Our Best Guess about Mary Washington’s Best Bed

Furnishings posts logo finalIn July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.

Best Bed

The “best bed” in the Hall Back Room of the replica Washington house at Ferry Farm.

The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it.  It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.

But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.

The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8).  But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.

Best Bed on Probate Inventory

“1 Bed & Furniture” valued at £8 listed on the probate inventory of Augustine Washington’s personal property done after his death in 1743.

In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains.  In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post.  While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time.  At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades.  Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians.  The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle.  Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view.  In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.

Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house.  Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed.  Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds.  So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.

FF-Bedbolt

Bed bolt excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like.  The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given.  However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.

The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death.  This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to.  While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information.  Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.

In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.

Best Bed with White Counterpane

The best bed with its summertime white coverlet.

Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers.  As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg.  Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.

As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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The Furniture Makers: Harrison Higgins [Video]

Furnishings posts logo finalThe replica Washington house is open at George Washington’s Ferry Farm but furnishing is still ongoing. We traveled to Richmond to visit furniture maker Harrison Higgins and he told us about the furniture that he and his crew have made for the Washington house.

Watch other videos and read more about rebuilding the Washington house here.

Why Were There Weird Animal Feet on 18th Century Furniture?

Furnishings posts logo finalAs more of reproduction furnishings for the Washington house get underway, I thought I might address one of the more notable characteristics of the pieces: their feet.  Anyone familiar with antique furniture has noticed the sometimes rather odd appearance of foot shapes at the end of table and chair legs.  We have a variety of feet among the Washington house furnishings, some more unusual to our modern eyes than others.  There are three furniture styles represented in the Washington house furnishings: William and Mary (the earliest, dating from the late 17th century to the very early 18th century), Queen Anne (early to mid-18th century) and a bit of Chippendale (mid-18th century onward).  Each of these styles had their own weird feet.

Probably the most well-known type of furniture foot is the “ball-and-claw.” As the name suggests, the foot looks like the talons or claws of a large animal or bird gripping a ball.  The talons or claws could be quite detailed and realistic or a bit more stylized.

Furniture Feet (1)

An example of the ball-and-claw foot on a reproduction escritoire — a massive cabinet-sized desk — that will sit in the Hall of the Washington house.

Why did these somewhat grotesque feet take hold in furniture design? In the early 17th century, design elements and decoration from the Orient began showing up in everything from ceramics to textiles to furniture all over Europe, as maritime trading vessels brought Asian goods to new markets.  The image of a dragon’s claw gripping a precious stone had been a common symbol in Chinese mythology for centuries, and was usually intended to symbolize the Emperor’s protection of knowledge.  As with many Chinese decorative elements imported to Europe at the time, the reason it was used in China was less important to European buyers than its exotic look.

In England, the ball-and-claw style of foot was used primarily during the Queen Anne period and faded in popularity as the Chippendale style came into vogue.  In America, however, the ball-and-claw remained a popular decorative feature well into the 19th century.  As a result, American Chippendale style chairs will often have ball-and-claw feet, while English Chippendale chairs often do not.  During the height of its popularity, English furniture makers adapted the ball-and-claw style to other types of claws, often favoring a lion’s paw, to represent the King.  In America, eagle talons were the preferred model.  The level of detail portrayed was purely up to the desire and skill level of the furniture maker and carver.

Another animal-inspired foot found on furnishings in the Washington house is known as the “pied de biche” (literally translated from the French as “doe’s foot”) or hoof foot.  Much like a ball-and-claw, this style can either be an exact replication of a delicate deer’s cloven hoof, or it can be a shape inspired by the graceful curve of a deer leg and foot.

Furniture Feet (3)

An example of a “pied de biche” furniture leg on a gaming table that will be displayed in the Washington house.

The reason for its popularity comes from two related trends in furnishings.  In the early 18th century there was a strong backlash against the bold, heavy, bulky style of the William and Mary period, which resulted in something completely opposite – the very graceful and delicate curves of the Queen Anne style.  This preference for lighter furnishings in the Queen Anne period also ushered in the beginnings of interest in classical themes, such as ancient Roman and Greek art.  Animal feet were featured prominently in classic Roman style, and the legs and feet of a deer just so happened to emulate the graceful, delicate curves that exemplified the Queen Anne style, so it was a perfect match.  Pied de biche feet are often found on Queen Anne furnishings in both England and America, but it was raised to a real art form by the French.

The last weird foot that we’ll cover in this installment is probably the most mysterious, simply because we aren’t sure exactly why it came into being.  Known as the trifid foot in America, this style is found mostly on Queen Anne furniture.  In some cases it appears to be more of a three-toed paw, while on other pieces it looks like three webbed toes.  The webbed toes may have been its original iteration, because in Britain this style of foot is often referred to as a “drake” foot, drake referring to a male duck.  Interestingly, it was Irish furniture makers who began using stylized duck feet on their work, and so the trifid foot shows up in American in regions with high Irish immigration, like the area around Fredericksburg. As to why the Irish chose duck feet, well, that remains a mystery, nevertheless we can add the trifid foot to the list of unusual animal feet in the Washington house.

Furniture Feet (2)

A trifid foot on a chair at Historic Kenmore.

So whether it was Chinese dragons or Roman deer, furniture designs of the 18th century were looking to the past for inspiration, although the actual reasons behind these choices are sometimes forgotten.  Visitors to the Washington house will have the chance to see a wide variety of homages to these ancient cultures, whether they know it or not.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Photos: “Antiques” Hunt!

Furnishings posts logo finalSeveral weeks ago, staff from George Washington’s Ferry Farm went hunting for objects to go into the reconstructed Washington house, which will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces to allow our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers, and pick up the plates on the table.  Finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat but staff members have traveled to a variety of flea markets and consignment shops on the hunt for 20th century Colonial Revival objects that will pass as 18th century.  Here are a few photos from one of these trips…

To learn more about the reconstructed Washington house furnishing effort, you might wish to read these blog posts…

Furnishing George’s House: The Corner Cupboard
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box
Search for Washington House Furnishings Takes Exciting Turn!
Just What is Colonial Revival?
Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

At the Kids’ Table …with George Washington?

Happy-Thanksgiving-One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall.  It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year.  With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.

We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century.  Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house.  Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.

What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often.  They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories.  Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production.  Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together.  Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.

In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished.  There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating.  Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit.  They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.[1]

The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces.   Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms.  Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.

The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time.  The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights.  As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).

Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period.  When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.

Hall on the Probate

Section of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 showing the furniture and personal property listed in the Hall.

The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories.[2]  The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans.  When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table.  But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids.  Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.

An Election Entertainment Hogarth 1754

“An Election Entertainment” (1754) by William Hogarth. The painting shows a Whig banquet thrown to win votes through food and drink, a common practice in both England and the Colonies. Two dining tables – a rectangular one and a round one – are visible. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Porject / Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm).  Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.

We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research.  Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.”  In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table.  In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.

Kenmore Dining Room on 12th Night

Kenmore’s Dining Room with both the round and square tables displayed during a performance of the annual holiday theatrical drama “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” each year in early January.  This season’s performances will take place January 5, 6, and 7. Visit kenmore.org for details.

So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons.  In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.  Basic Books, 2013.

[2] The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information.  Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=287

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/pdfs/wshgtn43.pdf

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=122