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

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.

ProbateP286HallBackRmCurtainsSmall copy

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.