“I Look Not On Things Beneath Me”: Our Snobbiest Artifact, a Wax Seal Stamp That Needs To Dial Back that Sass

‘Haughty’ is not a word used often to describe artifacts.  That is, of course, unless the artifact in question is a glass wax seal stamp with a kind of snooty message on it.  Of diminutive size (smaller than a dime) with a pretty little flower in the center it proclaims in reversed letters “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me”.

Kenmore Wax Seal Stamp 1

Wax seal stamp excavated by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

Seal Excavated at Kenmore 2

Closeup view of the wax seal through a digital microscope.

Drawing of Wax Seal Stamp

A drawing of the wax seal stamp with the text reversed so it is legible.

Initially thought to be a signet ring, archaeologists at Ferry Farm reexamined it and determined the itty bitty blue piece of glass is actually a wax seal stamp used to personalize letters.  This seems to be an odd choice of message for the recipient of a correspondence but who are we to judge?

Found at Kenmore, this pretty little thing likely dates to the late Victorian period and would have been worn by a woman, possibly at the end of a chatelaine.  Chatelaines were all the rage with Victorian women and consisted of a long chain worn around the neck with charms at the end, which could be tucked into one’s dress or belt.  These charms often had practical uses.  Common chatelaine charms included tiny scissors, cute vials, petite magnifying glasses, and minuscule mirrors.

Unfortunately, some fashionable lady lost this at Kenmore over a hundred years ago, possibly while wandering through the garden, drink in hand, and idly thinking of sending off a letter sealed with a snarky wax message reminding everyone that “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me.”

It’s a good thing that we archaeologists don’t take the same attitude.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Finding a Boyd’s Battery: An “Electrifying” Ferry Farm Story

“THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE!” ACCOMPLISHED AT LAST! THE EFFICACY OF ELECTRICITY!! Nearly all Diseases Effectually Cured by BOYD’S MINIATURE GALVANIC BATTERY!

This is the opening pitch of an 1879 advertising circular for a popular medical medallion called a Boyd’s Battery.  The battery was a disc, about 1¼ inch in diameter, meant to hang from one’s neck on a cord and that used the “soft and gentle” galvanic action of electricity to purportedly cure a host of diseases.

The medallion consisted of a flower-shaped central disc of copper and brass, surrounded by twelve smaller discs of various metals, all encased within another metallic band. These adjoining metals, using the humidity of the wearer’s skin, would supposedly produce a gentle electrical charge that was transferred to the wearer’s bloodstream. “By electrifying the blood, it stimulates the entire system, so that it enables nature to throw off nearly all diseases, and causes the blood to become youthful and vigorous in its action,” the advertisement claimed.

Boyd's Batteries

A complete Boyd’s Battery (left) next to a portion of one (right) excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Boyd's Battery Reverse

Reverse of a Boyd’s Battery showing it’s patent date as Jan. 17, 1878.

Part of a Boyd’s Battery was excavated in 2006 at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the summer excavations around the site of the 18th century era Washington home.  The only surviving part of the battery found was the rosette-shaped innermost disc, stamped with “BOYD’S BATTERY.” Jane and John Corson, who bought the property in 1872, owned Ferry Farm during the late 19th century during the height of popularity for Boyd’s Batteries. John Corson’s death notice in the April 1, 1887 Fredericksburg Free Lance mentioned that he suffered a shock of paralysis a couple of years before his death from a stroke.[1] We’ll never know for sure but perhaps Mr. Corson was trying to relieve or cure his symptoms of paralysis by wearing a Boyd’s Battery?

“Professor” James C. Boyd, a man of dubious legitimacy in the real academic world, patented Boyd’s Batteries in 1878. Each medallion cost just 50 cents and results were guaranteed or your money back. The instructions specified a battery should be worn day and night directly on the skin, though it was recommended that children under six should wear a battery only at night. In certain extreme cases, two batteries could be worn at the same time, one on the chest and the other between the shoulder blades.  The batteries lasted a lifetime but the ad circular cautioned that “under no circumstances should the same Battery be used by two different persons, as the disease from one would be conveyed to the other.”

The list of diseases and conditions that allegedly could be cured by wearing this medallion was impressive and wide-ranging.  Patients suffering from the following conditions were encouraged to wear it: paralysis, restless nights, gout, sciatica, fainting spells, disordered conditions of the liver, blood and kidneys, loss of confidence, loss of manhood, female complaints, asthma, deafness, ulcers and tumors, chills, vertigo, and the list goes on.  Boyd did add a disclaimer to his product that also listed diseases or conditions the battery could not cure, such as yellow fever, cholera, congestion of the brain, gleet, influenza, worms, whooping cough and consumption.

Advertising circulars and testimonial books extolled the merits of the product. One book, titled “Boyd’s Battery” listed numerous testimonials from satisfied patients that were meant to sway unconvinced customers.  Boyd also used the circulars in his search for agents to sell his products.  Boyd’s Batteries were sold to the public either door to door, by mail order, or through businesses such as druggists.

Electricity has a long history of being used for the treatment of pain and disease.  Roman, Greek, and Egyptian doctors treated patients with arthritis, epilepsy, and migraines by touching or attaching electric eels or fish to the affected areas.  In one case a live torpedo fish, also known as a “narce”, was placed on the head of a patient suffering from migraines and left there until the area was numb.

The use of electricity as a therapeutic procedure gained momentum during the late 18th century after scientist Luigi Galvani observed twitches in the legs of dead frogs when they were touched by an electrical current. Further electrical experimentation by fellow scientists followed and by the early 19th century a small number of hospitals had organized their own electrical therapy departments.

By the 1870s, there were numerous self-help products sold to the general public touting the healing effects of electricity and Boyd’s Battery was not the only medical medallion to capitalize on this trend.  There were a number of direct battery knock offs produced under the names of Sagendorph, Elias, Richardson, Flanigan, and Downing, differing only in their battery design.

J.C. Boyd went into the battery business in 1878 with his partner, Ellis H. Elias. Boyd supplied the startup money and Elias ran the daily business.  Interestingly, Elias, and his brothers William, Henry, and Richard, were well-known con men of the time, running a number of different scams and swindles in New York City and Cincinnati during the 1870s and 1880s.  They were constantly being hounded by the authorities who were trying to shut down their many illegal schemes. Even Ellis Elias’ death notice in the New York Times [PDF] noted “his connection with various enterprises of a doubtful character” and referred to him as “the chief of the gang of sawdust swindlers.”

Boyd’s Batteries clearly fell into the category of a “scheme or swindle.” In fact, there was some question as to exactly who was the original inventor of “Boyd’s” Battery.  In a case before the New York Supreme Court, Boyd testified that he wasn’t sure who invented the battery but that it wasn’t him.  In fact, Richard Elias testified that his brother Ellis initially used George Sagendorph’s name in the battery business before using Boyd’s name in 1878. The circulars for the Sagendorph and Boyd Batteries were practically identical and it was a common practice at that time to simply slap a new name onto a previous business and continue on with the swindle.[2] Even though journalists at the time exposed such schemes as frauds, they were still surprised that “people will believe that the wearing of the thing does them good.”[3]

People today are still looking for self-help treatments that don’t involve doctors or medically-approved medicines and treatments and there are a multitude of dubious products out there right now to fill this need.  Surprisingly, even George Washington placed his trust in a similar product of his time called Perkins Metallic Tractors.

Perkins Metallic Tractors

Perkins Metallic Tractors, c. 1800. Credit: Hugh Talman / National Museum of American History

The Tractors were patented by Elisha Perkins in 1797 and consisted of two metal pins, one brass and one steel, that when rubbed together over an affected area would supposedly cure rheumatism, gout, burns, boils, cramps, and even cancer. Even though the efficacy of this product was promptly debunked by scientists, Perkin’s Metallic Tractors like the later Boyd’s Battery continued to be a popular product.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

[1] Fredericksburg Free Lance, April 1, 1887, page 3. Death notice of Mr. John D. Corson.

[2] John C. Boyd vs. Richard H. Elias and Jennie C. Elias. 329. Supreme Court of New York. 1882. https://books.google.com/books?id=87qtRL2WrTAC

[3] American Agriculturalist, Volume 39, page 133. 1880.  Google Books. Retrieved 4/3/2018.  https://books.google.com/books?id=RRhOAAAAYAAJ

A Thimble of My Love

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A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

FF-Graduated Thimbles-shoptSmall

A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.

FerryFarm20Dec1862

“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.

FF.2794-NOT-2SmallLines

Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.

FFForgetThimbleBlogLines

It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

Payment Tokens… Of a Different Kind

Tokens (1)

Two of 21 payment tokens discovered by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

During excavations around and under Kenmore’s 19th century portico in the early 2000s, archaeologists discovered several small metal disks.  Some disks were significantly corroded but a few still showed markings clearly.  They were stamped with the words “Braxton Mason & Co” as well as “1 day” and on another disk “5”. The disks had oval-shaped holes punched through the middle.  Over the years, excavations have found a total of 21 disks scattered around Kenmore.

Tokens (2)

Archival box containing artifact bags of payment tokens recovered during excavations at Kenmore.

What were these disks? The machine-made nature of both the disks and the stamped words on them suggested they dated much later the 18th century and were more likely from the late 19th or even early 20th centuries.  The first clue to their purpose was the holes punched in the middle of each disk, which suggested they were intended to be strung together on a chain or key ring.  Though of different shapes and materials, similar artifacts intended to be strung together in the same manner had been excavated at other sites around Fredericksburg, especially on the nearby Northern Neck.  In those instances, the artifacts were identified as payment tokens used by workers in the “truck farming” industry.  Day laborers were hired to pick produce, which was collected by the bushel-full in trucks and then sold roadside from the same trucks.  For every bushel of produce picked, the laborer received a payment token, usually marked with either the amount “1 bushel” or so many pounds.  At the end of the day or of the week, laborers lined up to trade in their tokens for payment.  As the 20th century progressed, the Northern Neck became a center for the food canning industry, and eventually the small truck farms raised produce almost solely to supply 120 canneries.  These canneries started issuing their own payment tokens often stamped with the company name. [1]

For a long time, it was believed the metal tokens found at Kenmore were payment tokens related to truck farming.  The thought was that the Howard family, who owned Kenmore from 1881 until 1914, perhaps used the remaining land surrounding the house for a small truck farming operation.  The tokens probably had been inadvertently dropped by laborers around the property.  On its surface, this seemed a plausible explanation and was added to the canon of Kenmore’s history.

Upon closer inspection, however, there were issues with the truck farming theory.  First, Braxton Mason & Co was neither a Northern Neck cannery nor a business anywhere in the Fredericksburg area in the 20th century.  Also, the Kenmore tokens were stamped with time increments instead of quantities.  Lastly, there was no other evidence of the Howards being involved in truck farming.

Working in the museum field has its definite perks, and one of them is that we have access to a vast network of people who possess an impressive amount of knowledge about a wide variety of topics.  Almost all of them love a good mystery!  Armed with the name Braxton Mason & Co and a rough date range of 1820 to 1880, I put out a call to museum colleagues in Virginia.  Had anyone ever heard of Braxton Mason & Co? Did anyone have any idea what kind of business it was? Within days, I began receiving bits of information and a truly interesting picture began to emerge.

First, a colleague from Petersburg found a tiny reference to Braxton Mason & Co in the Railroad Gazette of 1871.  The single sentence stated that the company won the contract to build a portion of the Lynchburg and Danville railroad.[2]  Braxton Mason & Co was a railroading firm!  But who were the individuals Braxton and Mason? The Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia for 1870 recorded that a Mr. Braxton and two gentlemen named Mason were among a group of 24 investors who formed the Fredericksburg & Northern Neck Railway Company in April.  Could this Braxton and one of the two Masons be our guys?

A second colleague found reference to a Carter M. Braxton in the Fredericksburg City Council minutes of 1866. With the Civil War over, the city renewed pre-war efforts to build a railway line to Gordonsville.[3] The project’s engineer was Carter Braxton.  The Fredericksburg-Gordonsville Railroad was completed in 1870, just before Braxton Mason & Co was contracted to build the Lynchburg-Danville line.  Could Carter Braxton and one of his fellow investors (named Mason) in the Fredericksburg Northern Neck Railroad Company have split off and formed a smaller railway business? At the moment, that seems the likely explanation.

So, that explains what Braxton Mason & Co was but what did it have to do with Kenmore? A third colleague inadvertently came up with a potential answer.  In order for Carter Braxton to complete the rail line to Gordonsville, the 1866 city council minutes said, swampy land that was part of the Kenmore property needed to be drained.  It was decided the “owners of Kenmore” would be asked to contribute since they would benefit financially from the railway’s construction.  The third colleague involved in this research had done extensive work establishing Kenmore’s ownership history.  The upheaval of the Civil War kept this history a bit cloudy.  Deeds and records of sale simply did not survive.  Because of my colleague’s work, however, we know that, in 1866, Kenmore’s owner was Levi Beardsley, a New Yorker who came to Virginia after the war in hopes of finding promising business ventures.[4]  As New Yorkers were not popular in the South, he told people that he was actually from Iowa.  His secret came to light during a failed political campaign in 1868 and his various business ventures began to crumble.  In order to keep Kenmore safe from his creditors, he put it into trust for his wife.[5]  The trustee was a man named William Barton.

In 1870, the same year that Braxton Mason & Co began taking contracts on their own, Beardsley and his wife finally gave up and left Virginia.  Kenmore was supposedly auctioned off, but it appears that William Barton retained control of the property.  Shortly thereafter, Barton rented the house out to tenants.  We have never known the identity or number of these tenants.

Tokens (3)

The 19th century portico on the east front of Kenmore.

Is it possible that, while working on the Fredericksburg-Gordonsville Railroad that crossed Kenmore property, Braxton Mason & Co housed their workers at Kenmore itself? Did laborers gather on the house’s portico each week to collect payment for their tokens, some of which were accidentally dropped nearby? It would certainly explain the presence of these perplexing metal disks and fill in the gap of who was living at Kenmore after 1870.  Whether this theory can be proven with certainty remains to be seen but, in the end, it’s the investigation that makes it fun…with a little help from our friends.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Dodd, Anita L. Day Laborer Tokens: Meaning and Function at Two 18th Century Plantations. 2006.

[2] Railroad Gazette, vol. 3, 1871. Pg. 68.  Reference provided by Emmanuel Dabney, Curator, Petersburg National Battlefield.

[3] Minutes of the City Council of Fredericksburg, 1866.  Reference provided by Judy Hynson, Archivist, Stratford Hall.

[4] Walker, Travis. Levi A. Beardsley and Family. 2013.

[5] Norman, Gary J. and Edgar R. Hon. Kenmore’s Yankees: The Beardsleys in Fredericksburg. 1996.