small proportion of the tacks used here historically. Like many of our discoveries at this site, the vast majority represent items that were inadvertently lost. Such loss increased when the items they adorned were used, cleaned, repaired, or moved.
Tacks are a timely reminder that the archaeological record does not preserve all of the items that the families who lived here used. The artifacts that we unearth from the yards surrounding the dwellings that were here only represent those things that preserve well and were sturdy. The primary components of furniture decompose readily, often because they are manufactured from organic items. The fabric, leather, canvas, marsh grass, Spanish moss, horsehair, iron hardware, and wood that typified colonial upholstered items do not survive long in the environmental conditions under which the archaeological record of Ferry Farm is exposed. Even under ideal, indoor circumstances, upholstery fairs poorly over time, becoming faded, outdated, and brittle. Cushioning sags and droops over time. Addressing these maintenance issues can result in replacement of these materials and the unintentional loss or even the replacement of its hardware, including tacks.
Despite these limitations, tacks often reflect the use of upholstered furniture, even if the furniture itself has not endured. Most sites lack probate inventories or wills, and tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack. Hence the “tacks-ation without representation” title: while the delicate items which these tacks graced have literally disappeared or are no longer represented, their tacks bear testament to their presence on the site. In the coming years, as archaeologists record more attributes and generate larger collections of these items, their full interpretive potential may be realized.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director
What do you think curtains look like after hundreds of years in Virginia’s soils? Naturally, the cloth portions of such tasteful textiles quickly erode away. But archaeologists do occasionally discover curtain rings. It’s likely that brass rings such as these became separated from their stylish drapery due to cloth tearing or – occasionally – because the ring itself breaks (see third ring from left in photo below).
These archaeological gems from the soils that surround Washington’s boyhood home provide details regarding the Washington family’s decisions about the furnishing of their home. Drapery provided privacy, embellished an otherwise drab surface, enhanced warmth, and allowed occupants to control the amount of sunlight in a room. Despite these contributions to comfort and elegant style, window curtains remained somewhat uncommon in colonial households during the second quarter of the 18th century, when documents demonstrate that the Washington home had curtains.
Curtains and wall hangings were noted in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory (see photo below). This document was created after Augustine, George’s father, died. It listed his possessions and their value. Probate inventories were created by gentlemen from the neighborhood who assessed the value of the recently deceased’s possessions for estate and tax purposes. Benjamin Berryman, Hancock Lee, and Adam Reid performed this task for the Washingtons in 1743.
The window hangings recorded in Augustine’s probate in the hall back room, which served as Augustine and Mary’s bed chamber, were almost twice as expensive as those found in the parlor room. They were valued at two shillings six pence for a single window curtain. The probate inventory also notes two additional sets of fine curtains under the heading “linen.” These were even more expensive than those within the home’s rooms. One pair was composed of silk while the other was made from cotton.
While the assemblage of curtain rings excavated at Ferry Farm may appear modest, it is worth noting that Foundation archaeologists have excavated over 900 five-ft.-by-five-ft. excavation squares! That’s well over 22,000 square feet of soil screened. Every inch of soil is screened through ¼-inch mesh screen and artifacts from all time periods are cleaned, cataloged, and curated at Ferry Farm. It is only through such a thorough and extensive excavation strategy, that any evidence for brass rings that supported wall and window hangings can be discovered.
If Ferry Farm was the homestead of a less famous family (whose records were less diligently preserved) or the home of a family who lacked the income level to warrant a probate inventory, these excavated rings would be the sole evidence of the existence of wall hangings, window hangings, or bed curtains. The few rings recovered from these extensive excavations alone allow us to infer that this family had hangings. Just how these rings were employed is not known with certainty using the material record alone but these archaeological remains alongside the probate inventory provide an exceptional opportunity for Foundation scholars to understand the mid-18th century Washingtons.
The presence of brass rings at Ferry Farm illustrates the importance of thorough excavation to recover small finds artifacts. Together with the probate inventory, these rings allow archaeologists, curators, and material culture specialists to compare – and to appreciate – what the Washingtons owed in 1743 versus what was preserved in the ground after hundreds of years.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Most excavation units extend to a depth of about one foot, though some proceed to even greater depths.
Muraca, David, John Coombs, Phil Levy, Laura Galke, Paul Nasca and Amy Muraca
2011 Small Finds, Space, and Social Context: Exploring Agency in Historical Archaeology. Northeast Historical Archaeology 40:1-20.
One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall. It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year. With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.
We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century. Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house. Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.
What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often. They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories. Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production. Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together. Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.
In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished. There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating. Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit. They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.
The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces. Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms. Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.
The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time. The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights. As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).
Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period. When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.
The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories. The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans. When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table. But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids. Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.
Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm). Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.
We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research. Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.” In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table. In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.
So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons. In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
 Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Basic Books, 2013.
 The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information. Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
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!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations