Washington House Blues

Furnishings posts logo finalThe summer of 2019 was an especially hot one here in Virginia, but we managed to add some cool crispness to the Washington house interior.  It came in the form of some new textiles for the “best bed” in the Hall Back Room, in a refreshing blue and white color scheme.  As we’ve previously discussed here, blue and white bedroom textiles seemed to be a favorite of Mary Washington’s, throughout her life.  Both her will, written in 1788 many years after she had moved away from Ferry Farm and taken up residence in a cottage in downtown Fredericksburg, and the list of her belongings sold at vendu following her death in 1789 contain references to blue and white quilts, coverlets, counterpanes and curtains.

Best Bed

The “Best Bed” in the Hall Back Room of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

After the “best bed” arrived in 2018, we decked it out in blue wool bedcurtains and a white matelesse summer counterpane.  But for winter use, we really wanted to show the bed with the blue and white quilt that is mentioned several times in Mary’s documents, including a reference to it being willed to George Washington himself following Mary’s death.  Finding such a quilt turned out to be much more of a challenge than we anticipated, though.  The challenge was due to the increasing difficulty in finding ready-made period-appropriate fabric in our modern world.  And to understand that difficulty, we need to understand what Mary’s blue and white quilt (probably) looked like.

The description of the quilt as being “blue and white” was not overly specific, but it was actually more descriptive detail than we have for most items in Mary’s household.  What could “blue and white” mean? First, it’s important to understand that a “quilt” in the 18th century is almost certainly NOT a patchwork quilt, or an appliqued quilt, both of which came into fashion much later.  Instead, an 18th century quilt was usually comprised of a solid piece of decorative fabric, on a layer of filler and a backing fabric, all of which was then quilted, or stitched with decorative patterns.  Sometimes the decorative fabric was a solid color, and the intricate stitching patterns were the real decoration, and sometimes the fabric itself had a pattern which was enhanced by the quilting.  The ‘blue and white” reference obviously indicates that the quilt was multi-colored, which indicates that the decorative fabric was patterned.  So what kind of blue and white patterns were available to Mary Washington in the mid-18th century?

By the mid-1700s, printed cotton textiles had become all the rage in England, and were being heavily imported into the American colonies.[1]  The technology for producing printed textiles at that point included resist dying, block printing with mordants and dyes, and copperplate printing (and combinations of all three).[2]  Resist dying (in which wax or some kind of dye-resistant substance was applied to sections of fabric meant to stay white, and then the entire fabric was submerged in dye) could produce bold colors and sharp contrast between dyed and undyed sections of fabric, but detail was hard to achieve.  Block printing improved the level of detail in patterns, but was still slow and tedious.  Copperplate printing allowed for great detail and eventually sped up the process of producing repeated patterns on yardage considerably.  Incorporating more than 1 color in the process was still hard to achieve, and so patterns are often monochromatic, with multiple layers of printing being used to create shades of color.  Most patterns, no matter the method of printing, involved floral and natural themes, sometimes including birds and other animals, and eventually entire landscape scenes.

Quilt fabric resist

Resist

Quilt fabric resist block

Block printed

Quilt fabric copperplate

Copperplate

So, Mary’s blue and white quilt was most likely similar to one of these styles.  Our challenge was to find a modern fabric that accurately depicted one of these processes.  Unfortunately, not many modern fabrics are made using the same 18th century technologies, and are more likely to be machine printed using digital images.  As a result, these modern patterns usually look too perfect, without the minor imperfections of handmade textiles which actually reveal to us what type of historic process was used to make them.  The imperfections are a part of the overall look and feel of the pattern, and make the final product more authentic.  It’s a hard thing to achieve these days!

The American textile industry is greatly reduced from what it once was in the early 20th century, and even in Europe, many of the textile factories that once created the patterns that Mary and her contemporaries used in their homes, are gone.  Most printed fabrics produced using historic methods these days are produced in small runs and come from small artisan shops – finding both the makers, and enough yardage (and at a price that isn’t prohibitive) of period-correct patterns, can be difficult.

Quilt 1

Quilt on the “best bed” in the Washington house.

Quilt 2

Close-up view of “best bed” quilt.

After months of searching, we were lucky enough to locate a blue and white printed cotton, reproduced from a mid-18th century French pattern by Chelsea Textiles in New York.  The original version was block printed, but also used wax or paste in the resist method.  The result was a detailed repeated floral pattern that also had the rounded edges of resist dying.  It was perfect for our uses.  The fabric was quilted onto filler and backing, and the entire quilt was cut in a T-shape, to fit around the bedposts of the Washington “best bed”, creating a fitted look which was also typical of the time.  Visitors to the Washington house can now see Mary’s favorite blues on display in her bedchamber.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Eaton, Linda.  Printed Textiles, British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700 – 1850. The Monacelli Press, New York. Pg. 65.

[2] Ibid, Pgs. 17 – 41.

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

“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.