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
Shakespeare on the Lawn at Historic Kenmore returns this coming weekend with two more performances of Much Ado About Nothing. Catch one of the final shows at 7:00 p.m. either on Saturday, June 17 or on Sunday, June 18. Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket and a picnic. Thank you to sponsor Lewis Insurance Associates. More event details are here. In the meantime, enjoy these scenes from last weekend’s performances!
“The drawing-room walls are covered with pictures, some very fine, from the ancient masters, but most of them portraits of our most distinguished men, six or eight by Stewart. The mantelpiece, tables in each corner and in fact wherever one could be fixed, were filled with busts, and groups of figures in plaster, so that this apartment had more the appearance of a museum of the arts than of a drawing room.” Those are the words of Margaret Bayard Smith upon entering the drawing room at James Madison’s Montpelier in 1828. Smith was a noted journalist and socialite in 19th century Washington, DC, and a good friend of Thomas Jefferson, in addition to James and Dolley Madison. She is best remembered for her detailed diary entries, recounting her lengthy visits to the homes of well-known figures in American society at the time. Her record is a treasure trove of information for the curators trying to piece together the original appearance of some of those great houses. And she was not alone! Many a traveler in the 18th and 19th century wrote down their observations of daily life at Montpelier, Monticello, Mount Vernon and similar places in letters, diaries, journals, and even occasionally in newspaper columns. Altogether, these contemporary descriptions of times long past are some of the best resources we have for creating a picture of what a house looked like once upon a time.
Alas, Mrs. Smith never made it to Kenmore. Nor, apparently, did any of the other wonderfully prolific travel writers of her day. Amazingly, not a single contemporary description of Kenmore, either its interior or exterior, has ever surfaced. It would seem that not one visitor to the Lewis home was moved to write down any impressions of the awe-inspiring plasterwork ceilings that quite literally defied imagination. The English carpets on the floors inspired no comment. No one ever reported the gossip of an evening’s entertainment at Kenmore to a friend. None of the Lewis family members themselves ever described a family dinner. This lack of description is baffling, and it has been a frustrating problem for those of us working on Kenmore’s restoration and refurnishing over the last 15 years. But more than bafflement and frustration, it’s become an intriguing mystery. In short, a description of Kenmore from the 18th century has become our Holy Grail.
Let’s begin with the premise that it is highly unlikely that NO ONE ever wrote anything about Kenmore during the Lewis era. Someone, somewhere, surely put pen to paper and wrote about their surroundings in the Lewis house. It is simply that we haven’t found these accounts yet. They exist, but they’re hidden away somewhere. So the real question is why haven’t any of them come to light yet? There are several possible reasons.
First, history has not remembered Fielding Lewis the way it has George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Although his role in early American history was a rather important one, it didn’t make headlines at the time, and it doesn’t show up in many history books today. Documents related to Fielding and his family were not given the same status and protection by later generations as those related to the Founders and early presidents. Ironically, most of the existing letters written by Fielding Lewis survive only because he was writing to George Washington, and therefore they are held in the same repositories that hold the Washington Papers (Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress, etc.). In our own lives, we often discard quite a bit of correspondence and other paperwork because it seems trivial, or because it doesn’t have anything to do with an important person or event. Many original documents related to Kenmore may simply did not survived.
Another possible explanation for the lack of descriptive accounts is difficulty that many historic sites have to deal with: The Civil War. In almost any effort to trace the historical roots of, well, anything, in the United States, there tends to be this deep, black abyss when you reach the years of the Civil War. Repositories for legal documents, like courthouses and libraries, were ransacked and destroyed all over the South (and in parts of the North, as well). Newspaper printing offices were wrecked. Family records, stored in attics and Father’s desk, were destroyed in fires and bombardments. Correspondence was disrupted, and what made it through rarely described beautiful houses, but rather focused on the horrors of war. Fredericksburg, which saw one of the earliest examples of urban warfare rage through its streets in 1862, was particularly hard hit. If documents describing Kenmore existed prior to the War, it is entirely possible that they did not survive it.
The third possibility has something to do with Kenmore’s name. As those who have been on tour know, the house was not called “Kenmore” when the Lewis family lived in it. In fact, the Lewis family did not give the house a name at all. It wasn’t until 1819, when the Gordons owned the property, that the name “Kenmore” appears in court records (the Gordons named the house in honor of the ancestral home in Scotland, Kenmuir).
So, any documents describing Kenmore from the Lewis era would not have used the word “Kenmore.” It is entirely possible that researchers have in fact come across descriptions of Kenmore, but they didn’t know what they were looking at because the house described was not identified as Kenmore. It’s also possible that descriptions of Kenmore do survive in repositories that have no connection to the Lewises, the Washingtons or even Virginia, in which case they would have no idea what they were looking at, without the word “Kenmore” to Google. It seems like a trivial issue, but it’s actually a real problem!
There you have it. Could it be that one of the most beautiful houses in colonial America was seemingly ignored by correspondents of the day? It seems unlikely, and so our search for own Holy Grail continues. If any of our readers happen to be combing through obscure 18th century documents in the future, we would appreciate you keeping an eye out for us!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
Scenes from an exciting and memorable year at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm!
As 2017 begins, Lives & Legacies would like to hear from its readers! What would you like to know about George Washington’s boyhood, his mother Mary, his sister Betty, and his brothers? Maybe, you’re interested in the life of Fielding Lewis and the sacrifices he made to help the Patriot case. Perhaps, you’re wondering about the archaeological work we do and the artifacts we’ve discovered. Surely, some of you are curious about how we’re creating a replica of the Washington house. Send us your questions using the comment form below and we may just write a blog post to answer your question!
In the meantime, as we bring Lives & Legacies’ second year to a close, we thought it might be worthwhile to share several of our most read entries published in 2016. We hope you enjoy reading them for the first time or reading them again as we move into 2017.
Here are our Top 5 Most Read Posts of 2016:
#5 Samuel Washington: George’s Brother and Wartime Confidant – This biographical sketch recounts the life of Samuel and the relationship he shared with his famous brother George.
#4 Put that in Your Pipe and Smoke It: Tobacco & Politics in the 1700s – This post examines a fragment of a smoking pipe unearthed at Ferry Farm and discusses what that pipe fragment may illustrate about the Washington family.
#3 Introducing the New George Washington’s Ferry Farm – This blog post presents an overview of The George Washington Foundation’s effort to create a replica of the Washington house and outlines Ferry Farm’s transition to an outdoor living museum.
#2 Petticoats and Pink Lightning – An investigation into some fascinating fashions from across the centuries!
#1 Glue: The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Found – Archaeologists are often asked “what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?” and for one of the Foundation’s archaeologist the answer to that question is the glue on Mary Washington’s punch bowl.
Manager of Educational Programs