Lecture – Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health [Video]

On Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health.” Betty Washington Lewis gave birth to 11 children; a feat almost unheard of today.  Kelly explored Betty’s  journey from childhood to womanhood, from maiden to mother, and medical challenges that 18th century women faced.  A cradle to grave examination of women’s heath tells us of the strength and resilience of Betty Washington Lewis and other women who endured at time without anesthetics or knowledge of germs.

Join us at the library on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 for “Coinage and Credit: The Economy of Colonial Virginia,” a lecture about the business and trade of Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis presented by David Arehart, a site supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg.  Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org or livesandlegaciesblog.org.

George’s Hometown: Kenmore

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Fredericksburg remained important to George Washington throughout his life. It was the home of Mary Ball Washington, his mother, until her death on August 26, 1789 at the age of 80 from breast cancer. It remained the home of Betty Washington Lewis, his sister, until 1795 when she was forced by financial circumstances to leave the grand house she and husband Fielding Lewis, a wealthy merchant, had built to live at Mill Brook, a farm in Spotsylvania County.  Washington visited his mother as well as his sister and brother-in-law regularly but, as the years passed, these visits became more and more infrequent as the Revolution and Presidency required all his time and attention.  George Washington visited Betty and Fielding at Kenmore once in 1784.

George's Hometown 5

Historic Kenmore

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!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

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The reconstructed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

PLEASE NOTE: 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. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas Hedgehog!

During the holidays, it’s the curatorial team’s job to festoon Historic Kenmore in period-appropriate holiday swag to celebrate the Christmas season.  Greenery is brought in to cheer up the rooms and a table of special desserts is laid out as if ready for Christmas guests.  These sweet treats are a pretty traditional fare but one particular dessert garners far more attention and questions than the others: the hedgehog sitting at the center of the table.

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The Christmas dessert table complete with faux marzipan hedgehog in the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

“What is it?” and “Why a hedgehog?” are heard from visitors again and again.  I decided to investigate to see if I could find out how and why this spiny confection graced Betty Lewis’s table during the holidays.  Unfortunately, my research raised more questions than answers and ultimately lead me to an interesting but ambiguous conclusion based mainly on my own conjecture.

First, I have often heard the hedgehog referred to as a “cake” but it is not a cake.  It is made out of marzipan; a sweet created using sugar or honey and ground almonds.  Marzipan can be flavored, contain fruit and nuts, or even covered in chocolate …the possibilities are endless!  It is often shaped into miniature fruits, vegetables, or animals and colored with dyes.  The confection is usually eaten on special days or for special events.

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A closer view of the faux marzipan hedgehog.

No one knows for sure where marzipan was first created but it likely originated in the Middle East around the ninth-century.[1] It made its way to Europe through trade and immigration. Each country personalized the candy by adding its own unique ingredients and traditions.

Regardless of which country has the honor of creating this particular delicious dessert, it became quite popular. Recipes for marzipan began to show up in various cookbooks dating from the sixteenth century onward.   The two books most important to my investigation were The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith published in 1727 and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1747.  We know Betty owned both of these books because they are listed in the 1781 probate inventory. [2]

In Mrs. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, the chapter “All Sorts of Cakes” includes a recipe for ‘march-pane’ which is an old English word for marzipan.[3]  The recipe is a traditional non-baked marzipan that includes ground almond, refined sugar and orange-flower water for flavoring. [4] Twenty years after Mrs. Smith published her book, Mrs. Glasse published The Art of Cookery and, by this time, the hedgehog had made its debut.  The Art of Cookery does not list marzipan specifically but in chapter sixteen titled “Cheesecakes, creams, jellies, whipt syllabubs” there is a recipe “To make a hedge-hog”.[5]  This is a cooked marzipan recipe that instructs the baker to form the almond paste into the shape of a hedge-hog with little slivered almond spines.

How did the hedgehog become associated with this almond dessert? The short answer is I’m not sure.  I researched hedgehogs trying to discover any relation to the holiday season, to winter, or to the New Year. I was unable to find any.

Hedgehogs are native to England, where both cookbooks were published, but not to the Americas.[6]  Colonial Americans would likely never have seen a hedgehog.   There is not a lot of positive symbolism or folklore associated with the little creatures besides being industrious and cute.[7]  They have been used medicinally for a variety of ailments and were a food source in many cultures.[8]  None of this provides a reason why these little creatures were immortalized in almond meal and sugar at Christmas.

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A photo of a real hedgehog because it’s so cute! Credit: Wikimedia/AlmaGz

I think the most likely development of this holiday treat was a combination of coincidence and novelty. Someone made the marzipan for the holidays,shaped it into a dome, and then decorated it with almonds. Eventually maybe someone else thought this resembled a hedgehog and added a little hedgehog face because it was clever and cute.

Why would Betty choose a marzipan hedgehog to sit on her holiday dessert table in colonial Virginia? As previously noted, marzipan was an established treat used to celebrate special days. The cost of the ingredients, which included two pounds of almonds, orange-flower water, canary wine, cream, butter and sugar, was substantial and illustrated to guests the effort and expense the family lavished on the party.  While the table would probably have smaller bite-sized marzipan pieces in the more traditional fruit shapes, the novel hedgehog with the slivered almond spines created a visually appealing and attention-grabbing dish. The Christmas hedgehog was a great conversation starter then!  The Christmas hedgehog is a great conversation starter now!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum, Sweet Delights from A Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), 168: Sidney W. Mintz, “Color, Taste and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan”, Etnofoor, Jaarg. 4, Nr.1 (1991): 103-108.

[2] Fielding Lewis Probate Inventory, 1781

[3] Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswifes Jewell (London: John Wolfe, 1587), 23; Thomas Dawson, The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin. (London: Richard Jones, 1594), 37b.

[4] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, (Williamsburg: William Parks, 1742), 73.

[5] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London: A. Millar and R. Tonson, 1765), 288.

[6] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 63.

[7] Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Tatjana Civjan and Dainius Razauskas, “Hedgehog in Cosmogonic and Etiological Legends of the Balto-Balcanic Area,” Tautosakos darbai, no. XXI (2004): 79-91.

[8] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 64; Vincent Nijman and Daniel Bergin, “Trade in Hedgehogs in Morocco,” Journal of Threatened Taxa, (2015): 7132-7136.

Ten Well-Known Visitors to Historic Kenmore

Since its transformation into a historic site, Kenmore has drawn its share of prominent and recognizable visitors including a vice president, a congressman, and numerous First Ladies of the United States. Indeed, the ladies of the Kenmore Association, who worked to save, restore, and operate the historic home during the 20th century, made it a point to reach out to First Ladies and, in turn, several of those First Ladies visited the auspicious brick home of Patriot merchant Fielding Lewis and wife Betty Washington Lewis, sister of George Washington.  For that matter, even during the days that Fielding and Betty lived in the home during the late 1700s, important figures in colonial Virginia and of the Patriot cause occasionally came to Kenmore.  Here is a list of “Ten Well-Known Visitors to Historic Kenmore.”

10. Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958)

Louise du Pont Crowninshield surrounded by other members of the Kenmore Association.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield surrounded by other members of the Kenmore Association.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield was president and chairman of the board of trustees of the Kenmore Association from 1940 to 1954.  An active historic preservationist, she was also a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Mrs. Crowninshield was born into the prominent Du Pont family and grew up at Winterthur, the family estate in Delaware. The home is now a museum and holds some of most important collections of Americana in the United States.  She helped save and restore Kenmore and visited many times during her term as president.

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Sol Bloom in 1923. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia

9. Sol Bloom (1870-1949)
Sol Bloom was an entertainer, music publisher, and congressman from New York.  He was the biggest producer of sheet music in the U.S. before taking up politics.  Bloom was associate director of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and came to Kenmore for a luncheon with Emily White Fleming and the Kenmore Association.  In 1936, Bloom made a $10,000 bet with Walter “Big Train” Johnson, former Washington Senator’s star pitcher, that Johnson could not throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River as legend said George Washington had done.  Bloom lost but refused pay the money.

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Elizabeth Monroe, unknown date and artist. Public domain. Credit: John Vanderlyn / Wikipedia

8. Elizabeth Monroe (1768-1830)
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe was First Lady of the United States from 1817 to 1825.  Elizabeth was born in New York City and married James Monroe in 1786.  She spent time in France and Britain during her husband’s ambassadorship and was even invited to be part of the American delegation that attended Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation.  Mrs. Monroe actually lived at Kenmore shortly after her marriage to James.  Her husband left town on business and, since they had not yet set up a home in Fredericksburg, she stayed with Betty Lewis until James returned.

 

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Edith Wilson. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia

7. Edith Wilson (1872-1961)
Edith Bolling Wilson was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson and served as First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921.  Some historians argue that Mrs. Wilson became the de facto president after her husband’s stroke in 1919. She did, it seems, act as the only conduit to and from the president and decided which matters important enough to bring to her husband’s attention while relaying his decisions to those who needed to know.  Long after her time in the White House, Mrs. Wilson came to Kenmore for a luncheon in October 1946.

6. Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman (1885-1982)

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Bess Truman in front of the fireplace in Kenmore’s dining room with Robert Porterfield, founder of the Barter Theatre, and an unidentified woman.

Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman was First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953.  Elizabeth Wallace was born in Independence, Missouri and had known Harry Truman, her future husband, since they were children.  They married in 1919.  Mrs. Truman detested the lack of privacy and disliked the social and political scene of Washington, D.C.  She was relieved to move back to Missouri.  Mrs. Truman visited Kenmore multiple times and was pictured in front of the mantel in the Dining Room with Robert Porterfield, founder of Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, in Abingdon.

5. Lou Hoover (1874-1944)

Lou Henry Hoover was First Lady of the United States from 1929 to 1933.  Lou Henry was born in Iowa in 1874 and married Herbert Hoover in 1899.  She majored in Geology at Stanford University, was fluent in Chinese and Latin, assisted in the Belgian relief during WWI, and worked a great deal with the Girl Scouts of America.  Mrs. Hoover, as First Lady, toured Kenmore in September 1930.

4. Colonel Sanders (1890-1980)

Colonel Harland David Sanders founded the restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in 1930.  Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890 and, after a number of jobs, he started selling fried chicken at a roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky during the Great Depression.  The restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, was a success and, in 1952, he started franchising across the country.  In 1964, Sanders sold the company and used his stock holdings to create several charitable organizations.  He promote these organizations as well as KFC by touring the country dressed as the Colonel.  He came to Kenmore and took a tour in the summer of 1977.

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Calvin Coolidge (left) enjoys gingerbread at Kenmore.

3. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)
Calvin Coolidge was born in Vermont in 1872.  After college, he became a lawyer and went into politics becoming the governor of Massachusetts from 1919 to 1921.  He was the 29th vice president under Warren Harding and the 30th President of the United States from 1923 to 1929.  Vice President Coolidge came to Kenmore in July 1922 to launch a fundraising campaign aimed at raising money to purchase the house and make it a historic site. He enjoyed some gingerbread during his visit.

 

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Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia.

2. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady of New York from 1929 to 1933 and First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945.  She was born in New York City to the socially prominent Roosevelt and Livingston families and married Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1905.  After her time in the White House, she chaired the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in the late 1940s and early 1950s and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.  When she was First Lady of New York, Mrs. Roosevelt visited Kenmore on several occasions with various groups who came from the New York state capital of Albany.

1. George Washington (1731-1799)

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Bust of George Washington (c. 1786) by Jean-Antoine Houdon and based on a life mask of Washington. Public domain. Credit: Dallas Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

George Washington was the first President of the United States (1789-1797) and the older brother of Betty Washington Lewis.  Construction of Kenmore was complete late in 1775. George would not stay in the house until 1784.  Including this 1784 visit, Washington stayed at Kenmore at different times during the years 1785, 1787, 1788, and 1791.  The final visits in April and June 1791 were the only times he stayed at Kenmore while serving as president.[1]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. The American History Company, 1998: 216.

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).

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

A Colonial Wedding

An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Paris: Lemercier, c1853.

A wedding is one of the most monumental moments in a person’s life.  The celebrations that accompany the ceremony might range from simple to lavish but they are always highly anticipated and joyous.  In this enthusiasm for weddings, we share much with our early American ancestors.  Although there are extremely important differences between past and present, many wedding traditions of the 18th century would be quite familiar to 21st century Americans.  What did a colonial-era wedding look like?

Today’s weddings can take place in any imaginable location – a church, dedicated wedding venue, cruise ship, beach resort, park, city hall, and on and on – but, in the 1700s, the large distances people often lived from an actual church building meant that the vast majority of weddings occurred at the brides’ home.[1]

In another inverse of modern preferences for spring, summer, and fall weddings, many colonial-era marriage celebrations took place in the winter months when there was less to do on the farm or plantation agriculturally.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t weddings outside the winter season.  Indeed, Fielding and Betty married on May 7, 1750.  We have no definitive evidence to say that their wedding occurred at the Washington family home on the land we now refer to as Ferry Farm.  Since Fielding and Betty lived relatively close to St. George’s Church in Fredericksburg, it is certainly possible that the ceremony took place there, though it would have been fairly unusual.

If the ceremony did occur at the Washington home, an Anglican minister, perhaps from St. George’s, would have still read the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer.  An edition published in 1750 contains language that remains immensely familiar even today.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony…”

“Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God’s Ordinance, in the holy Estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honour and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

“With this Ring, I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow…”

Along with these familiar words came familiar acts as well.  The father gave his daughter away, the couple exchanged vows, and the groom gave the bride a ring.  The bride, however, did not present a ring to the groom.

Just as it does today, a party began after the ceremony.  This celebration also took place at the home of the bride’s family.  “The family might decorate a table with white paper chains and lay out white foods for a collation. It included two white cakes. The guests consumed the groom’s cake, and sometimes left the bride’s cake untouched for the couple to save (in a tin of alcohol) to eat on each wedding anniversary.”[2]

There was much food, drink, and toasting along with games and plenty of dancing.  For Virginia’s gentry the party’s scale and length could be extremely lavish with the festivities continuing for days!

If you want to learn more about colonial-era weddings, you can witness a re-creation of the marriage ceremony of Fielding Lewis to Betty Washington on either Saturday, October 10 or Sunday, October 11 during Fielding’s Story: A Gentleman’s Sacrifice, a dramatic theater production taking place at both George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  Fielding’s Story recounts important moments and milestones in Fielding’s life as a member of Virginia’s gentry, a wealthy merchant and leading citizen of Fredericksburg, the builder of Kenmore, a supporter of the American Revolution, and the husband of Betty.  Reservations are required. Please call 540-340-0732 ext 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

[1] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 5-9.

[2] Elizabeth Maurer, “Courtship and Marriage in the Eighteen Century,” http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/mar09/courtship.cfm

History’s Paper Trail: What Handwriting & Spelling Reveal about Early America

One of the aspects of a historian’s job is dealing with primary sources, the paper trail of history.  The archives here at The George Washington Foundation contain primary sources that include letters, wills, land grants, court orders, military orders, bills and receipts.  These hand-written documents are largely related to the Fielding and Betty Lewis family and provide us with a wealth of information on all facets of their lives from how much rum they bought to how much they paid in yearly taxes.  At the same time, they and other written historical records provide a glimpse into some fascinating dynamics of early American society and culture.

However, sometimes these documents can be difficult to read because, in the 18th century, writing style and spelling were still not completely standardized.

Students in early America usually learned to write by copying different styles of writing known as ‘hands’ in a copybook that showed alphabets and phrases in the ‘hand’ to be learned.  Students copied the alphabets and phrases exactly, for practice and for reference, and business forms.  For example, while attending school in Fredericksburg, young George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior to learn handwriting as well as proper behavior in polite society.

Above: Examples of ‘hands’ (Flourishing Alphabet, Italian Hand, German Text, Round Hand) from The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick by George Fisher and published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1786

In the 1700s, writing was a skill reserved for select groups of people, mainly professionals and upper class males.  Women, artisans, lower classes, and the enslaved were not formally taught handwriting because it was viewed as unnecessary to their everyday life.  A lack of formal education did not stop people from writing.  Instead, they just developed their own system of penmanship and style.

Spelling

Colonial-era writers could choose from a number of dictionaries to assist with spelling.  Many of these books, however, focused only on difficult, obscure, or archaic words.  It wasn’t until 1755 that Samuel Johnson published the influential A Dictionary of the English Language, which offered a more comprehensive lexicon of contemporary English of the time.  By the colonial period, much English spelling was recognizably modern due to the beginning movements of standardization in education and print. Dictionaries also assisted in the development of a more uniform writing style.

What if you had not been to school or had never seen a dictionary?  Well, you simply spelled a word the best you could by sounding it out phonetically.  So, ‘school’ became ‘skool’ or ‘laugh’ became ‘laff.’ A word might be spelled a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.  When read aloud, these words sound fine but, when silently reading a primary source document, the written phonetic spelling can take a few seconds to process.

An account statement from 1766 between James Winn and Fielding Lewis that includes two examples of phonetic spelling: “brest” buckle and “soop” spoon.

The Long ‘s’

The long ‘s’ was a style of spelling that generally fell out of use in print by the end of the 18th century.  It persisted in handwriting until the mid-19th century.  The long ‘s’ was an elongated version of a lowercase ‘s’.  It was often seen at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and in words containing a double ‘s’.   A notable example is the spelling of Congress in the Bill of Rights.

Understandably, when we read primary sources today, the long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’ or ‘p’ and it takes some practice to get the context of what is being said.

The word ‘Witnes’ in this document includes an excellent example of the long ‘s’ in the word and it’s close resemblance to an ‘f.’  This is a bond dated 14 September 1747 that requires George Lewis, who lives in Frederick County, to pay 3 pounds of Pennsylvania Currency to Charles Dunnahie by 1 May 1749.

Abbreviations/Subscript

Abbreviations and subscript often come up in colonial-era handwritten documents, particularly on bills, invoices and receipts. Shortening words or phrases like can’t for cannot or asap for as soon as possible is something we are familiar with today.  Commonly, abbreviations in the 18th century were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters like Recd for received.  Superscript or subscript letters are most frequently seen today in chemical compounds (H₂O) or in mathematical expressions.

This receipt, dated 25 September 1780, from Henry Rutter to George Lewis for 48 1/2 bushels of tax oats and 40 Bushels of Rye from George Lewis per Thomas Smither.  The “Recd” at the beginning of the receipt is an excellent example of both an abbreviation and superscript.

All the quirks in 18th century writing present many challenges for the historian.  Creating a system of deciphering can take time and plenty of practice.  At times, it can be more than a little frustrating.  Once the documents’ particular meanings are deciphered, the writing itself can reveal many different dynamics about early American society and culture.

One of the biggest of these dynamics is that very few people received enough education to develop a professional level of literacy.  Professional level of literacy, at the time, would mean having enough skill to conduct business.  Such a level was reserved, usually, for white middle to upper class males.

Selective education provided a powerful form of social control and a framework for society to judge and instantly understand a person’s social status, education, and occupation.  At this time, it was not thought important for women, slaves, or the lower classes to know how to write.  Some even thought that teaching these groups to write would encourage them to aspire above their allotted station in life.  Writing gives people the freedom to express themselves and their ideas in a concrete way which can easily be transmitted to others, an uncomfortable prospect for a society based on a selective hierarchy.

Though a woman, George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington could write.  Her spelling was extremely phonetic as seen in this letter transcription and reflects a lack of formal schooling but not necessarily a lack of intelligence as some historians have argued.  Indeed, primary sources like Mary’s letters supported by “new archaeological data has yielded a decidedly more complex picture of this influential matron than is possible using the historical record alone.” Laura Galke, an archaeologist here at The George Washington Foundation, argues (PDF) that artifacts discovered at George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm demonstrate that Mary “enjoyed the personal agency that widowhood allowed her; she was responsible for the management decisions of the Washington household and the surrounding farm. Mary’s choices reflect an ambitious woman determined to participate in the genteel society her family had enjoyed before Augustine’s death.”  This required much intelligence.

Interestingly, Mary’s daughter Betty Washington Lewis also knew how to write.  Mary ensured Betty knew how to run a household and keep in touch with family, which numerous letters written by Betty show she did effectively.

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis painted by John Wollaston in the 1750s

Her phonetic spelling in this letter transcription is an improvement over her mother’s.  The improvement in Betty’s spelling when compared to Mary’s further illustrates the increasing standardization during the 18th century and can also be seen as an example of changing beliefs in education for women at the end of the 1700s.  A movement was growing late in the century to teach writing to women.  This movement, however, did not come from a revolutionary drive for equality but, rather, from an expanded idea regarding the duties of Motherhood.  If women could not read and write, it was thought, how would they teach their sons, the future generation of leaders, to do the same?

Though difficult, at times, to decipher, the simple act of writing gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who thought about and experienced a life quite different from ours.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager