Our Best Guess about Mary Washington’s Best Bed

Furnishings posts logo finalIn July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.

Best Bed

The “best bed” in the Hall Back Room of the replica Washington house at Ferry Farm.

The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it.  It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.

But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.

The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8).  But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.

Best Bed on Probate Inventory

“1 Bed & Furniture” valued at £8 listed on the probate inventory of Augustine Washington’s personal property done after his death in 1743.

In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains.  In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post.  While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time.  At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades.  Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians.  The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle.  Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view.  In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.

Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house.  Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed.  Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds.  So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.

FF-Bedbolt

Bed bolt excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like.  The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given.  However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.

The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death.  This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to.  While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information.  Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.

In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.

Best Bed with White Counterpane

The best bed with its summertime white coverlet.

Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers.  As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg.  Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.

As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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.

“With Double Its Weight of Vermin”: Bugs in George’s Bed

Chamber (1)

The Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore

“I went in to the Bed as they call’d it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c,” wrote 15-year-old George Washington in his Journal of my journey over the mountains kept during one of his earliest surveying trips to Virginia’s frontier.

Furthermore, when young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior as a handwriting exercise in school, one rule cautioned the aspiring gentleman to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others.”

As these two instances from Washington’s life hint, the days of early Americans teamed with insects.  “Bugs were everywhere,” writes historian A. Roger Ekirch, “especially given the proximity of dogs and livestock.”[1]

Except for maybe the lice on one’s own head and body, probably nowhere were bugs more problematic than in bedding and bed furniture.  “Bedding afforded notorious homes to lice, fleas, and bedbugs, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology,” Ekirch notes.  Bugs in bed was a significant problem indeed and “people in Britain often referred to bedtime pests in martial terms—for example, ‘troops,’ ‘detachments,’ ‘a compleat regiment,’ and ‘whole armies’”[2]

These insect armies certainly had plenty of places to hide. Beds of the 18th century were constructed of wood frames lashed together with rope.  The humblest of beds contained numerous nooks and crannies that served as home to numerous creepy crawlies. Wealthier homes were not safe from infestation.  Large canopy-style beds frequently decorated with ornate cravings greatly increased the number of hiding places for vermin. Sheets, blankets, quilts, and bed curtains added more hiding places.  Finally, the mattresses themselves were usually filled with straw or, for the more well-to-do, with feathers that bugs found to be soft and enjoyable homes.

Chamber (3)

Bed furniture, curtains, canopy, and coverings could become infested with variety of insects common to an 18th century plantation in Virginia. Housekeeping guides of the time included instructions on how to make concoctions to eliminate bugs from one’s bed.

The number of bugs in bed meant that before going to sleep, “families engaged in ‘hunts’ of furniture and bedding for both fleas (pulex irritans) and bedbugs (cimex lectularius)” while they also combed lice out of their hair and picked lice off their clothing and skin.  Ekirch recounts that “to keep gnats at bay, families in the fen country of East Anglia hung lumps of cow dung at the foot of their beds, whereas John Locke advised placing the leaves of kidney beans about a bed to avert insect bites.”[3]

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, two popular guides to proper housekeeping in the 18th century, included recipes for concoctions aimed at killing bugs in bedding and bed furniture.  Both of these books were in Fielding Lewis’ library at Kenmore.

Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

Title page and frontispiece to Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (c. 1777).

Glasse’s recipe for “How to keep clear from Bugs” advised closing up the room tightly by hanging blankets over shut windows, doors, and across the mouth of the fireplace.  Then, one opened any closets, cupboards, drawers, and boxes. Bedding and mattresses were pulled from the bed and hung over chairs and tables around the room.  In a broad earthen pan in the center of the room, one placed a chafing-dish full of lit charcoal to which was added brimstone (sulfur) and, if available, “India pepper.” This pepper was a source of capsaicin which served as an insect repellent. The sulfur suffocated the bugs and, frankly pretty much anything else in the room. The cautions within the recipe about leaving the room quickly and about reentering the room after several hours are lengthy.  The process left an irritating residue so, before it was safe to reoccupy the room, it had to be cleaned first.

Smith’s The Compleat Housewife recipe for “destroying Bugs” essentially consisted of alcohol and pine resin.  Alcohol would kill any bugs on contact while the pine resin in the form of turpentine would act as a repellent to keep insects away.  One applied the liquid mixture to “the lacing, &c. of the bed, or the foldings of the linings or curtains near the rings, of the joints of holes in and about the bed, head-board, &c. wherein the bugs or nits nestle and breed.” The recipe advised pouring “some of it into the joinings and holes where the sponge or brush cannot reach.” This concoction was quiet unsafe as well for it also called for camphene, a high combustible mixture of alcohol and turpentine.  The Compleat Housewife warned to apply the mixture only “in the daytime, not by candle light, lest the subtilty of the mixture should catch the flame as you are using it, and occasion damage.”

Lastly, both books included one other “Effectual Way to clear your Beadstead of Bugs” specifically for use on bed furniture. This recipe called for mixing quicksilver (poisonous mercury!) with eggs and then spreading the goo throughout the cracks, crevices, and joints of the bedstead and leaving it there.

While all of these treatments would have been effective against the bugs, they were quite dangerous to humans as well.  The reprieve provided from infestation was probably relatively short-lived for the recipes all suggested repeating the process as needed.  Even with the help of Hannah Glasse or Eliza Smith, lice, fleas, and bedbugs were an ever-present and inescapable part of the 18th century life and could be found in the fine bed in Fielding and Betty Lewis’s chamber as well as in the dirty straw mat of the young surveyor George Washington.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005: 270

[2] Ekirch, 294-5

[3] Ekirch, 270.