The Decked Halls of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore [Photos]

Happy Holidays! George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore are closed today for Christmas Eve and tomorrow for Christmas Day.  Both houses will reopen for tours for five more days this year before closing on New Year’s Eve and beginning their annual two-month closure during the months of January and February.  If you are unable to visit this holiday season, please enjoy these photos giving you a festive glimpse inside each home.

To learn more about visiting Kenmore and Ferry Farm, click here.

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All About Sugar Cones

Furnishings posts logo finalIn a post several months ago, we discussed a piece of furniture listed in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory that gave us some interesting insight into the daily life of the Washington family – the sugar box.  Recently, our reproduction sugar box arrived and is now on display in the Parlor, just as the probate inventory indicated.  It’s been popular among our visitors, most of whom had probably never given much thought as to how colonial Virginians used and stored sugar. It also began to raise some questions among our staff.  Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story of sugar in the 18th century than we thought!

Sugar box 1

The sugar box was made by Fredericksburg craftsman Steve Dietrich, who used a cellarette in the Kenmore collection as inspiration. It is made of black walnut from King George County, and has hardware similar to fragmentary pieces found in archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm.

Sugar box 2

Sugar box with the lid raised.

By now, most history buffs know that refined sugar was sold by 18th century merchants in the form of cones, usually called loaves, which were wrapped in bright blue paper and sealed with red wax.  You can even buy souvenir sugar cones in any number of historic site gift shops.  Perhaps because we’re accustomed to seeing these small souvenir sugar cones, and because we hear it reiterated time and again that refined sugar was such a precious commodity in the 18th century, we tend to think that colonial Americans kept one of these dainty cones safely under lock and key in a little chest, carefully rationing out tiny portions as needed.  That notion, however, is quickly squashed when you see the sugar box in the Washington house.  The interior compartments of the box – there are two of them – are quite wide, and very deep, too, measuring 14 inches deep, 14 inches long, and 11 inches wide..  If the box was intended to hold two loaves of sugar, how big were these cones?? As often happens in our line of work, one question leads to another, and sometimes you discover some interesting and little-known facts.

Sugar box 3

Sugar loves and nippers inside the sugar box.

The Kenmore historic manuscript collection came in handy in addressing these questions.  This document collection includes more shop accounts and receipts for purchased goods than any other type of document, and it was an easy task to do a quick search for records relating to the purchase of sugar.

Betty and Fielding Lewis made regular purchases of “loaf sugar,” “sugar loaves,” “white sugar,” “brown sugar,” and sometimes “brown sugar loaves.” The prices they paid ranged all over the place, probably indicating a fluctuating market or scarcity at any given time.  On occasion, the account records gave size and weight information on the loaves being purchased, and they were impressive! The smallest loaf mentioned weighed 5 pounds, 9 ounces.[1]  The largest? It came in at 50 pounds![2] Interestingly, that 50 pound sugar loaf cost £3, 15 shillings whereas the 5 pound loaf was valued at roughly 7 shillings, meaning the 5 pound loaf was worth significantly more per pound than the much larger cone.  Even taking a fluctuating market into account, that’s an enormous difference.  What would cause that?

Sugar loaves

A closer view of the sugar loaves.

Sugar nippers

Sugar nippers were used to cut the loaves.

The answer to both the questions of why sugar cones varied in size so much, and why their value could be so wildly different lies in how refined sugar was produced.  Get ready – you had no idea this was how sugar was made! First, raw sugar from sugar cane was boiled with lime water to remove impurities (yep, lime!).  The resulting liquid was mixed with egg whites, ox blood or sometimes charcoal to further purify the liquid (yep, blood!).  This step produced a layer on top of the sugar liquid that was scraped off and put aside  – it was known as the scum (more about this later).[3]

The sugar liquid was then alternately re-boiled and allowed to evaporate a few times before it reached the optimal thickness, and was then left in a vat to cool.  As it cooled, the liquid began to crystallize, at which point it was poured into cone-shaped molds.  The pointed end of the mold had an open hole in it, but this was initially plugged with a twist of paper.  Once the sugar began to harden, the paper plug was removed so remaining liquid could drain out.[4]  This liquid was also saved and set aside  – it was called the bastard (more about this later too).

Sounds pretty straight forward, but that’s not the end.  The process up until this point produced a more refined, light-color sugar…but it’s still not the pure, bright-white sugar that was so highly coveted.  How did they get the sugar to that final state? Well, a layer of white clay slip was poured over the large end of the cone, and slowly the clay percolated down through the sugar cone, adhering to particles and pushing out any remaining molasses.  This process might be repeated two or three more times to make the most valuable refined sugar.[5]  In the end, those 18th century folks who wanted the good stuff were actually ingesting quite a bit of lime and dissolved clay in their daily cup of tea.  Delicious!

Anyway, once the whitening process was complete the dried cones were carefully tapped out of their molds and the hardened lump of clay that had formed at the nose of the cone was broken off, giving the sugar cone its distinctive bull-nose shape.  These cones were then wrapped in blue paper, which enhanced the bright white color.

Now, back to those scums and bastards.  Both of these bi-products could be recycled again and again to make increasingly inferior sugar, each batch being less refined and less white (and requiring more lime, clay and blood to make it look good).  Eventually very little of either was left, and the resulting “rubbish scums” were simply thrown out.  The inferior sugar liquid produced in this recycling process didn’t crystallize as easily as pure sugar liquid did, and so larger and larger cones were needed to form it.  Therefore, the larger a sugar cone, the lesser the quality of its sugar.  And thus, larger cones were cheaper than smaller ones.  The best sugar came in cones about 5 inches tall, while merchants could acquire mid-range sugar in cones up to 3 feet tall and 14 inches in diameter.[6]  But any level of refined sugar was still a luxury.  Betty and Fielding Lewis’s accounts show that when white sugar was scarce or expensive, they resorted to cheaper molasses (which was actually itself a bi-product of the bastards) to sweeten their foods.

So, now we know why the compartments in the Washingtons’ sugar box were so large.  For general, daily use, they probably purchased medium-grade sugar cones at about 2 feet tall, 7 inches in diameter.  One of those cones might last them for the better part of a year, assuming they could keep the bugs away and keep the sugar relatively dry in Virginia’s summer humidity (no easy task, and likely meant that they simply didn’t use sugar in the summer).

As we know from teawares recovered archaeologically [PDF], Mary Washington was an avid tea drinker and collector of fine teawares. We can also surmise that she may have invested in the occasional small cone of truly fine sugar to serve guests to her tea table in the Hall Back Room, where she did her entertaining.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Lewis, Betty in Account with John Legg, 20th January 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 365.

[2] Account, undated. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 1099.

[3] Porter, George Richardson. The Nature and Properties of the Sugar Cane: With Practical Directions for the Improvement of Its Culture, and the Manufacture of Its Products (London: Smith, Elder, 1843), 271-273.

[4] Magid, Barbara H. Sugar Refining Pottery from Alexandria and Baltimore, Ceramics in America 2005, Robert Hunter, ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2005), 223-224.

[5] Silliman, Benjamin, Manual on the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane and the Fabrication and Refinement of Sugar (Washington, D.C.: Printed by Francis Preston Blair, 1833).

[6] David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), 139.

Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme: A Different Kind of Holiday Decorating

Over the years, we’ve often discussed how colonial-era Christmas celebrations and decorations were different from our own modern-day versions (read here, here, here, here, and here).  Each year, throughout the month of December at Historic Kenmore, we depict the Twelfth Night festivities possibly enjoyed by the Lewis family because, in the 1700s, the main holiday celebration took place in January at the end of the Christmas season, rather than on Christmas day.  We show an elaborate dessert table, loaded with fanciful sugar creations and treats, waiting for midnight revelers to partake during a break from music and dancing.  We place simple jars of greenery around the house, and show a large punch bowl at the ready to serve holiday visitors.  There are no Christmas trees or mentions of Santa yet – those would come later, in the 19th century.

Kenmore Dessert Table

Dessert table from overhead in the passage at Historic Kenmore.

Kenmore Punch Bowl

Punch bowl and tumblers in the drawing room at Kenmore.

This year at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we have a new challenge: how do we show the Christmas season in the Washington house? The Washington family lived at Ferry Farm in the 1740s when Colonial Virginia was a more rustic place. While the Washington family was living in a far better situation than most of their neighbors, they still couldn’t imagine the luxuries that the Lewises would know at Kenmore 40 years later.  So what was Christmas like for the Washingtons?

Washington House - December 2018

The Washington house replica at Ferry Farm as snow flurries fall on a December day at the end of 2018.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of information from that early part of the 18th century to give us much detail.  The Christmas season was rarely mentioned in correspondence or journal entries, and so we can surmise that the lack of mention means that the holidays weren’t an especially unusual time in the lives of most early Virginians.

Interestingly, we actually know more about the seasonal happenings of an even earlier time – that of the very first colonists to arrive in the New World during the 1600s.  Because those early colonists were religiously devout, they observed the sacred aspects of the season strictly, even in the harsh environment they found themselves in after crossing the ocean.  There are a number of holy days, feasts and saints’ days that occur throughout the Christmas season, and marking each of them with church services, large meals or simply readings and recitations comprised the holiday period for those early Virginians.  With a few exceptions, decorations, special foods, small gift-giving, music, parties and the other secular trappings of the holiday would be largely confined to the late 18th century celebrations known to places like Kenmore.  The Washingtons at Ferry Farm probably fell somewhere in between these earlier and later extremes.

Although the Washingtons probably decorated even less than the Lewises, we do have the opportunity at Ferry Farm to show one aspect of early 18th century Christmas that we cannot show in a traditional antique-filled house museum – the use of fragrant herbs.

Early in the 18th century, it was common practice not to decorate one’s home for the holidays, but rather to put the effort into decorating the sanctuary of the local church (if you had one).  Clergymen urged local parishioners to ensure “the church be swept, and kept clean without dust, or cobwebs, and at great festivals strewed, and stuck with boughs.”

For most colonial era churches, incense was an expensive and not easily obtained luxury. To mimic its pleasant smell during holy days, parishioners strew fragrant dried herbs on the floors of the sanctuary.  As the herbs were crushed under foot, they added a pleasant holiday aroma to the room.  Sage, rosemary, and thyme were the most commonly used herbs but lavender and rose petals might also be added.

Herbs on the Hall Back Room floor

Herbs strewn on the floor of the Hall Back Room in the Washington house.

This practice of strewing herbs on the floor was adopted in private homes, too, especially when a household didn’t have a church nearby and services were conducted at home.  Sachets of herbs might also be hung from doorways and windows, and small bundles of herbs might be occasionally tossed into the fire to add to the scent.  The practice served to sanctify the house, but also gave people a break from the never ending parade of bad smells they encountered on a daily basis.

Another common practice among parishioners in decorating their churches was to place sprigs of holly and mistletoe in the muntins of the windows.  Like the strewing of herbs, sprigging the windows found its way into the home and likely was the only greenery early 18th century colonial Virginians like the Washingtons used to mark the season.

Tavern Decorated for Christmas

Although a depiction of a tavern from later in the 18th century, this engraving shows the practice of sprigging the windows at Christmas time still continues. A ball of mistletoe also hangs from the ceiling. Settling the Affairs of the Nation. Engraving; Bowles & Carver, publishers; London, 1775.

At Ferry Farm, because the Washington house is filled with reproduction furnishings, we can use both real herbs on the floors and real sprigs of greenery in the windows.  It may be much less than our 21st century eyes are accustomed to, but the Washingtons would have recognized these signs of the season right away.

This holiday season, we invite you to visit both Ferry Farm and Kenmore to experience these sights and, for the first time this year, the smells of the 18th century’s evolving Christmas celebrations as marked by the Washingtons, the Lewises, and their fellow early Americans.  To learn about visiting Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the holiday season and to see a list of special holiday events, click here.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

32nd Annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibit at Ferry Farm [Photos]

It’s the 32nd year of a a long-standing holiday tradition: the Gingerbread Contest & Exhibit at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!  This year’s theme is “Cartoon Adventures.”

Adults and children alike will enjoy the sights and smells of these festive creations displayed at Ferry Farm!  Ferry Farm’s hours are Monday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ferry Farm is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The gingerbread exhibit ends on December 30.  General admission to Ferry Farm and the exhibit is $9 adults, $4.50 students, under 6 free while admission to the exhibit only is $4.50 adults, $2.25 students, under 6 free.

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

A History of Trees at Ferry Farm

Cherry TreeThe moment anyone mentions trees and George Washington, you probably think of the famous Cherry Tree Story. However, this tale of young George taking a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree and, when confronted about the act, asserting “I cannot tell a lie” is probably just that — a story meant to demonstrate the integrity of the Father of Our Country. In reality, the trees of Ferry Farm have a much more fascinating history. Their story reflects, on a small local scale, vast environmental changes in eastern North America and shifting American attitudes toward the environment throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Today, we see wilderness as a good thing that needs protected and preserved. But in the 1700s, Europeans settlers saw wilderness as a bad thing. Preeminent environmental historian William Cronon notes, Europeans described wilderness as “’deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’—in short, a ‘waste,’.” People did not look at forests, deserts, or mountains as places to protect and visit. Instead, they were places to be feared and tamed.

The opposite of wilderness was the managed landscape of Europe. In cities, towns, and farms, Europeans tried to control nature and make it follow humanity’s rules.  These efforts to tame the wilderness were transplanted to colonial plantations in the Americas.

The first step in building a plantation and taming the wilderness was clearing the land for farming. Huge numbers of trees were cut down to do this.  On top of that, trees were cut down to make almost everything people of the 1700s and 1800s used and owned.  Furthermore, they were also cut down to do many everyday tasks.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the wood from trees was…

  • used as the main architectural building material in houses, most other structures, farm buildings, fences, and more
  • used to build ships, boats, ferries, bridges, carriages and wagons that moved people and things from place to place
  • used to make everyone’s furniture (beds, chairs, tables, desks, cabinets, and trunks) as well as many household items and farming tools
  • used as fuel for the fires needed to cook, heat, and even to make candles and soap. A colonial home needed at least 40 cords of wood for heating and cooking over the course of a year.
5 cords of Firewood 1

Five cords of firewood. A colonial home used 8 or 9 times this amount in a year for just heating and cooking. Credit: Chris Stevenson

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the area that would become the United States had just over 1 billion acres of forest before European settlement.  By 1910, the U.S. had a total of just over 700 million acres.  The 300 million acres of trees cut down was mostly in the eastern portion of the country.

These large scale trends can be seen on a small scale at Ferry Farm.  The European settlers who lived here, including the Washingtons, cut down a significant number of trees but not so many that there weren’t still quite a few standing when John Gadsby Chapman painted Ferry Farm’s landscape in 1833.

1830s

“The Old Mansion of the Washington Family” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman shows the foundation stones of the house where George grew up at Ferry Farm and trees along the riverbank.

We also have archaeological evidence showing the locations of trees during the Washington era.  This past summer in the yard north of the Washington house replica archaeologists uncovered “soil stains” left after trees fell in the past.  Soil stains are where the soil is a slightly different color than surrounding areas and indicate where people filled in holes created by uprooted trees. In other words, such soil stains indicate that a tree once stood there.

Uprooted Tree

A tree uprooted by a storm. Credit: ykaiavu / Pixabay

In some cases, our archaeologists found that the holes were filled in multiple episodes, indicating that the soil settled and new dirt was later added or the person filling the hole borrowed different dirt of different colors from multiple locations. By excavating the soil from these soil stains and analyzing the artifacts, we can tell around when the holes were filled.

Soil Stain

Soil stain marking the site of an 18th and 19th century tree on the landscape at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

One very large tree left the sizable soil stain – almost 5ft x 5ft – pictured above.  Based on artifacts found in its soil, the hole was filled during the mid-19th century.  We can tell by the size of the stain that the tree was quite mature. Together, these facts are evidence of a tree that grew just 40 feet north of the original Washington house during the time George and his family lived at Ferry Farm. This discovery gives us another detail about the landscape so it can eventually be accurately recreated just as we did the main house.

Finally, Ferry Farm archaeologists learned from these tree features and from the lack of other features in this yard that the area was well-kept. In the 18th century, this portion of the landscape was probably well-maintained because it was visible from Fredericksburg across the river.

This tree fell sometime in the 19th century and it was not the only one at Ferry Farm or across the country. Indeed, deforestation at Ferry Farm and nationwide grew more rapid and widespread in the 1800s as “clearing of forest land in the East between 1850 and 1900 averaged 13 square miles every day for 50 years; the most prolific period of forest clearing in U.S. history.”

In the 1860s, the Civil War exacerbated deforestation at Ferry Farm and throughout Stafford County.  Hundreds of thousands of Union Army soldiers radically altered the local environment to get the wood they needed for cooking and heating, to help build their fortifications and pontoon bridges, and even to build shelters.  During winter lulls in fighting, 18th and 19th century armies did not camp in tents. The soldiers built small log cabins.  By war’s end, Ferry Farm and Stafford County were nearly treeless as seen in the two photos of Ferry Farm below taken in the decades after the war ended.

1870s

View of Ferry Farm property in the 1870s.

1880s

View of the Ferry Farm property in the 1880s

While deforestation sped up in the 1800s, that century also began a changing of people’s attitudes toward the environment.  As Cronon explains, “The wastelands that had once seemed worthless had for some people come to seem almost beyond price. That Thoreau in 1862 could declare wildness to be the preservation of the world suggests the sea change that was going on. Wilderness had once been the antithesis of all that was orderly and good—it had been the darkness, one might say, on the far side of the garden wall—and yet now it was frequently likened to Eden itself.” Wilderness was to be treasured, not feared.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, wilderness, nature, and the environment were increasingly seen as special and deserving of protection and preservation, sparking the creation of national and state parks, government agencies like the Forest Service, private conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, and, in 1872, the very first Arbor Day.

We can see the impact of new attitudes toward the environment at Ferry Farm in photos below. The top one from the 1930s, a period of intense conservation efforts nationwide, shows trees starting to appear once again while the other from 2017 shows trees on a portion of Ferry Farm stretching out as far as the eye can see to the north.

1930

Aerial view of Ferry Farm taken in 1930.

2017

Aerial view of a portion of Ferry Farm and points north taken in 2017. Credit: Joe Brooks / Eagle One Photography

The early 20th century saw the nadir of American deforestation in 1910. But since that year, forest acres in the U.S. have largely held steady [PDF].  The new conservation ethic symbolized in the practice of planting trees to replace those cut down, the reduced use of wood as a building material and fuel source, the need for less farm land, and the movement of people from rural to urban areas (all of which present their own challenges to the environment) have provided a reprieve for America’s forests.

While George’s mythical chopping of the Cherry Tree is the most well-known tale about trees at Ferry Farm, the more important and fascinating story is how the 300 hundred year history of trees at Ferry Farm reflects broader post-settlement environmental changes in North America and how the Americans who made those changes grew to see the world differently.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician