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).

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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

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The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009

 

 

The Wine Bottle: Ubiquitous and Informative

Ah, the humble wine bottle.  There are few historical archaeological sites without them and Ferry Farm is no exception.  Our current mending project has produced about a dozen wine bottles from one Washington house cellar feature alone.  Readily identifiable because their form has changed little in the past 250 years, these beauties are sometimes overlooked in favor of fancier or more exotic artifacts.  However, there is much we can learn from the sherds of wine bottles and much history wrapped up in their existence on colonial sites.

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Mid-18th century bottle neck and base fragments excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

Let’s start with what wine bottles cannot tell us. They can’t actually tell us whether or not folks were drinking wine.  Huh?  Well, ‘wine’ bottles of the colonial period held anything from vinegar to gin and all liquids in between.   Yes, many contained wine but the modern use of ‘wine’ to describe these bottles, with their tall, cylindrical shape and dark green-colored glass, is really just a reflection of what we exclusively drink from them currently.

Most 18th and 19th century wine bottles held a variety of substances over their lifetimes.  Bottles were not cheap before industrialization made them relatively disposable and were often listed in probate inventories.  Recycling is nothing new.  Your average 18th century household carefully cleaned out each empty bottle for reuse when needed.  The inside was scoured with sand, small pebbles, or lead shot (which is a terrible idea). It is not uncommon to find wine bottles archaeologically that exhibit heavy use wear on the inside and outside from years of being drained, cleaned, refilled and used for storage, serving, and transport.  Truly, the wine bottle was a workhorse.

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An example of what the bottles excavated at Ferry Farm looked when they were whole.

Where did these ever-present bottles come from?  For the most part, from England.  This isn’t surprising given that colonials weren’t really allowed to trade with any other countries.  While there were some early glass houses in the Americas, their production was nowhere near that of England’s well-established glass industry.  The English produced squat and sturdy wine bottles of very dark glass often dubbed ‘black glass’ able to survive shipping across the Atlantic.  They were filled before the trip and used as ballast in the ship, the contents often being worth more than the bottle itself.

For the most part, these ‘black glass’ wine bottles were filled with wine but not the wine that you’re likely familiar with.  Your typical red or white wine would not survive the months-long tumultuous ocean journey (with its extremes of temperature and humidity) from Europe to America. It would be vinegar by the time it arrived, if you were lucky.

However, wine fortified with a hard liquor such as brandy would halt fermentation and oxidation processes and make the wine both transportable AND much higher octane once it arrived for thirsty colonials.  Subsequently, a lot of the wine enjoyed in 18th century America was fortified.  Not only did these fortified wines such as Madeira, port, sherry, Masala, or Malaga survive the nasty voyage across the ocean, they actually tasted better once they reached their destination.  Fortified wines are total masochists and basically thrive under neglect and abuse.  The more rocking of the boat the better.  Fortified wines also love extremes of temperature and humidity.  In fact, bottlers often documented the voyage a particular wine took.  Madeira and Port that traveled south of the equator and then back north again fetched top dollar because they had been exposed to the extreme conditions of the tropics.

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“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But why import all this wine?  Surely it would have been cheaper and easier to make it locally like most other colonial food and beverages.  Well, the colonists tried….and tried…and tried.  Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the great innovators of his day and a celebrated lover of wine, failed in this task, although not for lack of effort.  It turns out that European grapes do not do well in the Americas and tend to wither from disease and pests.  Additionally, North America’s few native grapes are ill-suited to making fine wine.  It was not until recently in our history as a country that we’ve succeeded in growing hybrid grape varieties that will produce a palatable wine.  We had a much better track record of making wine out of pretty much everything else (dandelions, apples, barley, peaches, quince, and any berry they could get their hands on).  Seeing as it was unimaginable that our founding fathers go without one of their favorite beverages, both wine and wine bottles ended up making their way across the Atlantic in large quantities.

All of this brings us back to the Washington family wine bottles.  Their presence is not a surprise but finding them has us pondering the importance of wine in the colonies, the intricacies of colonial transatlantic trade, and the value of seemingly everyday objects in colonial society.  Of course it’s also fun to contemplate all of the libations they may have held over the years until a careless hand shattered them and banished the bottles to the trash midden where they would await discovery by archaeologists two and a half centuries later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Grasse, Steven.  Colonial Spirits:  A Toast to Our Drunken History.  Abrams Image, New York.  2016

Hancock, David.  Oceans of Wine:  Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  2009.

Jones, Olive R.  Cylindrical English Wine & Beer Bottles 1735-1850.  Minister of Supply and Services, Canada.  1986.

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

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.

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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.

The Colorful Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are identifying 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.  In a previous blog post, we looked at some of the fancy colorless glass that adorned the Washington family’s dining table.  While this clear glass definitely dominates our collection, we’ve also discovered quite a few vessels of colored glass including deep cobalt blue, amethyst, smoky quartz, and milky white.

Glass is made from silica sand, soda ash, and lime. Its color is dictated, in part, by impurities in the silica sand such as iron which causes the glass to turn the dark shades of green seen in early colonial wine bottles.

Early glassmakers found ways to reduce the amount of this iron and created colorless glass. Colorless glass was by far the most common used as tableware. Much of the clear glass on Mary Washington’s table was also made with a lead oxide additive, which achieved the desired “crystal clear” look and produced heavier and more refractive table glass.

Early glassmakers also found that when other types of metal oxides were added to the silica sand, soda ash, and lime, the result was different colors of glass. This colored glass could still be infused with some amount of lead oxide to give it clarity.

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French glass blowers at work. Credit: Bill Lindsey / Society for Historical Archaeology

The glass belonging to the Washingtons discussed below was handmade in the 1700s, meaning it was mouth-blown by a skilled glass blower and, in some cases, hand decorated.

Cobalt Blue Goblet or Wine Glass
Our first piece is a base sherd with partial stem.  The beautiful sapphire color of this sturdy stemware was created using cobalt oxide as a coloring agent.

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Likely made in England, it has a rather hefty base compared to our other stemwares and belonged to a goblet or wine glass. Any number of beverages could have been held in this glass, although today we commonly associate goblets with water and wine glasses with, well, wine.

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Smoky Quartz Wine Rinser
The wine rinser has passed out of use in modern society.  It was used on the formal gentry table for washing wine glasses between uses or meal courses. When a new wine was brought to the table, the glasses would be placed in the rinser to flush the previous wine from the glass.  The small spouts on either side are meant to support an upside-down wine glass by the stem in water.

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Not only did tableware like this reflect wealth enough to afford multiple wines and meal courses, it was also a colorful piece that stood out among the colorless wine glasses on the table. The smoky-colored lip fragments and the thin, blue green fragments in our collection are believed to be from two different wine rinsers.

The smoky fragment is a rather unusual color but was created with similar metal oxides as the blue/green piece. Greys, greens, and colors-in-between are created using mixtures of iron, chromium, and copper. Adding cobalt to this mix created variations of blue/green.

The amethyst rinser pictured below is from our own collection at Historic Kenmore. Amethyst glass was created using manganese and sometimes nickel.

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Amethyst Wine Rinser from the Historic Kenmore collection.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler
This tumbler or beaker fragment is made from opaque white or ‘milk’ glass and was produced by adding tin or zinc oxides, fluorides, and phosphates to the glass.  Germany was known for its production of milk glass but it was produced in other parts of Europe as well. In general, tumblers were used for mixed alcoholic beverages and, like other table wares, reflected the status the owner wanted to present to visitors.  Although it is difficult to see, this vessel was hand-painted or ‘enameled’.  Centuries in the dirt were not kind to the decoration, however, and we are left only with a ghost of the original painting known as a ‘fugitive design’.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler

Milk glass with fugitive design recovered by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

At one time, this glass was vibrant and colorful and was likely gilded with gold leaf like the German example pictured below.

Amethyst Glass
We only have a small fragment of deep purple amethyst glass, and cannot determine a vessel form without a bigger piece.

Amethyst Glass (2)

Small piece of amethyst glass recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm.

Again, like with the other colored pieces of tableware, amethyst was for formal dining and a showpiece to visitors. The shape and faceting of this fragment may have resembled this circa 1800 amethyst goblet.One of the rarer table glass colors is Amethyst. As mentioned earlier, this color was created with the addition of manganese and sometimes nickel as a coloring agent.

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

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramic & Glass Specialist

Source:

Mackay, James. Antiques at a Glance: Glass.PRC Publishing Ltd. London. 2002. Print.

“A Silly Bauble”: Ferry Farm’s Sputnik Moment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, into orbit.  It was an event with consequences, both great and small, that spanned the globe, even reaching Ferry Farm, once the boyhood home of George Washington, in Virginia. Today, we reshare this blog post about Ferry Farm’s Sputnik moment.

Sputniks and mutniks, flying through the air,
Sputniks and mutniks, flying everywhere,
It’s so ironic. Are they atomic?
Those funny missiles have got me scared.
-Lyrics from “Sputniks and Mutniks” by Ray Anderson and the Home Folks (1958)

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A replica of Sputnik at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Credit: NASA/Wikipedia.

“Beep, Beep, Beep…” went the sinister telemetry signals from the Earth’s first artificial satellite.  Launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 — 59 years ago today — those irritating beeps, which can be heard below, provided undeniable evidence of the successful launch. It occurred during the Cold War between the Communist East and the Capitalist West, and represented the dawn of the space age. Embedded within Sputnik were two radio transmitters that, using a single watt of power, broadcast a series of beeps received by radios and televisions all over the world. These beeping sounds frightened some, who mistrusted the technological breakthrough and its potential military applications.

 

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Uncle Sam is “Awake at Last” from his bed of complacency while Sputnik can be seen through the window hurtling across the sky transmitting it’s urgent ‘beep.’ Cartoon by Edwin Marcus. Credit: Library of Congress

Sputnik roused considerable political anxiety on the part the United States, a country determined to perfect satellite technology and to engage in cosmic exploration.  They underestimated the progress of the Soviet program. Today, in popular parlance, a “sputnik moment” refers to being spectacularly caught off guard by the unanticipated advancements of a rival. President Obama incorporated “Sputnik moment” in his 2011 State of the Union Address designed to encourage investment in research and technology.

At the height of the crisis in 1957, the Eisenhower administration referred to Sputnik as “…a silly bauble….” The satellite represented a rather modest accomplishment whose engineers prioritized being first in orbit over producing a sophisticated data-gathering tool. Recently, some scholars have suggested that the satellite was a bit of a ‘bluff’ to make the United States believe that the Soviet program was more sophisticated than it was.  Like many martial ‘bluffs,’ the impact was far-reaching and it exacerbated and escalated an already frigid Cold War.

About the size of a beach ball, Sputnik orbited less than 600 miles above earth. Each orbit lasted 96 minutes. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1958 as a response to this (perceived) technological “wake up” call. Nationally, efforts to strengthen primary school science education ensued and encouraged more students to seek technologically-oriented careers in service of a more robust space program.

In 2014, Ferry Farm archaeologists unearthed a tangible prize from this moment: a plastic toy “Sputnik” finger ring. Remember that Ferry Farm remained home to a variety of individuals and families in the centuries since the Washingtons lived there.  The flashy gold-colored ring, originally dispensed from a gumball machine, featured an idealized image of the satellite and the word “SPUTNIK.” It was no doubt cherished by its original owner, and envied by the prospective young space explorer’s friends.

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The Sputnik ring recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

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A 3D image of the Sputnik ring.

As an archaeologist, the find confused me: why would toys commemorating Soviet satellites exist in the United States?  Who would buy this celebratory object for their child? For goodness sake this land had once been Washington’s home, first president of the definitely-not communist United States. I foremost saw the object through a politico-military lens, rather than as a space-age wonder for all people.

In popular American culture of the late 1950s, the surprise of Sputnik frequently was one of delight rather than apprehension. For some, those cosmic beeps were inspirational, promising future space travel and technological progress. From this new age of cosmic exploration emerged songs, dance, theatre, literature, and graphic art.

A generation of young Americans, enthralled by science fiction adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, could not contain their excitement.  They were captivated by the real-life manifestation of their outer space fantasies. The launch excited children who dreamed of the day they might defend the earth against hostile invaders from space. Kids who spent their school days engaged in “duck and cover” drills ironically raced out to their back yard for a glimpse of the Soviet technology racing across the night sky.

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American child’s drawing of Sputnik by a female, aged 13, October 18, 1957. Crayon on paper. Credit: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (252L)

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American child’s drawing of Sputnik by a female, aged 13, October 16, 1957. Crayon on paper. Credit: Manuscript Division , Library of Congress (252h)

The satellite orbited the earth for three months, though its radio signals tactfully subsided after three weeks.  Sputnik’s orbit eroded 4 January 1958.  Its effects were as far reaching as they were long lasting.

The Sputnik launch garnered a diverse array of reactions nationally and internationally: pride, disquiet, excitement, imagination, and infinite inspiration. The rich variety of these responses led to the creation of a wide range of material culture – objects as small and inexpensive as a child’s toy ring and as massive an investment as the Kennedy Space Center. People created – and experienced – music, technology, literature, dance, and theatre that allowed them to understand this event in ways relevant to their own lives.   These responses reflect humankind’s desire to comprehend pivotal events that are beyond their control through personal agency.  Material culture – artifacts – gives us the capacity to participate in, to understand, and to ‘own,’ grand events that are larger than we are.

This was true in the past as well, as the assorted artifacts analyzed daily at Ferry Farm attest. Prehistoric ground stone tools were an astonishing advancement in their time: this technology allowed our ancestors to maximize the nutritional benefits of nuts, seeds, and grains, to fell trees that made dwellings more comfortable, and to toss spears farther and with greater force. Such scientific wonders no doubt inspired non-ground stone-producing peoples to invest in technological developments of their own.

Have a Sputnik moment! Let’s redefine the phrase to commemorate the boundless scientific and artistic creativity that the launch stimulated, rather than the political anxiety that emerged. Create a technologically- or arts-inspired marvel of your own! Don’t avoid sputnik moments… pursue them.  Show your support for World Space Week, which is held annually October 4-10. To learn more about this year’s events: http://www.worldspaceweek.org/

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Blair, Elizabeth
2007  “Sputnik in Space and Song.”  National Public Radio.  Accessed 15 September 2016. http://www.npr.org/temptates/story/story.php?storyId=14937486.

Blough, Glenn O.
1957  “Children, Put Away Your Sputniks.”  The Science Teacher 24(8):373-374.

Bonner, Thomas N.
1958  “Sputniks and the Educational Crisis in America.”  The Journal of Higher Education 29(4):177-184, 232.

Brandau, Daniel
2015  “Demarcations in the Void: Early Satellites and the Making of Outer Space.”  Historical Social Rsearch/Historische Sozialforschung 40(1[151]):239-264.

Cowen, Ron
2007  “Sputnik + 50: Remembering the Dawn of the Space Age.”  Science News 172(14):216-217, 221.

Kabakchi, V. V. and Charles Clay Doyle
1990  “Of Sputniks, Beatniks, and Nogoodniks.”  American Speech 65(3):275-278.

Launius, Roger D.
2009  “Abandoned in Place: Interpreting the U.S. Material Culture of the Moon Race.”  The Public Historian 31(3):9-38.

Moskowitz, Clara
2012  “How Sputnik Changed the World 55 Years Ago Today”.  Space.com. http://www.space.com/17894-sputnik-anniversary-changed-the-world.html.  Accessed 14 September 2016.

Osgood, Kenneth
2006  Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.

Starnes, Bobby Ann
2011 “Change, Sputnik, and Fast Food.”  The Phi Delta Kappan 92(7):72-73.

Usselman, Steven W.
2010  “From Sputnik to SCOT: The Historiography of American Technology.”  OAH Magazine of History 24(3):9-14.