Search for Washington House Furnishings Takes Exciting Turn!

As Meghan talked about in her latest blog post, we are currently taking on the immense task of finding accurate and well-made reproduction furnishings and household items for the reconstructed Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We recently completed two successful shopping expeditions and acquired an array of items for the home from earthenware tankards to creamware cups and saucers.  While, many of these pieces will be familiar to anyone who loves to pick through local antique stores, there are some unique items whose names and purposes are might not be that familiar to the modern person.

The first two items, a bourdaloue and wick trimmers, were purchased at auction in Richmond.  The auction sold props used on the AMC show “Turn: Washington’s Spies” which wrapped filming this year after four seasons.  “Turn” takes place from 1776 to 1781 and follows a farmer and his childhood friends as they form a group of spies called the Culper Ring.  The show used many good reproductions of everyday 18th century objects and the auction proved an excellent resource for items to use in the house at Ferry Farm.  The third item, a demijohn, was found at an antique store on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Bourdaloue

Bourdaloue

A replica bourdaloue purchased at the “Turn” auction.

While this might look like a gravy boat to modern eyes, it is actually a bourdaloue, which is a smaller and more feminine version of a chamber pot.  They could be china, tin, and even leather.

In an era without public toilets, the bourdaloue provided a lady with a portable and relatively clean means of relieving herself away from home.  The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape and a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other and allowed usage from a squatting or standing position.  The bowl would then be given to the lady’s maid who disposed of the waste discretely.  Bourdaloues slowly disappeared from everyday life after indoor plumbing and bathrooms made their way into everyone’s home.

Legend is that the bourdaloue got its name from a Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue, who would preach for hours at church.  Ladies used the vessel as easy way to relieve themselves without missing a moment of his amazing sermons.  While amusing and repeated often on many websites, there is no historic proof whatsoever for this claim.

Wick trimmers or “Candle snuffs”

Wick Trimmers

Wick trimmers

These odd scissor-like utensils were a must-have in the day when candles were the only lighting in a house.  Also known as “candle snuffs,” wick trimmers were, as the name declares, used to trim a candle’s burning wick. Trimming the wick kept your candle burning well, kept it from getting too hot, and kept it from smoking too much and creating excessive odors.

For centuries, the only source of light after-dark was either a fire in the hearth or a flame from a candle.  Candles for everyday use by most people were not made of lovely beeswax (which was terribly expensive) but rather from tallow, a fat from cows or sheep. Tallow candles were cheap and easy to make. You twisted a thread of flax, cotton, or hemp and repeatedly dipped it into melted fat.  The quality of a candle depended on the fat used.  The better the fat the firmer and less smelly the candle.

However, the wicks of these candles were not particularly efficient.  To keep them burning bright, they needed to be trimmed occasionally. Trimming was done to prevent soot build up or guttering, which is when the candle melts too fast and the wax or tallow starts to spill over the edges creating a mess.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, candle makers started braiding rather than simply twisting strands of cotton for wicks, creating a “self-trimming” or “self-consuming” wick.  This technique allowed the wick to curl back into the flame maintaining the height of the wick and therefore the flame.  This also meant more of the wick is burnt, leaving a less sooty snuff that needs to be cleaned.[1]

With this improvement to candles, wick trimmers were no longer essential to keeping your evening candles burning their brightest. Electricity further sped the decline of the trimmers in households and their purpose was forgotten by most people.  However, if you are a candle enthusiast, you might want to think about picking up a pair because proper wick maintenance can help even modern candles burn brighter and with less sooty mess.

Demijohn

Demijohn

Demijohn

You may not know the official name but you have no doubt seen a demijohn if you frequent antique stores or consignment shops.   This glass vessel with a large body and small neck surrounded by wickerwork were used to ship large amounts of wine and spirits to merchants who would then parcel the alcohol out for sale to customers.

The origin of the word “demijohn” is murky.  Some say it comes from the French “dame-jeanne” and others say it is a corruption of the name of the Persian glass-making town of Damaghan.[2] Regardless, by the early 18th century, the word begins to appear in literature and advertisements.

Demijohns are sometimes called carboys.  However, demijohns usually carried alcohol or non-corrosive liquids, while carboys carried strong chemicals, mostly acids like aquafortis (aka nitric acid).

Today, these glass wares are usually found in homes used for decorative purposes or even made into terrariums.  The older demijohns and carboys have usually been stripped of their wicker exterior to allow for a more visually appealing curio.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Paul R. Wonning, A Brief History of Candle Making: A Short History of the Candle (History of Things Series Book 5), Mossy Feet Books, 2014.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary; “The Philology of Slang,” Littell’s Living Age, May 9, 1874, pg 369.

Advertisements

Ten Rarely-Displayed Objects from Kenmore’s Collection

It is impossible for museums to exhibit the thousands of objects in their collections.  Historic Kenmore is no exception. While each of our objects is certainly unique and interesting, not every piece fits within our current interpretation of the life and times of the Lewis family.

One reason museums might not display items is they are not from the time period being interpreted.  Our curator selects each object shown to the public after exhaustive study of primary resources like wills, probate inventories, letters and diaries and making sure it illustrates 18th century life in a wealthy Virginian home.  If we displayed pieces we have from the 1600s or 1960s, it would detract from the story of the Lewis family in the 1700s.

A second reason museums might not display items is preservation and conservation.  Items that are two-hundred years old or more are very delicate and require special environments with proper temperatures, relative humidity, restricted lighting, and limited handling.  Material like textiles and papers don’t do well on display for long periods of time.  These items are better utilized in temporary exhibits in our visitors center or as digital content.

In this list, I present ten of my favorite objects from Kenmore’s collection not often exhibited because they don’t quite match the history we’re trying to share or because they are too delicate for display. Besure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the objects.

Ivory Silk Overdress and Petticoat

overdress-and-petticoat

One portion of the floral embroidery on the dress in Kenmore’s collection. The gown’s material is so delicate in some areas that we felt it best not to try and photograph the complete gown.

robe-a-la-francaise-block-printed-cotton-c-1770

Robe à la Française, c. 1770, similar in style to the dress in Kenmore’s collection. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Wikipedia

In Kenmore’s collection is an extremely delicate  overdress and petticoat with a brocaded multicolor floral pattern in the open robe style that dates from about 1775-1785. The particular cut of the open robe style was also known as “a la francaise” or “sack-back gown”.  This robe à la francaise is an illustration of the Rococo aesthetic that was popular during the eighteenth century.  I find clothing to be some of the most personal historic artifacts in any collection.  These pieces are not simply costumes but functional everyday garments that were used, stained, and mended by their owners.  Being able to see and handle this tangible historic link is as close to time-travel as we will get but, at the same times, textiles are extremely fragile and must be handled only rarely.

empire-dress

Empire-style dress in Kenmore’s collection photograph while still laying in its storage box.

Empire Waist Dress
This cream-colored silk dress dates from between 1790 and 1820 and features a pattern of flower sprays and vines with row of pink brocaded flowers along bottom.  Cut in neo-classical style popular in the early nineteenth century with an “empire-style” waist, square neck and loose skirt.  Regency fashion is one of my favorite fashion epochs.  I find the empire-waisted silhouette to be flattering and probably the most comfortable of all historic women’s styles.  This piece doesn’t come out of storage much because it is a little too late for the Lewis era.

“A New and Exact Map of the Dominions”
new-and-exact-map-of-the-dominions
Drawn by London cartographer Herman Moll in 1715, this map shows a fascinatingly detailed view of the Atlantic coastline from present-day South Carolina to Newfoundland, Canada indicating counties, mountains, towns, Indian settlements, rivers and bodies of water.  Insets along the bottom are maps of the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas, Charles-Town, and a small map of the “Principal Port of North America.” At right center is an inset showing a fully-colored view of Niagara Falls, with cute little beavers in the foreground building a dam.

“View of London”

view-of-london

Close-up of a portion of Frederick de Wit’s “View of London.”

This colored engraving done by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit shows a topographic view of the London with “The River Thames” across the center of map.  In the upper right corner there is a key with 148 streets, churches, wharves, theatres, and monuments listed and identified on the plan with a corresponding number. As an Anglophile who went to graduate school in London and spent over a year exploring that city’s streets,  I like seeing many familiar streets and sites on this map.  It shows that London city’s center has changed very little across the centuries.

Bourdaloue
bourdaloe
This creamware bourdaloue is a smaller and more feminine version of a chamber pot circa 1780-1790.  In an era without public toilets, the bourdaloue provided a lady with a portable and relatively clean means of relieving herself away from home.  The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape and a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other and allowed usage from a squatting or standing position.  The bowl would then be given to the lady’s maid who disposed of the waste discretely.  Little everyday artifacts can get overlooked but they these fascinating little pieces give us a whole picture of colonial life. Plus, everyone loves chamber pots!

The Gentleman’s Magazine
gentlemans-magazine
This March 1752 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine includes articles on poetry, music, weather, gardening tips, criminal proceedings, history, and social services.  It’s amusing to read the various articles today and reflect on how similar they can be to our current news. There is a riveting report on the trial of Miss Blandy for poisoning her father, an account of the history of the Incas, and birth, marriage, and death announcements for the upper-crust of London society.  The Gentleman’s Magazine is digitized and can be read here. The Gentleman’s Magazine was founded in London in 1731 and remained in continuous print for 191 years.

Homer’s The Iliad translated by Alexander Pope
iliad
These five volumes of Homer’s The Iliad were translated into English by the poet Alexander Pope between 1715 and 1720.  Written around the 8th century BC, Homer’s timeless story has influenced great artists for 2,000 years.  Pope was one of those artists.  He suffered from many health problems but was one of the few English poets able to earn a living from his literary works and I just think it’s cool that we have these special books in our collection.  Pope translated the epic verse for the publisher Bernard Lintot and earned the significant sum of £210.

Marrow Spoon
marrow-spoon
This silver marrow spoon, circa 1722, features a long narrow scoop at one end and a broader spoon at the other.  Enjoying bone-marrow was so common that utensils were created to assist the diner in retrieving every morsel. These spoons were used at the table to get the tasty marrow out of the center of the bones without having to rudely gnaw, suck, slurp, bang, crack, or bite.  The fashionableness of certain food can be traced through the evolution of dining implements.  Today, our familiarity with the double scooped spoon and its purpose has waned just like roasted long-bone sprinkled with salt is no longer a prevalent dish on our tables.

Mary Washington Monument Stone

mary-washington-monument-stone

Painted on this view of the stone are the ‘new’ [current] monument and the Mary Washington House.

This is an Aquia sandstone fragment from the original Mary Washington Monument that was started in 1833 when President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone. The monument was never finished and was heavily damaged during the Civil war. In 1892, in order to raise money for a new memorial, the Mary Washington Monument Association began to sell off the original pieces painted by local women as “relics”.  While some felt this was desecrating Mary’s grave, the Association raised enough money for a new monument. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the new monument, which still stands today. Although the way the group went about raising funds for the new memorial is not how it would be done today, these stones represent the beginning of the American preservation movement at the turn of the century.

sampler

The sampler’s poem has large faded from view. It read: “Learn to contemn all Praise betimes / For Flattery Is the Nurse of Crimes / With early Virtue plant thy Breast / The Specious Arts of Vice detest / Youth like softened Wax with Ease will take / Those Images that first Impressions make / If those be fair their Actions will be bright / If foul they’ll clouded be with Shades of / Night.”

Sampler by Betty Washington Lewis
This sampler was embroidered, signed, and dated by Betty Washington Lewis on February 25, 1805.  Betty was the daughter of Howell Lewis and the granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Girls demonstrated or tested their needlework skills by making samplers and often included the alphabet, figures, decorative motifs and, usually, a name and date.  This is one of the few textiles in our collection directly related to and created by a member of the Lewis family.  When an item is clearly marked with the date and who made it, it really doesn’t get much better for a historian!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager