Washington House Blues

Furnishings posts logo finalThe summer of 2019 was an especially hot one here in Virginia, but we managed to add some cool crispness to the Washington house interior.  It came in the form of some new textiles for the “best bed” in the Hall Back Room, in a refreshing blue and white color scheme.  As we’ve previously discussed here, blue and white bedroom textiles seemed to be a favorite of Mary Washington’s, throughout her life.  Both her will, written in 1788 many years after she had moved away from Ferry Farm and taken up residence in a cottage in downtown Fredericksburg, and the list of her belongings sold at vendu following her death in 1789 contain references to blue and white quilts, coverlets, counterpanes and curtains.

Best Bed

The “Best Bed” in the Hall Back Room of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

After the “best bed” arrived in 2018, we decked it out in blue wool bedcurtains and a white matelesse summer counterpane.  But for winter use, we really wanted to show the bed with the blue and white quilt that is mentioned several times in Mary’s documents, including a reference to it being willed to George Washington himself following Mary’s death.  Finding such a quilt turned out to be much more of a challenge than we anticipated, though.  The challenge was due to the increasing difficulty in finding ready-made period-appropriate fabric in our modern world.  And to understand that difficulty, we need to understand what Mary’s blue and white quilt (probably) looked like.

The description of the quilt as being “blue and white” was not overly specific, but it was actually more descriptive detail than we have for most items in Mary’s household.  What could “blue and white” mean? First, it’s important to understand that a “quilt” in the 18th century is almost certainly NOT a patchwork quilt, or an appliqued quilt, both of which came into fashion much later.  Instead, an 18th century quilt was usually comprised of a solid piece of decorative fabric, on a layer of filler and a backing fabric, all of which was then quilted, or stitched with decorative patterns.  Sometimes the decorative fabric was a solid color, and the intricate stitching patterns were the real decoration, and sometimes the fabric itself had a pattern which was enhanced by the quilting.  The ‘blue and white” reference obviously indicates that the quilt was multi-colored, which indicates that the decorative fabric was patterned.  So what kind of blue and white patterns were available to Mary Washington in the mid-18th century?

By the mid-1700s, printed cotton textiles had become all the rage in England, and were being heavily imported into the American colonies.[1]  The technology for producing printed textiles at that point included resist dying, block printing with mordants and dyes, and copperplate printing (and combinations of all three).[2]  Resist dying (in which wax or some kind of dye-resistant substance was applied to sections of fabric meant to stay white, and then the entire fabric was submerged in dye) could produce bold colors and sharp contrast between dyed and undyed sections of fabric, but detail was hard to achieve.  Block printing improved the level of detail in patterns, but was still slow and tedious.  Copperplate printing allowed for great detail and eventually sped up the process of producing repeated patterns on yardage considerably.  Incorporating more than 1 color in the process was still hard to achieve, and so patterns are often monochromatic, with multiple layers of printing being used to create shades of color.  Most patterns, no matter the method of printing, involved floral and natural themes, sometimes including birds and other animals, and eventually entire landscape scenes.

Quilt fabric resist

Resist

Quilt fabric resist block

Block printed

Quilt fabric copperplate

Copperplate

So, Mary’s blue and white quilt was most likely similar to one of these styles.  Our challenge was to find a modern fabric that accurately depicted one of these processes.  Unfortunately, not many modern fabrics are made using the same 18th century technologies, and are more likely to be machine printed using digital images.  As a result, these modern patterns usually look too perfect, without the minor imperfections of handmade textiles which actually reveal to us what type of historic process was used to make them.  The imperfections are a part of the overall look and feel of the pattern, and make the final product more authentic.  It’s a hard thing to achieve these days!

The American textile industry is greatly reduced from what it once was in the early 20th century, and even in Europe, many of the textile factories that once created the patterns that Mary and her contemporaries used in their homes, are gone.  Most printed fabrics produced using historic methods these days are produced in small runs and come from small artisan shops – finding both the makers, and enough yardage (and at a price that isn’t prohibitive) of period-correct patterns, can be difficult.

Quilt 1

Quilt on the “best bed” in the Washington house.

Quilt 2

Close-up view of “best bed” quilt.

After months of searching, we were lucky enough to locate a blue and white printed cotton, reproduced from a mid-18th century French pattern by Chelsea Textiles in New York.  The original version was block printed, but also used wax or paste in the resist method.  The result was a detailed repeated floral pattern that also had the rounded edges of resist dying.  It was perfect for our uses.  The fabric was quilted onto filler and backing, and the entire quilt was cut in a T-shape, to fit around the bedposts of the Washington “best bed”, creating a fitted look which was also typical of the time.  Visitors to the Washington house can now see Mary’s favorite blues on display in her bedchamber.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Eaton, Linda.  Printed Textiles, British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700 – 1850. The Monacelli Press, New York. Pg. 65.

[2] Ibid, Pgs. 17 – 41.

Finding Clues in Curtain Rings

What do you think curtains look like after hundreds of years in Virginia’s soils? Naturally, the cloth portions of such tasteful textiles quickly erode away. But archaeologists do occasionally discover curtain rings. It’s likely that brass rings such as these became separated from their stylish drapery due to cloth tearing or – occasionally – because the ring itself breaks (see third ring from left in photo below).

Curtain Rings

Possible curtain rings recovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm. These are made from solid brass. Such rings supported bed curtains, wall hangings, and window curtains.

These archaeological gems from the soils that surround Washington’s boyhood home provide details regarding the Washington family’s decisions about the furnishing of their home. Drapery provided privacy, embellished an otherwise drab surface, enhanced warmth, and allowed occupants to control the amount of sunlight in a room. Despite these contributions to comfort and elegant style, window curtains remained somewhat uncommon in colonial households during the second quarter of the 18th century, when documents demonstrate that the Washington home had curtains.

Curtains and wall hangings were noted in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory (see photo below). This document was created after Augustine, George’s father, died. It listed his possessions and their value. Probate inventories were created by gentlemen from the neighborhood who assessed the value of the recently deceased’s possessions for estate and tax purposes. Benjamin Berryman, Hancock Lee, and Adam Reid performed this task for the Washingtons in 1743.

The window hangings recorded in Augustine’s probate in the hall back room, which served as Augustine and Mary’s bed chamber, were almost twice as expensive as those found in the parlor room. They were valued at two shillings six pence for a single window curtain. The probate inventory also notes two additional sets of fine curtains under the heading “linen.” These were even more expensive than those within the home’s rooms.  One pair was composed of silk while the other was made from cotton.

ProbateP286HallBackRmCurtainsSmall copy

This detail from Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory indicates that the hall back room had two window hangings valued at 8 shillings.

While the assemblage of curtain rings excavated at Ferry Farm may appear modest, it is worth noting that Foundation archaeologists have excavated over 900 five-ft.-by-five-ft. excavation squares! That’s well over 22,000 square feet of soil screened.[1] Every inch of soil is screened through ¼-inch mesh screen and artifacts from all time periods are cleaned, cataloged, and curated at Ferry Farm. It is only through such a thorough and extensive excavation strategy, that any evidence for brass rings that supported wall and window hangings can be discovered.

If Ferry Farm was the homestead of a less famous family (whose records were less diligently preserved) or the home of a family who lacked the income level to warrant a probate inventory, these excavated rings would be the sole evidence of the existence of wall hangings, window hangings, or bed curtains. The few rings recovered from these extensive excavations alone allow us to infer that this family had hangings. Just how these rings were employed is not known with certainty using the material record alone but these archaeological remains alongside the probate inventory provide an exceptional opportunity for Foundation scholars to understand the mid-18th century Washingtons.

The presence of brass rings at Ferry Farm illustrates the importance of thorough excavation to recover small finds artifacts. Together with the probate inventory, these rings allow archaeologists, curators, and material culture specialists to compare – and to appreciate – what the Washingtons owed in 1743 versus what was preserved in the ground after hundreds of years.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

[1]Most excavation units extend to a depth of about one foot, though some proceed to even greater depths.

Further reading
Muraca, David, John Coombs, Phil Levy, Laura Galke, Paul Nasca and Amy Muraca
2011 Small Finds, Space, and Social Context: Exploring Agency in Historical Archaeology. Northeast Historical Archaeology 40:1-20.