Thievery, Espionage, and Fancy Dishes: Why Porcelain Was a Big Deal for the Washington Family

Porcelain is the king of all ceramics.  As resilient as it is beautiful, porcelain has long fascinated many people.  During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Chinese began exporting porcelain to Europeans, who coveted the precious dishes to the point that porcelain became more as valuable as gold.  Europeans obsessed over how it was produced and various countries sent spies, attempted to kidnap those with the knowledge, and sought to steal texts describing the process.  The Chinese closely guarded the secret, however, and the recipe for the clays and how to get the firing temperature high enough (between 2,200, and 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit) remained a mystery.  The Chinese had been making hard-paste porcelain (as opposed to soft-paste porcelain, which was considered less desirable) for over a thousand years.  That’s a well-kept secret, folks.

Porcelain (1)

Tea canister with hand painted landscape motif.

In the 16th century, the first Europeans attempted to make porcelain in Florence but without success.  Following that, Portuguese traders returned from China with kaolin, a clay found to be key in making porcelain, but they didn’t know what else to add to it so it would survive the high firing.  Then, around 1700, a teenage alchemy apprentice with poor judgement named Johann Friedrich Böttger boasted that he knew the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that would turn base metals into gold.   Word got out and he was kidnapped first by Frederick I of Prussia and then Augustus II the Strong of Poland.  Augustus locked him up in Dresden and ordered him to make good on his claim.  Obviously he couldn’t and to avoid being killed by the increasingly impatient king, he reluctantly partnered in 1707 with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a scientist working on developing porcelain.  Combining their efforts resulted in the first hard-paste porcelain manufactured in Europe and resulted in the establishment of the Meissen porcelain factory in 1710.

Porcelain (2)

Saucer fragment (rim and body) with hand painted landscape motif and gilding

But the intrigue doesn’t end there.  In 1712, Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit, learned the secrets of how the Chinese manufactured porcelain with the help of Chinese he had converted to Catholicism.  He published a letter detailing the process, in what was arguably an act of industrial espionage, and it began circulating through Europe.  To further complicate matters, Samuel Stölzel, an employee of the Meissen factory, which fought hard to prevent its employees from blabbing about their secret for making porcelain, fled the factory’s oppressive conditions in 1719. He made it to Vienna, where he promptly spilled the aforementioned secret.  Within a few decades, porcelain was being produced widely across Europe.  Although Chinese porcelain was still highly valued, their exports began to drop off.

Porcelain (3)

Rim sherds from a hand painted teacup.

As evidenced by all this thievery and espionage, porcelain was a big deal.  Owning porcelain was a sign of status and refinement.  If you were of the European upper class, it was imperative that you own these fancy dishes AND show them off whenever possible.  It was no less imperative for the gentry class in British North America.  Archaeological analysis of the Washington family’s porcelain illustrates that they were very much a part of this culture of conspicuous consumption when they lived at Ferry Farm.

Porcelain (4)

Rim and body sherds from a hand painted punch bowl in the Imari palette.

Our current mending project, piecing together porcelain sherds recovered from Ferry Farm, revealed dozens of distinct dishes once owned by the family.  George Washington’s mother Mary owned porcelain predominantly from China.  Interestingly, all were teawares as opposed to dinner wares.  While dinner was definitely a time to show off one’s ‘good china’, colonial tea time was arguably an even better opportunity.  Serving tea in the 18th century had a large ceremonial aspect and was an opportunity for those participating to show off how cultured they were while serving a beverage (also from the distant locale of China as well as India) linked closely to high status.  Perhaps Mary, a widow on a budget, decided to put her limited resources into more conspicuous teawares rather than dinner plates and bowls.  Previous analysis in our archaeology lab indicates that Mary preferred a ceramic called white salt-glazed for her dinner dishes.

Porcelain (5)

Hand painted partial teacup with scalloped rim.

Porcelain (6)

Matching saucer for teacup for teacup immediately above.

It has also been interesting to discover the china patterns that Mary favored, which include landscape scenes, abstract geometrical designs, and floral patterns.  While she did not appear to own ‘sets’ of china she did have cups that matched saucers, a further illustration of refinement.  As complete sets of china were not common in the middle of the 18th century, one could attempt to match up similar color palettes.  Although we’ve identified dozens of motifs in our collection, there is little evidence for Mary matching the palettes of her porcelains.  Her table, as with most colonial households, was a lot more varied in colors and patterns than we expect in the modern day.  Mary’s porcelains were delicate and skillfully hand-painted with brushes sometimes containing no more than a few bristles.  Many of the teawares are also gilded, which was a premium type of decoration for the time.

Porcelain (7)

Two chocolate/coffee style cups. Hand painted and likely gilded.

In addition to teacups and saucers, our archaeologists have identified one tea canister and a few coffee or chocolate style cups, which tend to have taller and straighter sides and be of a smaller diameter.

With this mending experiment under our belt it’s on to the next one in our never ending quest to learn as much as we can about the Washington family!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Chock Full o’ Minie Balls: A Civil War Mystery

Old, crushed, and rusted food cans in and of themselves aren’t terribly interesting, at least not to me.  But when the can contains 150-year-old bullets, it becomes very interesting indeed.  Recently, while going through our artifact collection database, I came across an item excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly 20 years ago and simply listed as a ‘can’.  Wanting to know the exact nature of this can (Was it a food can? Was it a paint can?), I looked at the database’s comments section, which sometimes describes an artifact in more detail.  The comment read:  “Smashed can containing Minié balls.”  Now this can had my full attention!  I had the can pulled from artifact storage and was not disappointed.  It was, as advertised, a flattened can with at least 3 visible Minié balls lodged inside. Furthermore, there was something not visible rattling around inside of it.  Because it had simply been cataloged as a ‘can’, it escaped the notice of our crack team of research archaeologists for two decades.  I began investigating!

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 1

Flattened can containing Minié balls excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 2

The end of Minié ball sticking out of the can.

First, I wanted to know the age of the can.  I knew the Minié balls dated to a little over 150 years ago when Union soldiers were stationed at Ferry Farm during the Civil War. The can, however, may have been from a later date.  In oral histories, people who lived at Ferry Farm in the 20th century have mentioned collecting Civil War bullets in cans so my initial assumption was that this was the forgotten treasure of a relic hunter.  The next step was to examine the other artifacts recovered with the can at the same time and in the same spot on the Ferry Farm landscape.  All of these artifacts were from the mid-19th century.  Furthermore, the can was excavated from smack dab in the middle of a Civil War trench that runs across Ferry Farm.  So the can and the bullets were from the same time period.

Minie Balls

Various types of Minié balls from left to right: .577 Enfield Minié Bullet, Burton Pattern Minié Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minié Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

But the can didn’t look anything like a typical cartridge box.  It looked like a run of the mill tinned food can and what was rattling around inside?  It was time to do some science!  I took the can to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where their awesome conservator Katherine Ridgway was kind enough to x-ray the can.  The x-rays proved the can was a food can and that the rattling object inside was another Minié ball.

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X-ray images of can containing Minié balls. Credit: Katherine Ridgeway / Virginia Department of Historic Resources

While we now know a lot more about our can now, one mystery still remains. Why did a soldier store some of his bullets in a can?  What we do know is that, at some point, the can was abandoned or forgotten at the bottom of the trench and then crushed either under a boot or by the weight of the dirt once the trench was filled in after the war.  A 150 year old moment in time captured in the archaeological record.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

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Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

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A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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

Tacks-ation without Representation

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Tacks recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Let’s do our tacks! I know you’ve been dreading doing your tacks, and putting it off as long as you could, but time is running out. It is time to do our tacks, friends.

Whether iron alloy or copper alloy, tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack at a site.  Delicate items have disappeared but their tacks remain.  There is “tacks-ation without representation.”

Copper alloy tacks often called brass tacks are one of those artifacts that archaeologists occasionally encounter. They tend to occur in small quantities at any given site. Archaeologists also recover iron alloy tacks used in cabinetry, furniture, and architecture but this blog will focus mainly upon brass tacks.

Brass tacks were shiny beacons of taste that drew well-deserved attention to the fine fabric or leather coverings that encased upholstered furniture. Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory lists eleven “leather bottom” chairs in the home’s hall where George and his family dined while sitting upon these chairs. It was likely that brass tacks secured the leather to the frame of the chairs. Leather was an especially popular chair covering in Virginia, due in part to its availability to talented Williamsburg craftsmen.

Augustine Washington Probate Inventory

A portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory from 1743. The highlighted entry shows eleven leather bottom chairs in the Hall.  The entry reads “11 Leather Bottom Do.” The Do. is an abbreviation for “ditto” meaning the prior entry will indicate the item being inventoried.

Leather Chair with Example Tacks

A modern leather chair using tacks that are similar in appearance and function to 18th century tacks.

Furthermore, a couch was located in the passage, and might also have been tastefully tack adorned. While often associated with furniture cushions, tacks were also widely popular on saddles, carriages, and riding chairs. Copper alloy tacks even embellished trunks, coffins, and were employed to hang window coverings.

To date, 127 copper alloy tacks have been discovered by excavators at Ferry Farm. They are scattered throughout the yard spaces surrounding the multiple colonial and antebellum-era dwellings of this site. This assemblage of tacks represents a very small proportion of the tacks used here historically. Like many of our discoveries at this site, the vast majority represent items that were inadvertently lost. Such loss increased when the items they adorned were used, cleaned, repaired, or moved.

Declaration of Independence (1818) by John Trumbull

“Taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the American colonists against British Parliament in the years following the French and Indian War. The victory against the French had been costly, and Britain needed her colonists to contribute to defraying the costs. Parliament opted to impose a variety of taxes – such as on paper and upon tea – and the King’s North American subjects found these fees increasingly irksome. Because the colonists lacked a representative in Britain, Parliament was unable to benefit from the perspective and wisdom of the colonies. Being taxed without such representation was unacceptable, and the colonists took steps to provincial they had no influence on legislation and taxation upon the colonists. The “Declaration of Independence” (1818) by John Trumbull. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

TackCloseUp3242

The shanks of tacks can be square in cross section or round, their ends pointed or blunt, depending upon their function and method of manufacture. Sometimes the shanks are straight and other times they are bent. Bending a shank was sometimes done to ensure the tack was well fastened, and less likely to be lost. However, it can be difficult – some might argue impossible – to discern whether bent shanks were an intentional part of their past function, or whether the shanks were altered as an incidental consequence of their loss, burial, and exposure to subsequent activities that occurred at the site. Occasionally, the shank is missing altogether: broken off and irrevocably misplaced.

Tacks are a timely reminder that the archaeological record does not preserve all of the items that the families who lived here used. The artifacts that we unearth from the yards surrounding the dwellings that were here only represent those things that preserve well and were sturdy. The primary components of furniture decompose readily, often because they are manufactured from organic items. The fabric, leather, canvas, marsh grass, Spanish moss, horsehair, iron hardware, and wood that typified colonial upholstered items do not survive long in the environmental conditions under which the archaeological record of Ferry Farm is exposed. Even under ideal, indoor circumstances, upholstery fairs poorly over time, becoming faded, outdated, and brittle. Cushioning sags and droops over time. Addressing these maintenance issues can result in replacement of these materials and the unintentional loss or even the replacement of its hardware, including tacks.

Despite these limitations, tacks often reflect the use of upholstered furniture, even if the furniture itself has not endured. Most sites lack probate inventories or wills, and tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack. Hence the “tacks-ation without representation” title: while the delicate items which these tacks graced have literally disappeared or are no longer represented, their tacks bear testament to their presence on the site. In the coming years, as archaeologists record more attributes and generate larger collections of these items, their full interpretive potential may be realized.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director