Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

Digging Up a Card Table

Tantalizing evidence of historic furniture use exists within the soils of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and that evidence gives us a more complete view of how the Washington family lived in the 1700s. The hundreds of items archaeologists and students have uncovered represent the remains of furniture broken or embellishments lost. The ruthless outdoor elements leave scant vestiges of furniture’s former glory. Wood disintegrates into soil, so these relics typically include only iron and brass hardware, such as drawer pulls, casters, bolts, keyhole escutcheons, or hinges. Over half of the hardware found consists of brass tacks.  Such brass studs were often used in furniture upholstery, but were also popular for saddles, trunks, even antique wig stands: anytime a leather covering was added to a wooden frame or base.

One particularly interesting brass hinge was unearthed in 2007 and boasts an exciting past. This hinge, part of a folding card table, was a crucial element in the popular Virginia domestic pastime of playing games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Card tables provided a luxurious accessory for popular social entertaining and were part of a well-appointed home.  Providing guests with such pleasant amusements reflected well upon the Washington family.

card-table-hinge

18th century card table hinge excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Archaeological investigations sponsored by The George Washington Foundation have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that the Washingtons’ mid-1700s home was filled with fashionable accessories to enhance social bonding.  These tools included tea wares, stemmed drinking glasses, glass decanters, fashionable dining utensils, and smoking pipes. The recovery of a card table hinge provides another element of their well-equipped home.

cardtable-hinge-on-table

Gentleman often played card games together, but occasionally women joined the amusement as well (Porter and Porter 1782:466-467). Playing cards allowed ladies and gentlemen a refined form of amusement in a convivial atmosphere, without raising critical eyebrows from discerning social commentators in Virginia.  These games were occasions in which mixed company – men and women – could enjoy companionship and pass the time in a genial way. It was one of the few entertainments in which men and women could directly compete (Sturtz 1996:169-171). Lucy Byrd’s acumen prompted her husband William to cheat on at least one occasion (Sturtz 1996:172-173, 175-176).

Such benign competition also allowed players to showcase their skills. William Byrd II thought that such games provided an effective antidote to “disagreeable” company, as it allowed the time spent with tiresome guests to pass quickly (Sturtz 1996:175). Tea or stronger beverages might lubricate such gatherings, which enhanced social bonds.

hogarths-wanstead-house

Card playing (group at card table in painting’s center) and tea drinking (group at table at painting’s right) provided elegant entertainment as depicted in The Assembly at Wanstead House (1728-31) by William Hogarth. Public domain. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia

If card games included a little wager, they were all the more thrilling.  Self-assured gambling and an indifference to losing money demonstrated a gentleman’s independence from monetary anxiety (Isaac 1974:352; Koda and Bolton 2006:100; Sturtz 1996:166). Such competitive confidence went a long way towards refuting any rumors of financial stress from which a gentleman might be suffering in the community.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, these occasions were increasingly viewed as a source of social disorder (Isaac 1974:358-359), but such amusements remained popular social events in Virginia.

Cards were a popular Virginia pastime and specific furniture such as folding card tables existed as luxurious accessories to support this pasttime (Isaac 1974:352). Hospitality was an important part of these occasions (Isaac 1974:352) and the folding card table made the game and the hospitality possible.  Applying knowledge of the past to particular objects like a card table hinge excavated at Ferry Farm gives us a more complete picture of the lives led by the Washington family here in the 18th century.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

References Cited

Porter, James and William Porter
1782 Letters Addressed to Two Young Married Ladies, on the Most Interesting Subjects. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature.  British Periodicals.  Printed for J. Dodsley, London.

Goodison, Nicholas
1975 The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.  Furniture History 11:1-30.

Issac, Rhys
1974  Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765-1775. The William and Mary Quarterly 31(3):345-368.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton
2006  Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Dined at the Barbicue”: Washington Goes Picnicking

In the summer of 1770, George Washington came to Fredericksburg for an extended stay. His time here would seem familiar to anyone who has gone back to their childhood hometown. While in town he visited his mother, went to the tavern to play cards with old friends, and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. But the most interesting moment of his stay was on August 4, 1770 when he records…

“Dined at the Barbicue with a great deal of other Company and stay’d there till Sunset.”

GW BBQ Diary Entry (2)

While it is difficult to understand what exactly he meant by ‘Barbicue’. It is safe to assume that it was a communal meal similar to a modern day cook-out. Going to a cookout, a barbecue or a picnic, in today’s parlance, all mean pretty much the same thing – eating well-known foods while outdoors, probably seated on the ground, in a casual atmosphere.  Above all, it is a highly social gathering.  We use these kinds of meals to celebrate national holidays, family occasions or just a beautiful day – it’s what Americans do.  But where did this past-time come from?

In England, the idea of consuming light fare outdoors in the form of a picnic had been around since as early as 1748, when the word “picnic” first shows up in writing.  The word was probably a corruption of the French “pique nique” which basically means “to pick at small foods,” but for the English a picnic meant a fully mobile meal and all the accoutrements necessary to eat it.  Baskets of food were packed, equipment for entertainment (games of cricket or maybe some hunting or fishing) was gathered, and wagons were loaded (usually one for guests, and one or more for the provisions).  Then, the party set off to a pre-determined picturesque location, where it was all unpacked and set up by servants.  Although we might be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff these picnics required (everything from chairs and tables to cutlery and glassware), an 18th century English picnic was still considered a very informal affair by that time’s standards.  Guests might even be asked to contribute dishes to the meal (a forerunner of our potlucks), making recipes for picnic food were all the rage by the late 18th century.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers' Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers’ Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

While picnic’s etymology is relatively easy to trace, ‘Barbecue’ is far more difficult to pin down in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the term itself is nearly impossible to decipher. The earliest known recording comes from a Spanish explorer in 1526, who used it as a verb meaning to roast meat. In 1672, the first reference in English came from the writings of John Lederer, a German explorer of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Originally written in Latin, Lederer’s expedition reports were translated into English by Maryland’s Governor Sir William Talbot and published.

Many scholars believe the word “barbecue” most likely derives from the West Indian word “barbacoa” in the 16th century.  Believed to be a Taino word (although this is still up to scholarly debate), it is a term for slow-roasting meat over hot coals, usually using plenty of green saplings that would have created a lot of smoke. The meat originally roasted in this style was probably not the ubiquitous pork barbecue. While Christopher Columbus did bring some pigs on his voyage, it is Hernando de Soto who is credited with introducing the pig into Central America and Florida in 1539.

The word, and the meat, was probably encountered by ships’ crews during the colonial period and eventually made its way to the American colonies.  Slow-roasting meat and spicing it with various rubs and marinades was a familiar concept in a many parts of the world, and especially on the African continent, so enslaved Africans living in the colonies also helped to proliferate the cooking method.  As happened with many traditions from around the globe that found their way to the New World, a true “barbecue” as George would know it quickly became a uniquely American concept, combining the English love of a good outdoor meal and the exotic foods and cooking methods of the West Indies and Africa.

While the first American barbecues were practical affairs, held among enslaved communities or farming populations during the slaughtering season so as to quickly cook and preserve as much meat as possible, they very quickly took on a much more social aspect.  An entire town might gather for a barbecue, which might last for several days, perhaps to coincide with court days or a market.

Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington recorded his attendance at six such affairs in his diary, including one barbecue that he hosted himself, another that was probably held at Fielding Lewis’s house in Fredericksburg, and a third in Alexandria at which he stayed all night.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Video: How to Play Whist

Colonial Americans often played cards for leisure and enjoyment and one of the most popular card games of the period was Whist. In this video we show you how to play this game.

You can read a bit about the history of playing cards themselves here.