Mickey Owen Was Found in the Plaster!: A Look at Some Curious Inclusions Found in Plaster from Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for the unique decorative plasterwork seen on many of its ceilings. However, some of its most unusual pieces of plaster were discovered during repair work being done in 1989. These were pieces of plaster that contained large clumps of animal hair and newspaper. An inspection of this plaster, considering an architectural artifact, in the Archaeology Lab has led to several theories about the reasons for these unconventional inclusions. But before we discuss these, it is important to first understand how historic plaster was made and used.

chamber-ceiling

Decorative plasterwork ceiling in the bed chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Plaster was one of the main finishes for interior walls in the United States until the introduction of drywall in the mid-20th century. The two main types produced were lime plaster and gypsum plaster. Lime plaster was made of water, lime, sand, and a fibrous material. The lime could be derived from limestone or oyster shells. The plaster found in Kenmore was probably made from oyster shells from the Rappahannock River, instead of limestone which is not native to this region. The fibrous material was some sort of animal hair such as horsehair, cow hair, hog hair, or even yak hair.[1] Gypsum plaster was introduced in the early 19th century and was often used in conjunction with lime plaster. Gypsum plaster did not require a fibrous binder and would eventually replace lime plaster as a finish coat.

Plaster was applied in a three-coat process. First was the scratch coat, which had the highest hair content of the three coats. This coat was applied to lathe board causing the plaster to ‘key’ (adhere) into the spaces between the lathes. Next, was the brown coat, which was dark in color due to its high content of sand. The last coat to be applied was the finish coat. This coat contained no hair, little sand, and a slightly higher lime content to create a smooth white finish.[2]

Now that we have a better understanding of how plaster is produced, let’s take a closer look at the unique pieces found at Kenmore. As discussed earlier, it is not unusual to find animal hair in plaster; however, the pieces pulled from Kenmore have exceptionally large clumps of hair not normally seen. Hair was added to plaster to act as a binder. It helped to hold the plaster together, reduce shrinkage, and improve strength.[3] Contrary to what one may believe, the process for obtaining hair for plaster was very selective. The hair had to be long, freshly cut, clean, non-greasy, and dry in order to be used in plaster. It also does not appear that people used hair from their own animals; instead, they bought hair from a tanner’s yard or a merchant. When choosing a hair type, horsehair was favored for its length and strength compared to cow or hog hair. [4]  However, horsehair was probably the most expensive and difficult to obtain out of the three.

Plaster 01

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains a large clump of animal hair.

Once the hair was acquired, it was mixed with the plaster. During this process, it was important to evenly distribute the hair throughout the plaster.[5] This was where the tradesmen making the plaster pieces found at Kenmore made a mistake. They did not distribute the hair properly causing the large clumps that we see. This caused problems when applying the plaster as well as limited the plaster’s strength.[6] Therefore, it can be concluded that the person making this plaster may not have been trained in plasterwork or was a worker under a tradesman who did not follow directions properly. Perhaps this is some experimental plaster made by William Key Howard, Jr. before he started his restoration of the decorative plasterwork on the ceilings of Kenmore in the post-Civil War period.

The next interesting inclusion found in the Kenmore plaster was pieces of newspaper. Newspaper was not used historically for the manufacture of plaster; however, a dozen or so pieces of plaster pulled from Kenmore included newspaper fragments. The newspaper appears to have been torn or balled up and then covered in plaster. A skilled tradesman would not have made or applied plaster in this way. From this, we can conclude that whoever applied this plaster was not trained.

Plaster 02

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains both animal hair and newspaper.

From inspection of the newspaper, perhaps we can learn a little more about who may have done this. Unfortunately, no dates can be found on the newspaper pieces to give a specific time frame. However, from careful inspection of the incomplete newspaper pieces, it appears that many of the pieces are from the comics or the sports section. On one of the small pieces the words Dodgers, shortstop, and Mickey Owen can be identified. From this, it can be assumed that the paper dates between 1941-1945, the years in which Mickey Owen played for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers experienced winning seasons in both 1941 and 1942, due to the skill of Mickey Owen and his teammates.[7] Therefore, it is likely that the newspaper article came from one of these two years. The time frame can also be limited to the months encompassing baseball season (April to October).

Plaster 03

Kenmore plaster bit containing newspaper that mentions Mickey Owen playing for the Dodgers.

With a probable date range for the plaster pieces, we can begin to look at who occupied Kenmore at the time and why they might have made plaster in this way. In 1922, Kenmore was purchased by the Kenmore Association and was operating as a museum by the 1940s. In the early ‘40s, the Kenmore Association was concluding one of its restorations. A possible theory for the inclusion of newspaper in the plaster is that this plaster was used to patch a hole during the restoration. The small amount of plaster found with newspaper inclusions and the way the newspaper is distributed throughout the plaster, with most of the newspaper layered on the bottom and consecutive layers of plaster seen on top, does point to a possible patch job,.

From the Kenmore 1941 correspondence records, a few references to repair work inside the house were found. In June of 1941, there is a reference to rewiring being done in the house. There is also mention of fire alarms being installed so that they do not show. Finally, the interior walls and ceilings were painted. On the receipt, the painter lists that some of the walls had to be mended. This is the most probable repair in which the newspaper would have been used as a patch. The hired painter was likely not trained in making/repairing historic plaster. This tradesman probably wanted a quick fix and layered newspaper over the spot and plastered over that in order to finish the paint job.

While plaster may not be the most exciting building material to study, it can give a lot of useful insight into the construction and repair of a house. Conclusions about the people commissioning and conducting the work can be derived from the composition and application of plaster. With a little investigation, even unusual inclusions in the plaster can lead to some surprising discoveries about the people who lived and worked at Kenmore and about the life story of Kenmore itself.

Tessa Honeycutt, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

[1] Henry, Allison, and John Stewart. Practical Building Conservation: Mortars, Plasters and Renders. Ashgate, 2009.

[2] Practical Building Conservation

[3] Practical Building Conservation

[4] Hodgson, Frederick Thomas. Plaster and Plastering: Mortars and Cements, How to Make and How to Use. New York: The Industrial Publication Company, 1901

[5] Ibid.

[6] Practical Building Conservation

[7] Ibid.

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Furnishings posts logo finalOn Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.” Meghan surveyed how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house using traditional decorative arts scholarship but also adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan discussed how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Video – Lecture: “The Mother of the Father of Our Country”

On Tuesday, September 12, 2017, Laura Galke, archaeologist, small finds analyst and site director at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.” Laura examined how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura explored how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflect their strategy for overcoming setbacks and exhibiting British colonial refinement.  The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Video – Lecture: “Building George’s House, Introducing the New Ferry Farm”

On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, Dave Muraca, director of archaeology and vice president of museum content at The George Washington Foundation, presented “Building George’s House: Introducing the New Ferry Farm,” his account of the last eighteen months as George Washington’s Ferry Farm witnessed the careful reconstruction of the Washington house using many traditional techniques. Dave reviewed the archaeology that made the reconstruction possible and recounted the work of the skilled craftsmen building George’s house. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Lecture Series will Introduce the New Ferry Farm

Aerial House Photo

A recent aerial view of the Washington house in the midst of construction at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Photo credit: Jimmy Cline

As construction of the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nears completion, we want to share the many years of archaeology, historical research, scientific investigation, skilled craftsmanship, and hard work that made building this reconstruction possible.  Next month, The George Washington Foundation will present a lecture series titled George Washington: Boy Before Legend – Introducing the New Ferry Farm over three consecutive Tuesdays.

First, on Tuesday, September 5, Dave Muraca, archaeologist and the Foundation’s vice president of museum content, will present “Building George’s House,” his account of the last eighteen months as Ferry Farm witnessed the careful reconstruction of the Washington House using many traditional techniques.  Dave’s talk will review the archaeology that made our replica possible and recount the work of the skilled craftsmen building George’s house.

Second, on Tuesday, September 12, archaeologist and artifacts analysts Laura Galke will present “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.”  Laura’s lecture will examine how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura will also discuss how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflected their strategy for overcoming setbacks and for exhibiting British colonial refinement.

Finally, on Tuesday, September 19, Meghan Budinger, director of curatorial operations, will survey how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house in “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.”  In recent years, accuracy in historic house museums has become a primary focus of the curator’s presentation to the public.  How we know what we know about the past has become almost as interesting as the objects we curate.  As such, curators are not only decorative arts scholars, but have adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan will discuss how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations.

Each lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. and admission is free. The lectures will take place at Central Rappahannock Regional Library Headquarters, 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.  For more information, call 540-370-0732 ext. 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Then, in October, celebrate the construction of the Washington house at a special ribbon-cutting event at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  More details soon!

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

The Man on the Ceiling: Neoclassical Decorating at Kenmore

As with many things at Historic Kenmore, the reasoning behind the choices Fielding and Betty Lewis made for their masterpiece of a house remain a mystery to us.  Why are Aesop’s Fables the subject of the decorative plaster overmantel in the Dining Room? Why is there an old-fashioned paneled wall in the Chamber? Why did they cover the expensive Drawing Room wallpaper with artwork but didn’t hang any art in the Dining Room? We’ll probably never know why they made most of these choices…but it’s pretty fun to speculate!

One such stylistic choice is at the center of the plasterwork ceiling in the master bedchamber.  Visitors to Kenmore may recall the man’s face surrounded by rays or beams of light depicted there.  It is believed that this man is Apollo, the Greek god, and that the light beams emanating from his head, in this case, indicate that he is being depicted as Apollo the Sun God (one of many titles attributed to him).

apollo-on-chamber-ceiling

Apollo on the ceiling of the master bedchamber at Historic Kenmore.

chamber-ceiling

The entire bedchamber ceiling with Apollo at the center.

When asked, we usually give visitors a fairly simple explanation for his position on the ceiling, something along the lines of “Apollo was a common symbol of the neoclassical style which was a popular decorating theme at the time.” That’s very true.  In the mid to late 18th century, the neoclassical style was all the rage throughout England and France, and much of the rest of Europe, as well.  As the story goes, the discoveries of the ruined ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii created a fascination with the ancient world that showed up in everything from window curtains to tea pots.  Although the fashion arrived in the American colonies a bit later than in Europe, and despite far fewer options for incorporating it into their homes, the gentry tried to bring the neoclassical flare to their houses, as well.

However, this explanation for Apollo’s presence in the Kenmore bedchamber may be a bit oversimplified.  After all, Apollo’s face is really the only identifiable neoclassical symbol in the entire house.  Why would Fielding and Betty choose to place this one symbol in this one room, and then completely ignore the neoclassical esthetic in the rest of the house?

Much has been made of the mysterious craftsman who created Kenmore’s famous plaster ceilings – could the Stucco Man simply have chosen Apollo imagery at random for the bedchamber? Or, could there be another, less obvious, meaning behind the depiction? Maybe we should be looking at the 18th century concept of Apollo himself, rather than his use as a decorative motif.

raleigh-tavern

Exterior of the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. Credit: Maggie McCain/Wikipedia

apollo-room

Raleigh Tavern’s Apollo Room in Benson Lossing’s The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution published in 1860. Lossing visited the tavern in the late 1850s just prior to a renovation (thus the depiction of tools in the room’s center). The tavern was destroyed by fire in 1859. Public domain. Credit: Wikipedia.

Kenmore’s bedchamber isn’t the only place that Apollo shows up in 18th century Virginia.  In fact, Apollo’s name is fairly common in the colony…especially in taverns.  Many inns and taverns had a room known as the Apollo Room.[1]  The most famous of these Apollo Rooms is probably the one at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, which was a well-known meeting space and the scene of large public gatherings, like balls or dinners.  When the House of Burgesses was disbanded by the royal governor in 1773, the burgesses simply moved themselves down the street to the Raleigh Tavern and conducted their business in the Apollo Room, drafting the non-importation act and other “treasonous” acts.  There is some thought that the Apollo Room in Williamsburg, and the other various Apollo Rooms in Virginia taverns, were named in honor of the Apollo Room at Hercules Pillars (or Pillars of Hercules, depending on who you talk to) in London.

pillars-of-hercules

The Pillars of Hercules pub as it appears today in Soho, London. Credit: Ewan Munro/Wikipedia

The Hercules was a tavern established sometime before 1709, and is actually still in business today.  The Hercules was a leader among the several taverns in London that catered to the gentlemen’s “clubs” that were so popular at the time.  Much like modern-day college fraternities, these clubs were often known for one thing or another – some focused on scientific discourse, some were patrons of the arts, some met to read poetry, some were political in nature, some were more raucous than others, but they were all essentially drinking clubs.  For their monthly dues, members could meet at their club’s tavern and imbibe or enjoy a good meal, and take part in good conversation.  At the Hercules, the club met in the Apollo Room.[2]  Although it was a bit of a disconnect, Apollo was used in this case as a symbol of refined culture and knowledge, as opposed Bacchus, a god who symbolized wild partying and debauchery.  Whatever the reality, the Apollo Room was intended to be a place for polite discourse and companionship.

Now, in a previous post on this blog, we discussed some archaeological evidence that Fielding may have had ties to a fraternal organization (that was essentially a drinking club, too) in England known as the Right Honorable Society of Bucks, and we know definitively that he was a member of the Fredericksburg masonic lodge, another fraternal, social organization.  Could that be the idea that Fielding was trying to express in putting Apollo’s head on the ceiling in the bedchamber – Apollo as a symbol of fraternity and knowledge? It would make sense, especially in light of the fact that Fielding was clearly trying to create the household of a proper English gentlemen when designing Kenmore.  Membership in these social clubs was probably prevalent among Fielding’s business associates in England, and certainly masonic membership was important for businessmen in Virginia.  Perhaps Fielding was subtly creating his own “Apollo Room.”

chamber

Kenmore’s master bedchamber

Alas, there is a glitch in this theory.  If Fielding is trying to create his own Apollo Room, or at least convey the idea of an Apollo Room, why did he choose the bedchamber for it? As visitors to Kenmore have no doubt learned on tour, the master bedchamber in an 18th century household was considered an entertaining space, so that’s not the issue – people other than Betty and Fielding spent time there.  It’s more that the bedchamber is typically the domain of the lady of the house.  It was Betty’s command central, she spent most of her day there, running the household, keeping tabs on the enslaved servants and tending to her children.  If there were visitors to be entertained there, they were most likely Betty’s visitors.  The bedchamber tends to have a feminine connotation.  If Fielding wanted to make his business associates and social guests aware of his culturally refined and knowledgeable status, wouldn’t he put the Apollo symbol in the Dining Room or the Drawing Room?

As I stated at the beginning of this post, there are many aspects of Kenmore that we might never fully understand, and the man on the ceiling is one of them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Study of Taverns in Virginia in the 18th Century. Department of Research, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1990.

[2] Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis, During the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, Vol. II. John Timbs, 1866.