The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

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“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.

Making Syllabub

The holiday season has arrived at Historic Kenmore, bringing with it our annual display in the house of colonial wintry traditions from greenery to lovely desserts. Two years ago, I explored the mysterious origin of Betty Lewis’s hedgehog cake and even made a pretty passable replica.  This year, there is another dessert on our table at Kenmore that I have been eager to talk about and even taste, syllabub.

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

Display of desserts popular in the 18th century inside the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

Syllabub is no longer the favorite staple dessert it once was two hundred years ago. I decided to investigate this fluffy confection to learn its history and to attempt to recreate it. You may find that it’s worth reviving this old classic for your upcoming holiday celebrations!

One of the earliest references to this frothy treat is from a 16th century Tudor drama called Thersytes, when a character states, “You and I…muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe!”[1]  It continued to be mentioned through the 17th and 18th century in plays, poetry, art, diaries and cookbooks.  From poet laureate Ben Jonson to famous diarist Samuel Pepys to pioneers in household management like Hannah Woolley, Eliza Smith, and Hannah Glasse, they all knew and appreciated this sweet treat.[2]

Through the centuries, syllabub evolved to suit changing taste and convenience.

One of the oldest and most legendary syllabub recipes was informally known as “under the cow”.[3]   To make it, a poor dairymaid was supposed to milk a cow directly over a bowl of sugar, sack (a white fortified wine), brandy, and cider to create a “fine frothy top.” Then she was to let it sit for a few hours in a cool place.  It sounds simple, rustic, and even pretty tasty. However, this recipe was more fantasy than reality and incredibly impractical.  Despite being unsanitary, it doesn’t seem to work and splits the milk in a most unappetizing way.[4]

If you don’t have a live cow, another syllabub recipe, also rather dubious, was the so-called “Poured or Teapot” approach[5].  This method called for the maker to fill a container with milk and then, from a substantial height, pour it into a bowl of sugar, wine, cider or bandy, and a bit of lemon to create a light and frothy mixture.  This could actually work, if the maker used a heavily enriched cream (similar to modern heavy whipping cream). Otherwise, it also tended to create an unpleasant curdle. [6]

The two former methods, if they worked, were supposed to create a syllabub that was more of a drink and that was pretty heavy on the spirits.  By the 18th century, however, the “Whipt syllabub” became the most popular style of syllabub. It contained less alcohol and was used as a topping instead of as a drink.  The recipe called for the whipping of cream, wine, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg whites. As the froth started to develop, the maker spooned it off into a sieve and let it dry.  After drying, the maker placed the little clouds of froth on top of a glass of sweet wine or jelly.[7]

The Sense of Taste (1744) by Philippe Mercier

“The Sense of Taste” (mid-to-late 1740s) by Philippe Mercier includes some “Whipt syllabubs” on the table. Credit: Yale Center for British Art

I decided to try this fourth style and used a recipe for my experiment called an “Everlasting syllabub” found on page 276 of Mrs. Eliza Smith’s cookbook The compleat housewife, or Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, published in 1773.[8] Betty Washington Lewis owned this book, which is listed on the 1781 probate inventory of Kenmore. Additionally, I picked this recipe because I don’t have access to a cow, didn’t want to create too much of a mess, and wanted to create a dessert rather than a liquor-infused drink.

RECIPE

18th century recipe
To make Lemon Syllabubs
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it in your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them overnight.

Recipe using modern measurements and a mixer and that makes less syllabub:
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

1 cup white sugar
½ cup white wine or apple juice for non-alcoholic
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tsp of grated lemon zest
Nutmeg to sprinkle on top

Whip the cream and sugar (slowly tbsp. at a time) in a bowl until the cream begins to thicken.  Add white wine, lemon juice and zest and continue to whip until light and fluffy and just holds a peak.  Make sure that all the sugar has dissolved and does not give the syllabub a grainy texture. Serve chilled with a dash of nutmeg or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

Syllabub can sit in the fridge for a few hours but you may get some separation of the wine and cream. 

Everlasting syllabub creates a fluffier mousse that is great on its own or as a topping on jellies and trifles.  The recipe is quite simple and requires heavy cream, white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar. This is all beaten together until it is almost the texture of modern whipped cream.  The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and it took less than 15 minutes to create and serve.

After taste-testing my refreshing treat with several colleagues, we arrived at a consensus that this indeed is a dessert that needs revived for our holiday celebrations.  It is light, fluffy, and citrusy and would be a great palate cleanser after a heavy dinner or a nice change from dense baked goods.  For families with children, a non-alcoholic version can be made by replacing the wine with apple juice.

Finished Syllabub

The syllabub we made topped with lemon zest and nutmeg.

Our experiment was a success and many of you may now have a new dessert gracing your holiday table, if you can keep from eating it all yourself.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Syllabub.” The Foods of England Project, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/syllabuboldtype.htm.

[2] Day, Ivan. “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not ‘Jumble it a pritie while’?” Historic Food, https://www.historicfood.com/Syllabubs%20Essay.pdf; Pepys, Samuel. “Sunday 3 August 1662.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/08/03/; Woolley, Hannah. The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex. Duck Lane near West Smithfield, Richard Lowndes, 1672. J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 114; Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, Company of Bookfellers, 1747, pg 218.

[3] MacDonell, Anne. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. London, Philip Lee Warner, 1910, pg 120.

[4] Day.

[5] Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. London, C. Rivington, 1723.

[6] Day.

[7] Nott.

[8] Smith, Eliza. The Complete Housewife: or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London, J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 276.

 

 

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.