All About Mary’s New “Old” Desk

Furnishings posts logo finalAnother new piece of furniture has arrived at the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm! Introducing the “Old Desk,” as listed in the “Parlour” on Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory.  This desk was copied from an original piece in the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that dates to ca. 1710-1730, making it one of the earliest pieces represented in the house. So, why was it called the “old” desk in the inventory? And why are we now calling it “Mary’s desk?” And what are all those squiggly lines all over its surface? And does it have any secret compartments? Read on for the answers to these, and many other questions.

Mary's Desk 1

New “old” desk in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.

Augustine’s probate inventory doesn’t give us much description when it comes to the furnishings of his house, but what it does tell us can provide us with some interesting clues.  For instance, the furnishings of the parlor are almost all described as “old” – an old table, 3 old chairs, and the old desk.  Almost none of the furniture in the rest of the house is given this descriptor.  It would seem to indicate that the parlor was filled with furniture that was already considered old by 1743.

Parlor on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

“Parlour” section on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 following his death. Several items are described as “old.”

What do we consider “old” today? It can be a pretty broad category! For some of us, an object isn’t really old until it’s been around for hundreds of years.  On the other hand, folks living in California might consider a house built in the 1920s to be pretty old.  So what was considered old in the Washingtons’ day? Our best guess is that there was something about the furniture in the parlor that made the inventory takers think it was old – in other words, it looked different than the rest of the furniture in the house.  It was probably of a style that looked so different that it was immediately recognizable as being from an earlier era.

As we’ve previously discussed, in 1743 most colonists were becoming familiar with the Queen Anne style of furniture – a lighter, more graceful style, that emphasized curves and less embellishment.  Immediately preceding the Queen Anne was a style known as William and Mary, or early Baroque.  Early Baroque furniture was heavier, and emphasized intricate decoration like inlays, veneers, and carvings with an emphasis on dark woods.  Even to our modern eyes, William and Mary furniture looks very, very old.  We think that the Washington’s parlor was filled with William and Mary style furniture, giving the room a very different feel than the rest of the house.

The original desk chosen for reproduction is from the William and Mary time period, and shows all the hallmarks of that style – dark wood, intricate inlays and veneer on every surface.  The material used for all that veneer also explains those squiggly lines.  The wood used here is walnut, but more specifically it’s “burled” walnut.

Burl on a oak tree

Large burl on an oak tree. Credit: Wikipedia

Burled walnut isn’t a species, but rather a condition of the wood.  If you’ve ever seen an old tree with large, gnarled knots growing out of it, you’ve seen burled wood.  Those knots are caused by a fungus that invades the tree and causes the usual wood ring pattern to grow out of control.  Unfortunately, these gnarled knots of wood are very weak and can’t be used for any kind of structure, but they can be used for decorative purposes.  A woodworker can thinly slice the knots, producing material suitable for veneers that are covered in beautiful whirled patterns like what you see on the desk.

In addition to all the inlays and burled veneer, the desk does indeed feature some secret compartments.  This is everybody’s favorite part! In this post from three years ago, we discussed the importance of hidden compartments in 18th century furniture for keeping important documents or other valuables safe.  They were usually hidden within the structure of the desk, such as boxes built into the case of a piece and concealed by a false panel or floor, but they could also be spaces concealed by decorative elements of the piece, like carvings or architectural elements.

Our desk has a particularly sneaky hidden compartment in that it’s not what you think it is.  There is a panel in the center of the desktop that slides backward to reveal a large open compartment.  To our modern eyes, this must be it, right? The secret compartment! But no, it’s a fake out.  Our colonial ancestors would have recognized it as the storage compartment for the inkwells and stand necessary for proper letter writing – a fairly common feature of a formal writing desk at the time.

Mary's Desk 2

Desk showing the central compartment open. This space was for storing inkwells and a letter writing stand.

However, if you’ve gotten this far in an examination of Mary’s desk, then you’re pretty close to discovering the real secret compartment.  In fact, it’s revealed in the video below but, when you visit Ferry Farm, you should keep looking in the desk.  There are two more secrets hidden here!

And why do we call it “Mary’s desk” now? Well, that’s become a habit, but it’s one based in probability.  As our regular readers know, there are two desks in the Washington house – the small one that we’re discussing today, and the scrutore in the Hall, which we previously discussed here.  The scrutore is a very large piece of furniture, and was usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, who often kept them in their back rooms to house account ledgers and financial papers.  The fall-front writing surface was intended to be used while standing, rather than while seated at a desk chair, and you can see by how high that it was positioned that was intended for persons of some stature.  Scrutores are generally associated with use by men, so in the Washington house, we tend to think of our scrutore as being “Augustine’s desk,” a place where he kept track of both his business accounts and matters related to the farm operation.

Washington's Birthday Celebration 2019 (3)

Interpreter Gary Haynes shows the scrutore to visitors touring the Hall of the Washington house.

The old desk, on the other hand, is very small – what furniture scholars call “diminutive” – and is of a style that is usually associated with use by women. Contrary to popular belief, women were often in charge of the complicated business arrangements and contracts related to the running of a household, and in Mary’s case, a farm operation after Augustine’s death.  So their desks were not simply for writing letters, but also for the storage and organization of all the associated papers and accounts needed to run their world.  Additionally, as the “keeper of the keys” in a colonial household, the mistress of the house might also store costly spices and foodstuffs in locked drawers within her desk, so that she could monitor their use.  Visitors to the Washington house will see that we have outfitted the old desk with all of the things Mary used on a daily basis, giving rise to the nickname “Mary’s desk.”

Mary's Desk 3

The desk showing a balance, mortar and pestle, spice pouches, letters, papers, quills, and all the necessities for an 18th century woman to manage the complicated business arrangements and contracts related to running of a household.

We hope you will stop in soon to see all of the new additions to the Washington house furnishings …and maybe figure out where Mary hid her secrets!  Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore both open for the season this Friday, March 1. Click here to plan your visit.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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All About Sugar Cones

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

Sugar box 1

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

Sugar box 2

Sugar box with the lid raised.

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

Sugar box 3

Sugar loves and nippers inside the sugar box.

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

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

Sugar loaves

A closer view of the sugar loaves.

Sugar nippers

Sugar nippers were used to cut the loaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 3 – Imari & Famille Rose Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we revisit the Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) reproduction ceramics now displayed or to be displayed in the future in the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  This is the final post in this three week series and in it we’ll take a look at two special styles of CEP known as imari and famille rose.

These sherds are CEP like the blue and white porcelains we wrote about in part 1 but they are in different colorways, namely “imari” (blue, red, orange and occasionally some gilt accents) and “famille rose” (pink, orange and some green).  Sometimes, the exterior of teacups, bowls and saucers were painted an opaque brown, which is a style known as “Batavian.”  Our fragments suggest some Batavian pieces were in use in the Washington house, as well as some that show gilding. 

Buildings, people and fish were all popular motifs in imari and famille rose palettes.  Famille rose was one of the earliest of the CEP decorative styles, dating as early as the 1720s.  If a colonial American family managed to obtain a piece of famille rose CEP, it would be a treasured possession for generations.

Again, we have located individual pieces in period-correct shapes, that are decorated in colors and motifs that belong to the imari and famille rose palettes.  While interest in all things Asian may have reached its height in 18th century Europe, the style had several resurgences over the ensuing years, including in the early 20th century, which helped us greatly in our hunt for suitable reproductions of CEP.  During that time, Japanese potters began to churn out massive quantities of porcelain decorated in what became known as the “geisha girl” style, using green, orange and pink enamels.  The decorations depicted geishas in gardens near buildings.  While geishas may be a Japanese cultural theme, the colors, the delicate ceramic, and the inclusion of buildings and flowers all reference Chinese famille rose.

These pieces were intended for the Western market, and were often found in American dime stores, or given away as premiums in packages of tea.  They were produced from the 1890s, through World War II and even during the Allied occupation of Japan.  As a result, they’ve become highly collectable and we were able to find several different forms to add to our collection of stand-ins for famille rose tea wares.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 2 – White Salt-Glaze and Westerwald Stonewares

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we continue our look at the different ceramics displayed or soon to be displayed in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  Last week, we learned about the blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproductions gracing the house.  This week, in the second post of this series, will investigate the white salt-glaze stoneware and the Westerwald stoneware.

These fragments are from white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware dinner plate rims, and show two different styles of molded decoration.  The pattern in the above photo on the left was known as “dot/diaper/basket” and the pattern in the above photo on the right was known as “royal rim.”

 

Molded WSG came into existence in the 1740s, so the Washington family was right on trend.  A few decades later, creamware would replace it as popular dinnerware, but the rim patterns found on WSG were often very similar to those used on later creamware.

During the height of the Colonial Revival decorating style in mid-20th century America, the patterns used on WSG and creamware back in the 18th century had a major resurgence.  Several American potteries started producing white stoneware table wares, similar to WSG, with glossy surfaces similar to creamware, using molded rim decorations that were almost exactly like their 18th century predecessors.  The Canonsburg Pottery outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced dot/diaper/basket plates under the pattern name of American Traditional from the early 20th century through the company’s closure in 1978.  The Red Cliff Company pottery in Chicago produced plates with a rim pattern taken from the “royal” rim style on 18th century creamware (which was similar to an earlier WSG rim) under the pattern name Heirloom from the 1950s until their closure in 1977.  Similarly, Sears sold an almost identical plate under the pattern name American Federalist until the mid-1980s.  Luckily for us, all of these 20th century patterns are collectible and we found many of them in stores and on-line.

C1 - Westerwald Artifact

The above fragment came from either a mug or a jug made from grey stoneware decorated with cobalt blue glaze, known as Westerwald.  The Washington family owned quite a bit of Westerwald ceramic, as did the Lewis family at Kenmore.

C2 - Westerwald Mug

Westerwald pottery originated in 17th century Germany, and it is still produced there today.  It was a popular style for traditional German steins, often with pewter lids attached.  In the 18th century, it was often made for export to England and was therefore decorated with the “GR” emblem, referencing Georgius Rex (King George).

C2 - Westerwald Repro

During one of our treks through a thrift store, we came across this lidded Westerwald mug, and we were amazed at how similar to our 18th century fragments it was.  So amazed, in fact, that we questioned whether or not it might actually be an antique piece (that somehow remained in pristine condition)! A look at the bottom revealed a very 20th century maker’s mark, however, but it also spurred a desire to find out more about the company that was producing such excellent Westerwald. The mark indicated that the Markpiece was “Original Gerzit,” and some internet research revealed that the Gerzit Company in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany, was originally the pottery founded by Simon Peter Gerz in 1857.  The family owned and continued to operate the pottery through World War II, at which time they changed the name to Gerzit.  By German law established in 1887, Westerwald produced for export has to be marked Made in Germany.  Westerwald produced for sale in Germany doesn’t have to carry a mark at all.  Any Westerwald produced after World War II for export has to specify whether it was made in East or West Germany.  Putting all of that together, and comparing it to the mark on our newly acquired mug, shows us that it was produced sometime between 1949 (when the company name changed) and 1997 (when the company closed) and was originally intended for sale within Germany.  How it ended up in a thrift store in Virginia is anyone’s guess, but it was a very lucky find for us!

In part 3, we’ll revisit Chinese Export Porcelains to see imari and famille rose artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations