Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are continuing to identify items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  Our latest mending project towards this goal involves glass tablewares.  Piecing together thousands of fragments of clear tableglass is a special kind of agony but a wonderful amount of data has been collected from this painstaking exercise. And we’re not even close to being done yet!  In this post, I’ve written about three of the glasswares we have identified in our study thus far.

LEAD GLASS BOTTLE

Lead Glass Bottle Neck

Fragment of the neck of a lead glass bottle excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This particular fragment likely belonged to a small decanter or carafe.  It could also possibly be part of a scent bottle, meant to hold perfumes.  It was created using a pattern mold.  The craftsman would have blown the glass into a simple mold with a ribbed pattern and then twisted it to get this diagonal line effect.  He would finish the bottle by adding a separate piece of glass to create the delightful ‘ruffle’ on the neck.  Below is an example of what the whole vessel may have looked like.  Hopefully, we’ll find more fragments and know precisely what this piece is soon!

Lead Glass Bottle

Lead glass bottle showing the ruffled neck on the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.

FLIP CUP

Flip Cup (1)

Portions of a flip cup dug up by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

If you google ‘flip cup’, the first image result is a large red plastic cup commonly associated with college parties.  The original flip cups were far more aesthetically pleasing. However, they too were used to enjoy recreational beverages.  The drink called flip was the original cocktail and needed its own fancy glassware.  Colonists loved flip and made it by combining a  bizarre (by our modern standards) mixture of beer, hard liquor, spices such as nutmeg, a raw egg (a not uncommon ingredient in eighteenth century drinks), and then immersing a hot iron poker into the concoction.  This resulted in a delightfully lukewarm eggy, boozy beverage that was then decanted into a decorative tumbler – the flip cup.  While these cups were not only used for flip, the name has stuck. They are delicate and were often engraved with elaborate designs or scenes using a copper wheel.  At Ferry Farm, we have a number of archaeological fragments of flip cups.  Our examples are made of soda lime glass, not leaded glass, which is common.

Flip Cup (2)

Flip cup in the collection at Historic Kenmore. It features the same design as the fragments discovered at Ferry Farm.

VENETIAN GLASS

Venetian Glass

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.

This fragment represents what may be the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family during their time at Ferry Farm.  It is a piece of a pincered and buttressed handle that belonged on a vessel such as the beautiful goblet pictured below.  Although the sherd may appear unassuming, it is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  This would certainly have been a show piece and displayed prominently within the house.

91.1.1442

The portion of the handle circled in red on this 16th century Venetian glass goblet is similar to the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Kenmore’s Holy Grail

“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.

M-108, Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The Drawing Room at James Madison’s Montpelier. Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site.

Margaret Bayard Smith

Portrait of Margaret Bayard Smith by Charles Bird King (c. 1829). Credit: Smithsonian Institution

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.

Lewis Papers

While there are some Lewis family documents in our collection, there is no description of Kenmore during the Lewises time among the family’s papers.

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!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

 

Photos: Grandparent-Grandchild Archaeology Day Camp

During spring break last week, George Washington’s Ferry Farm hosted to Grandparent-Grandchild Archaeology Camp. Campers, young and old, got a crash course on the entire archaeology process at Ferry Farm and the importance of archaeology to history. From recording information and digging up artifacts to a behind-the-scenes lab tour and creating an artifact diorama, campers left with a new-found knowledge of what is beneath their feet!  Here are some photos of the camp.

Building George’s House: Why Red? How We Picked the Paint

A few weeks ago at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, painters finished painting the exterior of the Washington house.  They used a red color known as “Spanish brown.” The paint is linseed oil-based and actually behaves more like a stain.  Modern oil-based paint can, in a way, be thought of as a plastic that laying atop the surface and coating the wood.  The historic pigment we used actually seeps into the wood itself and essentially stains the wood the deep red.

Washington House without Scaffolding

River-facing side of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

 

House Painting (8)

Falling snow against the new paint on the Washington house.

In the 18th century, the pigment came from clay mixed with red lead, an iron oxide. The paint was “made by grinding the earth into a very fine powered consistency that would then be added to the linseed oil and turpentine – the content of the dirt and the amount used ultimately determined the color” which could range from “burnt orange through reds and into browns.”

Why did we choose Spanish brown as the Washington house’s exterior paint?  Well, we have evidence, both documentary and archaeologically, that suggests the original Washington home was this very color.

First, our archaeologists recovered fragments of plaster with Spanish brown on them, which demonstrates the color was available and used at Ferry Farm.

Second, Mason Locke Weems wrote “The house in which he lived is still to be seen. It lifts its low and modest front of faded red, over the turbid waters of the Rappahannock.” (Page 11)  While Weems included myths about Washington, his biography was published in 1800 meaning the house could certainly have still been standing for either him to visit or for persons who had seen the house to describe it too him.  We know the house became a ruin just after 1830.

Finally, when paint analysis of colonial houses is done, Spanish brown is frequently encountered.  The color was extremely popular during the 1700s.  Here in Virginia paint analysis found it used at William Randolph’s Tuckahoe and in Williamsburg at Nathaniel Walthoe’s storehouse, Bruton Parish Church, and, most notably, the Peyton Randolph House.[1]

Peyton Randolph House

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg. Credit: Wikipedia / Jrcla2

Spanish brown was also popular beyond Virginia.  It adorned the Palmer-Marsh House in North Carolina and Sotterley Plantation in Maryland.[2]  A survey of advertisements for Rhode Island paint shops between 1760 and 1819 found it offered “in nearly every ad.”

Palmer Marsh House

Palmer Marsh House in Bath, North Carolina. Credit: North Carolina Historic Sites

Spanish brown was “the ubiquitous color of colonial America” and “was cheap, probably the cheapest available – dirt cheap because it was dirt.”  Its inexpensiveness did not prevent it from being popular among the gentry class.  If possible, the Washingtons and their fellow gentry would have preferred homes of brick that symbolized “dominance, prosperity, and social status.” With this desire in mind, “red paint in its various shades can be seen as an attempt to give otherwise well-finished frame buildings the same aura of permanence that brickwork offered.”[3]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Susan Buck and Willie Graham, Chap. 15 “Paint” in The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg, ed. by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury, Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 364.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.