More Than Meets the Eye: What Their Portraits Say About the Lewis Family

On walls of the Historic Kenmore’s drawing room hang two large portraits of a man and a woman.  The man is an older gentleman in a serene outdoor setting, looking quite dignified and sober in a brownish knee-length jacket, knee breeches and long waistcoat. His eyes rest on the portrait viewer, one hand on moss-covered rocks, the other on his hip, and his head turned slightly to his left.  Across the room, the woman sits at a slight profile with her head turned to her left to face the portrait viewer. She wears a billowing blue and white dress and holds two pink roses in her right hand while her left arm casually sits on a marble top table. She is indoors with what appear to be some drapes billowing behind her. The man and woman are Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, the owners of Kenmore.

Fielding and Betty’s portraits were commissioned by the couple and painted by prolific colonial artist John Wollaston in the 1750s.  On the surface, these paintings are just two genial portraits that provide us with visual records of the heads of the family. Through the subtle symbolism, however, they also tell a larger story of how Fielding and Betty wished to be portrayed publically to their contemporaries as well as to posterity.

Portraits first became a popular mode of expression for the aristocracy and the wealthy during the Renaissance.  These paintings were usually large scale affairs meant to be displayed and seen by the public.  The paintings depicted people with expensive goods, fine cloth, rare flowers, and exotic pets. Whether the portraits’ subjects actually owned these items was less important than the suggestion including the items made. In fact, these paintings were filled with symbolism–images, objects, or colors representing ideas and that allow the artist to go beyond the obvious to create links between otherwise different concepts.  A color can depict character, a flower personality and a fabric economic status.[1]

Through symbolism, portraits were used to reflect social status, wealth, success, power and cultural refinement.  A portrait’s details were integral to the story of the painting and many factors had to be taken into account.  Aspects such as artist, style, background, color, fabric, and accessories all needed to be discussed to create the portrayal desired by the patron.[2]

Centuries after the Renaissance, the importance of portraiture as a record of status and position in society had not changed and the custom had become more popular outside of the aristocracy as well as outside of Europe.  Even in faraway British North America, the wealth of the gentry, or upper class, desired portraits to show their status and position. Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, members of the gentry with a wealthy business in Atlantic World trade, were no exception. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis wanted to portray themselves as socially refined not only to cement their place in the community but to allow for a continued rise in their status.  Accordingly, they sat for portraits by John Wollaston.

Fielding Lewis (c. 1753-1758) by John Wollaston.

The most noticeable thing about Fielding’s portrait is the muted colors used in the background and in his clothing.  One of the most visually striking symbols in portraits was the colors used to represent the subject.  While color may not have inherent meaning, it can be made meaningful through context.  The colors in the background, clothing, and accessories all relate to the overall message or story being told by the artist. The browns, greens, and beiges in Fielding’s portrait create a natural and relaxed atmosphere.  The nature background is a stylized classical bucolic setting that helps strike a balance between Fielding’s muted clothing palette and the landscape setting.  The woodland glen signifies a natural sincerity that, when mixed with the brown and beige of his ensemble, creates the feeling of calmness, reliability, dependability and an earthy richness.  All of these traits are important for a successful merchant.  Fielding was telling visitors to his house that he was a person they could do business with and trust.[3]

Betty Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s portrait uses color, context, fabric and an accessory to illustrate her own geniality and her family’s affluence, for not only as a Lewis but as a Washington as well.  The background around Betty, who is at the center of the portrait, offers hints of this grandeur with brown walls and a heavy brown billowing curtain creating a frame of luxurious richness.  To add to the opulence, Betty is poised with her arm resting on an ornate Rococo-style marble top table with heavily carved gold legs.  The portrait conveys that she can afford such ornamental comforts.  Next to the table, Betty in her flowy blue and white satin dress with a pair of roses resting on her right knee is the focus.  Blue was a popular color for ladies and was common in many portraits painted by Wollaston. The color gives the sitter not only an air of peace and calmness but also of restraint and intelligence. The satin denotes a luxury and fashion available to only those with means. Meanwhile, the pink rose tells of Betty’s grace, beauty and gentility.  Overall, the portrait depicts a sophisticated and refined 18th century woman, a wife and mother who adds balance and depth to her husband’s trustworthiness and professionalism.[4]

Fielding and Betty did not stop with portraits of themselves.  About twenty years after sitting for John Wollaston, they commissioned famed painter Charles Willson Peale to produce several portraits of their offspring.  There are two in Kenmore’s collection.

John Lewis (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

One of these Peale portraits depicts John Lewis, the eldest son of Fielding and his first wife, Catharine who sits with one hand on his hip and one hand on a book.  The posture gives John a sense of self-assurance and capability.  Unlike his father’s subdued color palette, John’s jacket and waistcoat are an amazing red with gold detailing.  The red paired with the gold creates warmth but also projects a sense of power, strength and confidence.  The book in his the left hand gives an air of knowledge and awareness.

Fielding Lewis Jr (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

The second Peale portrait in the collection depcits Fielding Lewis Jr., the eldest son of Fielding and Betty, striking a very traditional pose with a hand tucked in his jacket and a slight tilt of the head.  The pose is welcoming, kind and is the embodiment of a thoughtful young gentleman.  Much like his father he chose a subdued color palette with an earthy reddish-brown jacket and goldish yellow waistcoat, which convey a sense of reliability, stability and affability.  The brown background adds a natural simplicity with soothing warmth.   Additionally, like his brother, there is a well-read book by his side indicating a sense of learning and mindfulness.  This portrait’s symbolism reflects the more aspirational messages in these paintings as Fielding, Jr. struggled with money problems for most of his life and even ended up in debtors’ prison.

Later portraits in Kenmore’s collection contain other fascinating symbolism that tells the stories of the paintings’ subjects. These portraits visually record family history or emphasize familial connections.

Eleanor Rosalie Tucker (1818) by unknown artist.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor Rosalie Tucker, the great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty, is painted in characteristic neoclassical style with direct lighting, soft features, rosy cheeks and a roundness of the face.  The white muslin gown gives the young girl a purity and serenity beyond her years.  The halo surrounding the sitter represents her delicacy and gives her an otherworldliness. This is appropriate as, sadly, she was painted for this portrait on her deathbed in 1818.

The Wallace Family (c. 1856-1862) by John Adams Elder. A loan courtesy of Mrs. W. Wallace Morton, Jr.

Finally, this portrait of the Wallace family painted in the mid-Victorian period is quite a unique painting in our collection with a fascinating twist to its symbolism.  The portrait has a traditional composition but at the center is a large leashed bird in mid-flight.  This bird is a rebus, a puzzle device used to visually depict words and/or phrases.  They are used extensively in heraldry to hint at the name of the bearer.  This painting’s bird rebus is attached to a young girl named Mary Byrd Wallace, the great, great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Portraits are sometimes the only visual representation we may have of a historic figure.  These portraits do more than capture a person’s appearance, however.  The wealthy and socially important also used portraits and their symbolism to emphasize their wealth and high status.  Portraits also visually recorded family history or emphasized familial connections.  For the Lewis family, like everything in their house and like their house itself, their portraits revealed how they saw themselves and, perhaps more importantly, how they wanted others to see them whether in the 18th or the 21st centuries.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] “Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and early 19th centuries”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003: 11

[2] Crown, Carol. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013: 150-151.

[3] Centeno, Carlos. “Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color,” July 6 2016. https://medium.com/@carlitocenteno/lose-the-color-symbolism-chart-the-unpredictable-meanings-of-color-edc81db6541e; “Faces of a New Nation,” 13

[4] “British and American Grand Master Portraits of the 1700s”, National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/british-and-american-grand-manner-portraits-of-the-1700s.html; Centeno; De la Tour, Charlotte. Le langage des fleurs, 1819: 58; Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, 1846: 248.

Billy at the Door

In our ongoing series of investigations into the lives of Historic Kenmore’s enslaved community during the Lewis era, we recently uncovered another full identity behind what was once just a name.  Once again, close examination of long-forgotten documents and analysis of hidden clues revealed this man’s story, and in a rare turn of events, gave us some extra details about his life. 

If you read the previous posts in this series, you know that our hunt for information began with four basic primary documents – 1) Fielding Lewis’s 1781 probate inventory, 2) the 1782 Divvy List written by Betty Lewis, 3) the Vendu (public auction) List compiled in 1798, and 4) the Final Disposition list also written in 1798.  Each provides a list of enslaved persons associated with the Lewis family at key moments in their history (for further discussion of these documents click here).

One of the first quirks we noted in these four documents was that each began with the same name: Billy.  The rest of the names are often in similar, but not quite the same, order from document to document.  But, Billy is always the headliner. What could that mean? Did it really mean anything?

1781 Probate Inventory of Fielding Lewis’s property showing Billy listed from amount the enslaved people.

The obvious assumption is that Billy’s position as the first named indicates importance – the top of any list is usually someone of importance.  However, different people wrote these four documents, and importance may not mean the same thing to all of them. For example, the Divvy List written by Betty Lewis was her account of which enslaved persons were to stay at Kenmore and which were to be divided among her sons following her husband’s death. As the mistress of the house, Betty was aware of  who she felt was most important to the operation of her household and who she preferred to keep.

Conversely, the person conducting a probate inventory might not be familiar with the enslaved people on a property and might not know their comparative significance.  We know the 1781 probate inventory was written to follow the inventory-taker’s path through the house. It starts with the chamber (immediately inside the entrance door), proceeds through the passage into the dining room, then into the drawing room and ends in the office, which is the last room you encounter before leaving the house through the side door.  Perhaps the inventory-taker was listing the people on the property as he encountered them, just as he was doing with the contents of the rooms.  Therefore, perhaps Billy was the first person he came across when entering the house.

On both the Vendu List and the Final Disposition, Billy is listed first and is valued at £99, suggesting he had skills or traits that were valued by auction bidders. While the Vendu List recorded the trade for some people, Billy was shown simply as a “house servant.”  Any of these reasons could explain Billy’s primacy on the documents.

Without further clues, divining why Billy was always listed first was all speculation.  The odd repetition of Billy’s name at the head of every list was noted in his file, and we moved on.

As our project progressed, we found more references to Billy in other documents and fragments in Kenmore’s manuscript collection.  The Billy that is the focus of this particular research was 38 years old in 1782. (There were actually three people named Billy living on the Lewis properties, but we were able to separate the references based on age.  Betty Lewis recorded ages next to every name in the Divvy List.)

One of the earliest references to Billy may indicate how he came to be in the Lewis household.  In 1755, Fielding and Betty Lewis made a land purchase from Fielding’s brother Charles.  In addition to 1,800 acres, the purchase also included 40 enslaved individuals.  The names of those individuals were listed in the land deed, and Billy appears among them.[1]  He was approximately 11 years old.  Because this land purchase was made only a year after Fielding’s father died, it is possible that Billy and the other enslaved people on the property originally belonged to Fielding’s father at Warner Hall in Gloucester, meaning Billy was owned by the Lewis family for his entire life.

Charles Calvert and his Slave (1716) by John Hesselius. This portrait is particularly evocative because it depicts a relationship that might have been similar to Billy and young George Lewis. Credit: Baltimore Museum of Art / Wikipedia

The other reference to Billy occurred during the Lewis era at Kenmore and was on a fragmentary list of textile rations allotted to enslaved individuals.[2]  Bundles of either cotton or linen yardage were distributed to 26 people.  As with the four main enslaved community documents, Billy is again at the top of this list of rations.  He is one of only two people to receive both cotton and linen, and the amount of yardage distributed to him is more than for any other person on the list.  The list is undated, but by process of elimination we have placed it between 1786 and 1797. Billy was between 42 and 53 years old.

Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest (1785) by Marie-Victoire Lemoine shows a young enslaved man wearing an example of the fancy livery often worn by the house servants n wealthy households like the Lewis one. Credit: Cummer Museum

 Interestingly, all other references to Billy found in Kenmore’s manuscript collection deal with his post-Kenmore life.  The Final Disposition document shows that Billy stayed within the Lewis family after leaving Kenmore. He was sold to George Lewis, Betty and Fielding’s son.  George Lewis owned Marmion plantation in Westmoreland County, and so Billy went to live there, along with the 8 additional people George purchased from his father’s estate at the vendu.  Prior to the vendu sale, perhaps after Betty’s death in March of 1797 but before her estate was settled, it appears that actually Billy was already working in George Lewis’s household.  In that year, George paid for rather expensive shoes to be made for Billy, as well as for two other men he would eventually purchase at vendu.[3]  Billy also appeared to be trusted to handle money and run financial errands for George. In 1797, he delivered payment for George’s debt with merchant Clement Burrass.  Burrass referred to him as “Old Billy” on the receipt.[4]  These references in 1797, prior to the vendu sale, may indicate that George Lewis already had a significant relationship with Billy and knew that he would bring him into his household once his mother’s estate was settled. 

Taken together, these fragments of information found throughout the manuscript collection on Billy seem to indicate that he was a man of significance among the enslaved community at Kenmore.  His name at the head of every list of individuals on the property, his comparatively large textile ration, his high value at vendu, his association with the Lewis family from a very early age, his early and trusted relationship with George Lewis, and the notation that he was a house servant all combine to indicate that Billy was among the enslaved people who lived and worked within the Lewis house itself. In fact, he was probably the head of that enslaved household staff, a position we know today as a butler.  He is now one of only three people positively identified among Kenmore’s house slaves.

But Billy’s story doesn’t end there.  The next references leap ahead to 1803, when shoemaker Jessee Davis requested George Lewis  send payment on his account “by way of Billy.” Apparently, by this time it was accepted practice among local merchants for Billy to act as George Lewis’s representative.[5]  This continued through 1809, when an account ledger from the shop of William Johnston shows cash paid out to “Old Billy” on George’s account.[6]  Unfortunately, no additional references to Billy were found in the manuscript collection until sometime shortly after George Lewis’s death in 1821. That’s when an already interesting story gets even more interesting.

Although George Lewis died in November of 1821, a probate inventory of his home at Marmion was not conducted until 1823.  That inventory, filed with the King George County court, survived and shows “Billy, Old” in the list of enslaved persons on the property. His monetary value is listed as zero, indicating that he is past the age of useful labor.[7]  However, Billy’s name is enclosed in a bracket with three others – Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  In fact, there are several other groupings of people enclosed with similar brackets in the inventory. All were labelled to indicate the relationship, such as “James and Sylvia’s children,” except for Billy’s bracket.  Luckily, another document explained it. 

Apparently sometime before his death in 1821, George Lewis spent considerable time putting his affairs in order and making lists of various personal assets.  One such list was written on a page from a ledger book, divided into three columns headed “Names,” “To Whom Sold,” and “Price.”  It was a list of enslaved persons at Marmion that were to be sold at vendu.  Although only the first column –“Names” – was filled in, the page provided some crucial information.  The names were divided into lots.  Billy shows up in the 2nd lot as “Old Man Billy”, along with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  Billy isn’t listed for sale, however. His name is in a note written under the lot that reads,

“In this lot, Old Man Billy must be attached.  Whoever purchases this lot, Old Man must be supported as he has always been the balance of his life – that is, to be indulged in having one of his grandchildren to wait and attend on him, the old man to be well clothed with one good suit of clothes compleat every year so long as he may live.”[8]

That sentence both confirms Billy’s special status in the Lewis family, and reveals a huge piece of information: evidently, Kizzey, Fanny and Bob are Billy’s grandchildren.

Portions relevant to Billy of an 1821 list of enslaved people drafted by George Lewis.

The revelation that Billy had grandchildren is a rare bit of information not often found when researching the lives of the enslaved.  Among those individuals living on the Kenmore property, references to family relationships are almost always made from mother to child. Fathers and husbands are never noted.  It wasn’t until George Lewis set up his household at Marmion, that he began to occasionally note male family members among the enslaved community there.  Billy was the only holdover from Kenmore to receive such attention.  Of course, if Billy had grandchildren, he must have also had at least one child of his own, and that most likely means that he had a wife, as well.  Who could these missing members of Billy’s family tree be?

Unfortunately, this is probably the end of the documented trail for Billy – anything further we can surmise about his family is complete speculation.  In the 1823 probate inventory of George Lewis’s estate – the one that initially showed Billy’s name in a bracket with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob – there is a couple, Tom Brown and Becky, enclosed in a bracket, listed directly above Billy.  They are the only people on the list that don’t have an identified family relationship.  There is no notation to explain this couple, but it is possible that they are related to Billy and his grandchildren in some manner – possibly their parents?[9]

Another possibility involves the group of people who George Lewis purchased from his father’s estate.  The only female among the group was Nanny, a woman who we know very little about from her time at Kenmore.  We do know that her mother was named Fanny.  Is it possible that Nanny was Billy’s wife, and that his grandchild Fanny carried on a family naming tradition?

In any case, by the time George Lewis was arranging for Billy’s sale at the age of 79, neither his wife nor a child was identified or likely existed among the Marmion enslaved community, indicating that Billy had likely been separated from them at some earlier time.  Although we don’t know when the actual vendu for the George Lewis’s estate took place, or who purchased the individuals on the list, we do know that by 1830 Billy and his grandchildren were gone from the Marmion property.

If you were to visit Kenmore as a guest between the years of 1775 and 1796, the first face you encountered at the door was Billy’s. He was a daily visitor to the bedchamber, where he received the day’s menu and instructions for the household from Mrs. Lewis. He oversaw the setting of the table. He was silently present in the dining room during meals. He served the madeira in the drawing room after dinner. He oversaw the turning back of beds and laying of fires at night.  If you were an overnight guest, Billy might have been the last person you saw before retiring for the night.  Billy had his own life, too – a wife and family living somewhere on the property. Friends and neighbors within his community who also followed his instructions in the house. When running daily errands in town, he was a recognized figure walking on Fredericksburg’s streets.  Eventually, he even had his grandchildren with him, when all others were gone away.  Billy is now one more name and one more life made less mysterious by our ongoing research into Kenmore’s enslaved community.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations


[1] “Indenture (Deed of Sale), Charles Lewis to Fielding & Betty Lewis,” October 9, 1755; Spotsylvania County Deed Book E, Pg. 299.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Manuscript Collection (PH 707).

[2] “List (fragment),” Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1073).

[3] “Account with Major George Lewis,” October 30, 1794 – January 2, 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 868).

[4] “Account, Major George Lewis in Account with Clement Burrass,” 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 866).

[5] “Account, Major George Lewis to Jessee Davis,” 1803; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 892).

[6] “Account, William Johnston in Account with George Lewis,” 1807 – 1809; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 924).

[7] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd,” February 7, 1823; King George County Will Book, Pg. 296.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Research Files (Wills and Inventories of Lewis Descendants).

[8] “List of Negroes” by George Lewis, ca. 1821; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1049).

[9] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd.”

Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

1796
April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0

£10.11.2

What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.

The Unlikely Curator: What a Rodent’s Nest Reveals about Historic Kenmore

Rodents are usually seen as one of a museum’s greatest enemies. They damage valuable artifacts and buildings, leave a mess wherever they go, and frighten unsuspecting visitors. Like most museums, Historic Kenmore does its best to make sure no pests make their home in the 18th century plantation house. But, before it became a museum in the early 20th century, Kenmore was not always rodent-free.

Kenmore's East Portico

The east portico of Historic Kenmore shows some neglect to the house and its surroundings. The Howard family, who lived in Kenmore for a long period following the Civil War and was perhaps living in the house when our rodent of interest built its nest, invested a lot of money in refurbishing the house.

In 1989, archaeologists found a mouse or rat’s nest during an investigation of Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. In a recent video, our archeologists and curators carefully picked apart the nest found so long ago and made a cursory analysis of its parts.  This blog post delves more deeply into the history revealed by this rodent – Kenmore’s unlikely curator – and its nest.

The “indoor excavation” at Kenmore in 1989 provided present-day archaeologists at the Foundation a unique opportunity to study artifacts that rarely survive in the elements. Whatever rodent built this nest was a skilled architect in its own right, tightly weaving together bits of cloth, paper, and miscellaneous fluff from around the house to create a soft, structurally sound home of its own. The material came from dozens of sources, each giving insight to life at Kenmore in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fabric

Patterned fabric from the nest

When it comes to fabrics, both the people living at Kenmore and the rodent had pretty good taste. While most of the cloth from the nest was a neutral white, beige, or brown, several scraps featured patterns popular from the late 19th through the early 20th century, like a red cloth with cream specks, and another with red and yellow flowers. Most of the cloth in the nest probably came from sheets, towels, or rags, but the few patterned scraps may have once been part of a dress or apron. A few threads are woven around a stiff, curved string, perhaps as part of an eyelet or fastener on a piece of clothing.  Other fibers came from webbing used in upholstering furniture. The rest of the threads, yarn, and fibers are too small to tell where they came from, but it’s clear that the resident rodent had plenty of textiles from which to choose.

Newspaper 1

A series of newspaper ads includes a date of September 6, 1877.

Newspaper 2

A scrap of a cartoon features an old man carrying what appears to be a baby.

A few other gnawings in the nest were less comfortable than threads and cloth. A bit of nutshell, wood splinters, tiny rib bones, and even two insect wings were part of the rodent’s eclectic collection. While these finds make up a small portion of the nest, it appears that the rodent had quite a literary bent. Over a hundred tiny scraps of paper lined the nest. About half of them were marked, while the others have print from books and newspapers. Some of the pieces are so small that not even an entire letter can be seen, but a few are large enough to make out some sentences, determine date of publication, or even identify the book from which the scrap came.

Newspaper 3

A section entitled “Recent Inventions” includes a convertible handbag and seat patented in 1915.

Newspaper 4

An advertisement on the opposite side of the newspaper discusses Christmas Savings funds from Farmers and Merchants State Bank.

One newspaper scrap advertises Christmas saving funds from the Farmer’s and Merchant’s State Bank. On the other side under “Recent Inventions,” Katherine Minehart’s “Combined Hand-bag and Seat” from 1915 is described. A much earlier bit of newspaper announces the opening of a store on September 6, 1877. The scrap from a book may be even older. The words on both sides are Christian lyrics, and were compiled into a book called Union Hymns by the American Sunday School Union. The book and several editions were published in 1835, 1845, and 1860.

Given the short lifespan of most rodents (around 1-7 years), it’s most likely that the nest builder lived in the early 20th century, and scampered off with bits and pieces of discarded old paper and fabric. Except for a few newspapers, this rodent tended to use items with a past. The absence of any plastic in the nest indicates that it probably wasn’t built much past the early 1900s.  Indeed, since the latest scrap found in the nest dated from 1915, the nest itself would have been built in that year or thereafter, just a few years before the house began its transformation into a museum focusing on the lives of 18th century patriots Betty and Fielding Lewis.

The stories of those who lived at Kenmore after the Civil War are not as detailed, but thanks to an unlikely curator, we are given a glimpse into the wardrobes and literary tastes of Kenmore’s late Victorian-era inhabitants.

Abby Phelps, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

An Unlikely Curator: Inside a Historic Rodent’s Nest [Video]

In this video, we pick apart a rodent’s nest discovered by archaeologists investigating Historic Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. Like most museums, we take extensive pest prevention measures today but, back when it was an actual home, Kenmore was not always rodent-free. This nest revealed some fascinating history and told us a bit about Kenmore itself.

(NOTE: The video was filmed long before COVID-19 physical distancing requirements.)

Flowers of Kenmore [Photos]

While Historic Kenmore remains closed temporarily because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, nature’s seasons move forward as normal.  One of the highlights of spring in Kenmore’s gardens is the first blooms of our tulips and other flowers.  Since visitors cannot see the beauty of these flowers in person, we wanted to share some photos for everyone to enjoy.

 

The Howards of Kenmore

Many families have called Historic Kenmore “home” over its more than two centuries of existence.  In late 19th century, the Howards lived in the grand brick home and one Howard in particular left an everlasting mark on the house and its history.

William Key Howard, Sr. was born in Maryland in 1829 (and was related to Francis Scott Key).  Howard Sr. married twice, first to Agnes Schley and then to Clara Randolph.  He and Clara had three sons: William Jr., Allan, and Clarence.

William Key Howard, Jr., the eldest son and the most important Howard in Kenmore’s history, was born on December 11, 1861 in Richmond but the family lived in Baltimore during his early years.

WKHowardJryouth

A young William Key Howard, Jr.

According to Howard, Jr’s obituary, during the Civil War, both of his parents were accused of being Confederate spies and jailed. Junior successfully appealed for his mother’s release. Another source states that Howard, Sr. joined the Confederate Army in 1861, was captured and imprisoned at Elmira, NY in 1864, and then paroled at war’s end.

After the Civil War, the family moved to an estate near Fredericksburg called “Altoona” and Junior received a private education in Fredericksburg and in Hanover County.

Howard, Sr. purchased Kenmore in 1881.  The Howards found the house’s plasterwork so damaged that Senior considered removing the ceilings.  Howard, Jr. convinced his father to let him restore them instead, even though Junior was restricted to a cast to correct a spinal problem.

William Key Howard, Jr. worked on the ceilings for nearly all of 1882. He lay on his back on scaffolding, used homemade tools to clean off dirt and debris, and injected hide glue behind loose plasterwork.  An adept woodcarver, Howard Jr. enjoyed creating items like a walnut-shaped ring box, a goblet with rings around the stem all made for a single piece of wood, and another goblet carved from a coconut.

When it came time to replace specific decorative plater pieces, Howard Jr. was well-suited to carving the new molds to copy and remake the original plaster shapes.  With great foresight, he also used tinted plaster so future generations could know they were not original pieces.

Ceiling-Hook

The central portion of the Dining Room ceiling at Kenmore. To the extreme left are two plaster leaf replacement pieces made by William Key Howard, Jr.

Ceiling-Hook-detail

A hook and surrounding flowers in the center of Kenmore’s Dining Room ceiling date from William Key Howard, Jr.’s restoration efforts and has been left, in part, as a memorial to his work to save the ceilings.

Along with the ceilings, William Key Howard, Jr. left his mark on Kenmore in one other unusual way. He and the Howard family in general were boating enthusiasts.  Howard Jr. enjoyed rowing in a racing scull on the Rappahannock River regularly. His racing scull is still in Kenmore’s attic today. At the time that Junior was rowing, there was a large tree growing on the south side of the house.  He rigged a rope and pulley system in the tree so that he could hoist his scull up high enough to swing it through the attic window and store it there in the off-season. Unfortunately, the scull was still in the attic years later when the tree came down.  The only other way to reach Kenmore’s attic is up a very narrow, twisty staircase – too narrow and twisty for a racing scull.  And so, the scull remains in the attic to this day, a reminder of Howard Jr.’s life at Kenmore.

kenmore-behind-the-scenes-8

William Key Howard, Jr.’s rowing scull in the attic at Kenmore.

HowardBoatPDQ

The Howard family were boating enthusiasts and owned a variety of boats over the years, included the “PDQ”.

In 1887, Howard, Sr. conveyed Kenmore to Howard Jr. for $4,000 to hold in trust.  It appears that both Senior and Clara continued to live at Kenmore while Howard, Jr. took an interest in electrical engineering and headed south to build power plants.  In Georgia, he married Florence Lamar Moore of Griffin about 1895.  They had 4 children: John, Clara, Francis, Agnes (Betsy).

William Key Howard, Sr. died on February 10, 1899.

Howard, Jr. returned to Virginia in 1902 to build an ice plant in Urbanna. Three years later, the Howard family together conveyed Kenmore to youngest brother, Clarence. The 1910 census, however, still lists Clara as head of the household. Living with her were Clarence, then 39, a merchant; his wife of ten years, Mary F., aged 31, a nephew, Clarence Harrison, 30; an aging boarder and a 7-year-old boy.  By March 1914, the Howards decided to further subdivide and sell the property, apparently to settle debts owed to the Conway, Gordon & Garnett National Bank of Fredericksburg.

WKHowardJr

An older William Key Howard, Jr.

Junior finally returned to Fredericksburg (but not to Kenmore) in 1909 to be the superintendent of the municipally-owned electric light plant.  Then, he went to South Boston to work at another light plant until his retirement in 1931.  Once more he returned to Fredericksburg, where he died on December 28, 1934. He was buried in the family plot at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Betty Washington’s Cookbooks

In the 18th century, more women began to publish cookbooks.  Previously, writing or compiling such books was the domain professional cooks or chefs, who were men.  Two of these women and their books, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy and Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, ended up in Betty Washington Lewis’s personal library.  She no doubt referenced these two useful books as much as I have referenced them in my blog posts about cooking here, here, and here.  Both Glasse and Smith were part of an innovative movement to create guide books on cooking for common people in a common language without pretense.

Cookbooks on the Probate

The “Compleat House Wife” and “Glasses Cookery” listed on the probate inventory made following Fielding Lewis’s death in 1782.

Hannah Glasse was born in London in 1708 and had her first book Compleat Confectioner published in 1742. Her second book The Art of Cookery was published in 1747.  This book on cookery was so popular that it went through ten editions before her death in 1770.  It was reissued another sixteen times after 1770, including two American editions in 1805 and 1812. The book’s commercial success did not translate to personal success for Glasse, however.  Unfortunate business decisions eventually led to her declaring bankruptcy, selling the copyright to The Art of Cookery, and being sent to debtor’s jail.

Hannah Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

The frontispiece of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Credit: Wikipedia

Eliza Smith and her life are shrouded in mystery and, unfortunately, not much is known about her. She wrote only one book, The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, which went through eighteen editions and became the first cook book published in Colonial America in 1742.  According to her own account, what she presented in the book was from her own experience.  Her recipes and tips came from a “space of thirty years and upwards during which time I have been constantly employed in fashionable and noble families.”

Eliza Smith's 'The Compleat Housewife' frontispiece

Frontispiece of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Credit: Wikipedia

When these two ladies were writing in the mid-18th century, more people were residing in urban areas as part of the emerging middle and gentry classes.  These new relatively or very affluent groups were desperate to keep up with fashions, manners, and lifestyle of the aristocracy.

This often meant the middle-class housewife needed assistance with how to run a household or plan multi-course meals to keep her from committing embarrassing social faux paus.  The old commercial cook books were usually unhelpful since they were written by grand chefs for other cooks working in courts or mansions with large kitchen staffs. These books were filled with technical language and extravagant recipes with expensive ingredients.

New writers like Glasse and Smith became popular because they offered practical advice, common sense recipes, and organization.  They wrote their books to help average middle and gentry class homes with small staffs, basic cooking equipment, and a limited budget. As Glasse stated, she wrote her book “in so full and plain a manner, that most ignorant Person, who can read, will know how to do Cookery well”[1] She only hoped her book would “answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.”[2]  Eliza Smith had a similar goal, writing that her book would be a guide for the housewife where “the receipts [recipes] are all suitable to English constitutions…wholesome, toothsome, all practicable and easy to be performed; here are those proper for a frugal, and also for a sumptuous table.”[3]

Indeed, both women’s recipes had simple instructions, accessible ingredients, easy and practical help with weights, measurements, and cooking times.  Recipes had no French vocabulary, no complicated patisserie, and no confusing directions. They were just simple, delicious dishes any housewife could make or have servants make without formal culinary training.  Eliza Smith offered over a dozen different types of stew with everything from beef to eel and her pancake and apple fritter recipes sound delicious! Hannah Glasse included over 20 different types of pies, an easy and lovely syllabub, and even the first recorded recipe for curry.

'To make a Currey the India Way' from Hannah Glasse

Recipe for curry from Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery”. Credit: Wikipedia

The 18th century middle or gentry class housewife and her staff, e.g. Betty and enslaved cook Rachel, could use these books to create meals that no longer consisted of just boiled meat and a vegetable. Now, they could create a range of dishes that would not be out of place on the table of a Lord or Lady.  Betty could have dinners prepared for the week, plan special dishes for a party, or undertake extravagant desserts for her Christmastime table.  All would delight guests who were using the same books.

The Art of Cookery and The Compleat Housewife democratized cooking, which is something Betty Washington Lewis, sister of the first American president, would have appreciated.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, T. Maiden for A. Lemoine & J. Roe, 1802: pg 3

[2] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, J. Rivington and Sons [and 25 others], 1788: pg 4

[3] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, J. and J. Pemberton, 1739: Preface

“I Look Not On Things Beneath Me”: Our Snobbiest Artifact, a Wax Seal Stamp That Needs To Dial Back that Sass

‘Haughty’ is not a word used often to describe artifacts.  That is, of course, unless the artifact in question is a glass wax seal stamp with a kind of snooty message on it.  Of diminutive size (smaller than a dime) with a pretty little flower in the center it proclaims in reversed letters “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me”.

Kenmore Wax Seal Stamp 1

Wax seal stamp excavated by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

Seal Excavated at Kenmore 2

Closeup view of the wax seal through a digital microscope.

Drawing of Wax Seal Stamp

A drawing of the wax seal stamp with the text reversed so it is legible.

Initially thought to be a signet ring, archaeologists at Ferry Farm reexamined it and determined the itty bitty blue piece of glass is actually a wax seal stamp used to personalize letters.  This seems to be an odd choice of message for the recipient of a correspondence but who are we to judge?

Found at Kenmore, this pretty little thing likely dates to the late Victorian period and would have been worn by a woman, possibly at the end of a chatelaine.  Chatelaines were all the rage with Victorian women and consisted of a long chain worn around the neck with charms at the end, which could be tucked into one’s dress or belt.  These charms often had practical uses.  Common chatelaine charms included tiny scissors, cute vials, petite magnifying glasses, and minuscule mirrors.

Unfortunately, some fashionable lady lost this at Kenmore over a hundred years ago, possibly while wandering through the garden, drink in hand, and idly thinking of sending off a letter sealed with a snarky wax message reminding everyone that “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me.”

It’s a good thing that we archaeologists don’t take the same attitude.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

6th Annual “A Wee Christmas at Kenmore” [Photos]

Visit Kenmore this holiday season for an exhibit of highly detailed, replica dollhouses – including the mansion – and miniatures in the Crowninshield Museum Building. Share memories of your dollhouse with your family as you explore life in miniature! Put your mind and eye to the test with our “I Spy Miniatures” challenge – fun for young and old alike!  Here is just a sampling of the dollhouses and miniatures on display this year…

Kenmore’s hours are Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Kenmore is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Exhibit ends on December 30. Admission to Kenmore and exhibit: $12 adults, $6 students, under 6 free. Exhibit only: $6 adults, $3 students, under 6 free.

Learn more here.