Time for Some Trash Talk: The Social Role of Garbage at Historic Kenmore

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Today, we would find trash disposal in the 18th century to be pretty horrifying.  Garbage of all sorts – sharp-edged broken household objects, putrefying food scraps, and odoriferous human waste – was simply dumped in the street, the back yard, or, when available, nearby holes or ravines.  Often, it was literally tossed out the nearest window or the back door.

Believe it or not, archaeology is very concerned with the garbage disposal habits of people in the past.  Sites of disposal called middens are treasure troves of artifacts that excite archaeologists the most because people’s trash can reveal so much about their lives and sometimes even a bit about their personalities.

Archaeologists have excavated a sizable portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm for decades.  These excavations revealed how the Washington family and their enslaved workers disposed of household items, food scraps, and human waste in the area immediately behind the house. Color-coded maps showing the intensity of artifact concentrations illustrate how they simply stepped to the edge of the back porch and tossed trash into the back yard.

Animal Bone Concentration behind Washington House

Map showing the concentration of animal bones excavated from the midden at the rear of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

At Historic Kenmore, some archaeology has been done around the kitchen site and these excavations reveal more complex habits of trash disposal compared to Ferry Farm.

Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis successfully manipulated the landscape immediately surrounding the house and kitchen and designated certain areas for certain tasks.

An insurance plat of Kenmore from 1797 shows the house as well as the nearby outbuildings in relation to the house.  In the 1700s, wood-built kitchen and laundry buildings stood on the spots were two recreated Colonial Revival-style brick outbuildings stand today.

Insurance Plat of Kenmore, 1797

A drawing done in 1797 for insurance purposes showing the location of outbuildings in relation to the main house at Kenmore.

The earliest photo of the kitchen taken during the mid-1800s when Kenmore was owned the Harrison family shows a sizable wooden structure with two enslaved workers – a man named Cary and a woman named Brittania – in the front of the kitchen.

Kitchen at Kenmore in the mid-1800s

The earliest known photo of Kenmore’s wooden kitchen taken sometime in the mid-1800s and showing two enslaved workers believed to be a woman named Brittania and a man named Cary.

The kitchen was just 30 feet from the house.  Rachel, an enslaved cook for the Lewises back in the late 1700s, carried food from the kitchen, across the kitchen yard, and entered the main house through an exterior door that opened into the slave passage, a short but extremely narrow hallway leading to both the master bedchamber and to the dining room.  After a meal, enslaved house servants cleared the dining room table or wherever else in the house that the family might have taken their meal and reversed the trip, carrying food waste back outside through the slave passage.

Slave Passage from Bedchamber to Dining Room

Passage in Kenmore used by enslaved workers to travel between the kitchen, dining room, and master bedchamber.

As archaeology has shown us at Ferry Farm, it would not have been unusual for the enslaved workers to simply dump the food waste into the yard between the kitchen and the house.  Excavations at Kenmore, however, show an extraordinarily clean kitchen yard with few artifacts.  The things like animal bones and broken ceramic dishes or glass cups that you would normally find in an 18th century midden, or trash disposal area, are not there.  The area is very clean, which indicates that it was kept very clean.

Excavated kitchen yard 1

Yard at Kenmore between the kitchen (shown) and the house (behind photographer) under excavation.

Excavated kitchen yard 2

The kitchen yard was relatively clean archaeologically.

Archaeologists at Kenmore did find the kitchen midden, however.  It was located just to the west.  While there is a window on the west side of the kitchen, there is no door.  If the waste couldn’t be tossed out the window, enslaved workers walked over to that side of the building to dump it.  This midden is full of artifacts: a pig jaw, for example, and an amazing amount of other animal bones, a knife with a bone handle, as well as architectural material and much more.

Midden at Kenmore

The midden discovered at Kenmore contained a large amount of architectural debris.

Pig jaw found in Kenmore's midden

Pig jaw found in Kenmore’s midden.

Bone handled knife found in Kenmore's midden

Bone-handled knife found in Kenmore’s midden.

The relative lack of artifacts in the clean area between the house and kitchen along with the centralized location of artifacts in the midden gives some idea of the level of control and surveillance enslaved workers were subjected to by Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Betty, for example, could sit at her desk in the master bedchamber (her “command central”) and with the slave passage doors open see directly into the kitchen yard.  From her seat, she ran the household and, in Fielding’s absence and then after his death, the plantation itself.

View of Slave Passage from Bedchamber

View from Betty Washington Lewis’s desk into the slave passage. The closed door visible in the passage opened into the kitchen yard.

The land on the kitchen’s north side was used still another way.  Excavations show it was a kitchen garden.  A cutaway view of the soil layers or the soil stratigraphy reveal subsoil formed before humans, then plowed soil in a large field of corn before the house was built, followed by redeposited clay from the house construction between 1772 and 1775, and finally soil indicating a kitchen garden.  Kitchen garden soil is marked by plow scars that go in all kinds of different directions as many different crops are planted over the years.

Kitchen garden stratigraphy

Diagram illustrating the soil layers excavated in the kitchen garden area at Kenmore.

Finally, the kitchen’s east side was dominated by the formal gardens and terrace.  While the present garden at Kenmore is Colonial Revival in style, archaeological clues to what the original 18th century garden looked like remain under the soil.

Archaeology has shown us that at Ferry Farm, the disposal of trash was something of a free-for-all within the area behind the Washington house.  At Kenmore, however the yard on each side of the kitchen building was carefully controlled for a different use.

Land Use around Kenmore's Kitchen

Aerial photo of Historic Kenmore with different land uses around the kitchen marked.

No matter where the garbage was disposed, however, finding the trash middens on the landscapes has revealed much about the free and enslaved residents of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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Lecture – The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia [Video]

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation, presented “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia,” the final talk in this year’s annual lecture series. Dave presented three case studies in 18th century garbage disposal at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Colonial Williamsburg, and Historic Kenmore.

Thanks to the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia for hosting the series once again this year. To learn about other events and happenings, visit kenmore.org.

Rooms at Rest

Visitors to Kenmore on the evening of April 13th will have the opportunity to see the Dining Room in a very different light, both literally and figuratively.  In preparation for our evening program Letters from the Past, we will be putting the room “at rest,” an arrangement that would have been very familiar to the Lewises during their time in the house, but may look a little odd to us in the present day.

As we have discussed on several previous occasions, household furnishings in the 18th century were thought of as completely mobile.  Almost nothing had a permanent location.  If the large dining table was needed in the Passage for a casual summer supper, then it was moved there.  If the sofa was a favored reading place, it could be moved in front of a cozy fireplace on a cold night, or it might be placed directly in front of an open door to catch a breeze on a hot summer day.  Furniture was even constructed with this mobility in mind.  Tables were drop leaf or tilt-top, so that they could fit through doorways, and could be placed flat against a wall.  Castors were added to the feet of some pieces to aid in their movement from one room to another.  And of course, all of this movement was aided by the fact that gentry households had small armies of enslaved labor to see to it.

And when a room was not in use (or at rest), most of its furnishings were pushed against the walls, leaving the center of the room open and available for any spur of the moment need.  We are used to seeing beautifully appointed rooms, like Kenmore’s famous Dining Room, perfectly staged with a table set with silver and china, the chairs arranged around it, the sideboards loaded with auxiliary glassware and decanters, all at the ready to serve a formal meal.  In reality, these entertaining rooms were probably very rarely in this state of readiness.

Kenmore's Dining Room at Rest

Kenmore’s Dining Room at rest.

On any given day, the Lewis Dining Room was largely empty.  The 15 dining chairs listed in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory were lined up against the walls.  The two drop leaf dining tables, one oval and one square, would have their leaves down, and would be lined up with the chairs.  All of the silver, china and glassware would be carefully locked away in the room’s closet.  The empty cellarette and wine cooler would be shoved under the bare sideboard.  Anyone passing through the room could take advantage of the empty space in the middle of it to admire the Brussels carpet in its entirety, and to view the dazzling plasterwork ceiling from directly under its center.  While a room was at rest, the open space could be used for any variety of purposes, from hanging laundry to having lessons for children in the family, but by and large it would have simply remained closed up and quiet, especially at Kenmore, where the cost of heating such a cavernous room was a real consideration.

Often it was necessary to immediately transition a room to its resting state following a formal meal, such as in preparation for dancing (as we show in our annual holiday Twelfth Night at Kenmore performance) or for an entertainment, such as a musical performance or a dramatic reading.  Guests might leave the room temporarily to share a drink in the Drawing Room, while house slaves cleared the remains of dinner and moved the furniture, but they might also simply pick up their own chairs and move them out of the way while the switch to entertainment mode took place.  As an English traveler in America noted in his diary, while he and other guests watched, the servants “in the manner of the country, carried away the table when they carried away the cloth, and drove loiterers away with an army of brooms…the men had previously carried their chairs to the wall, the women to a window.”[1]

During the Letters from the Past event, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy a candle-lit dramatic reading in Kenmore’s Dining Room, just as their 18th century counterparts might have done.  The room will be at rest, allowing our visitors the chance to sit directly under the plasterwork ceiling and view the space in an entirely different, but very typical for the 18th century, way.

In honor of National Siblings Day, Letters from the Past will read between the lines of George Washington and Betty Washington Lewis’ personal correspondence. Only a small portion of the letters between the siblings still exists. This program will focus on a series of seven letters written in 1789 and 1790 in which brother and sister grieve the loss of their mother, and bicker about the things all siblings bicker about. Not sure eighteenth-century English is your favorite style of reading? We will have twenty-first century “translators” to help us put all of it into some modern perspective.

This dramatic presentation takes place at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, April 13 from 5:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m.  A reception with light refreshments will be held from 5:00 – 5:30 p.m., and the program will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17.  Reservations are encouraged as space is limited, but walk-ins are welcome.

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

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 (New York, 1809). Vol. 1, Pg. 327.  As quoted in Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy.  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 (New York, 1989), Pg. 80.

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

“Twelfth Night at Historic Kenmore” 2019 [Photos]

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2019 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 11 and 12. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Coming Soon! “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” [Photos]

On Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, and Sunday, January 13, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in 1776.

This production depicts the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and Kenmore’s enslaved community.  Here are some photos from last year’s performance.

Performance dates: Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, Sunday, January 13
Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; under age 3 free.

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.