George’s Hometown: Julian’s Tavern

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.

Besides learning to survey and receiving his formal schooling, young George Washington also pursued an education in the social graces valued in gentry circles while a young man at Ferry Farm. These social graces included dancing, fencing, horseback riding, and gentlemen’s games like cards.  Card-playing was a popular pastime in the taverns that Washington frequented all across Virginia.

On one occasion – Christmas Eve 1769 – adult George passed the evening at Julian’s Tavern in Fredericksburg with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm.  This tavern was located at the corner of present-day Amelia and Caroline Streets.

George's Hometown 3

You can ready more about when Washington returned to his hometown for Christmas in 1769 by clicking here.

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! 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. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Digging Up a Card Table

Tantalizing evidence of historic furniture use exists within the soils of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and that evidence gives us a more complete view of how the Washington family lived in the 1700s. The hundreds of items archaeologists and students have uncovered represent the remains of furniture broken or embellishments lost. The ruthless outdoor elements leave scant vestiges of furniture’s former glory. Wood disintegrates into soil, so these relics typically include only iron and brass hardware, such as drawer pulls, casters, bolts, keyhole escutcheons, or hinges. Over half of the hardware found consists of brass tacks.  Such brass studs were often used in furniture upholstery, but were also popular for saddles, trunks, even antique wig stands: anytime a leather covering was added to a wooden frame or base.

One particularly interesting brass hinge was unearthed in 2007 and boasts an exciting past. This hinge, part of a folding card table, was a crucial element in the popular Virginia domestic pastime of playing games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Card tables provided a luxurious accessory for popular social entertaining and were part of a well-appointed home.  Providing guests with such pleasant amusements reflected well upon the Washington family.


18th century card table hinge excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Archaeological investigations sponsored by The George Washington Foundation have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that the Washingtons’ mid-1700s home was filled with fashionable accessories to enhance social bonding.  These tools included tea wares, stemmed drinking glasses, glass decanters, fashionable dining utensils, and smoking pipes. The recovery of a card table hinge provides another element of their well-equipped home.


Gentleman often played card games together, but occasionally women joined the amusement as well (Porter and Porter 1782:466-467). Playing cards allowed ladies and gentlemen a refined form of amusement in a convivial atmosphere, without raising critical eyebrows from discerning social commentators in Virginia.  These games were occasions in which mixed company – men and women – could enjoy companionship and pass the time in a genial way. It was one of the few entertainments in which men and women could directly compete (Sturtz 1996:169-171). Lucy Byrd’s acumen prompted her husband William to cheat on at least one occasion (Sturtz 1996:172-173, 175-176).

Such benign competition also allowed players to showcase their skills. William Byrd II thought that such games provided an effective antidote to “disagreeable” company, as it allowed the time spent with tiresome guests to pass quickly (Sturtz 1996:175). Tea or stronger beverages might lubricate such gatherings, which enhanced social bonds.


Card playing (group at card table in painting’s center) and tea drinking (group at table at painting’s right) provided elegant entertainment as depicted in The Assembly at Wanstead House (1728-31) by William Hogarth. Public domain. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia

If card games included a little wager, they were all the more thrilling.  Self-assured gambling and an indifference to losing money demonstrated a gentleman’s independence from monetary anxiety (Isaac 1974:352; Koda and Bolton 2006:100; Sturtz 1996:166). Such competitive confidence went a long way towards refuting any rumors of financial stress from which a gentleman might be suffering in the community.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, these occasions were increasingly viewed as a source of social disorder (Isaac 1974:358-359), but such amusements remained popular social events in Virginia.

Cards were a popular Virginia pastime and specific furniture such as folding card tables existed as luxurious accessories to support this pasttime (Isaac 1974:352). Hospitality was an important part of these occasions (Isaac 1974:352) and the folding card table made the game and the hospitality possible.  Applying knowledge of the past to particular objects like a card table hinge excavated at Ferry Farm gives us a more complete picture of the lives led by the Washington family here in the 18th century.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

References Cited

Porter, James and William Porter
1782 Letters Addressed to Two Young Married Ladies, on the Most Interesting Subjects. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature.  British Periodicals.  Printed for J. Dodsley, London.

Goodison, Nicholas
1975 The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.  Furniture History 11:1-30.

Issac, Rhys
1974  Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765-1775. The William and Mary Quarterly 31(3):345-368.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton
2006  Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Video: How to Play Whist

Colonial Americans often played cards for leisure and enjoyment and one of the most popular card games of the period was Whist. In this video we show you how to play this game.

You can read a bit about the history of playing cards themselves here.

How Washington Relaxed: A Short History of Playing Cards

As modern people, we tend to assume the past is a foreign land where residents’ lives are alien to our own. Would the founding fathers balk at how we dither away our time? Or would they recognize that life without its moments of levity is foolish?

Eighteenth century America was a time of growing leisure activities. Colonists enjoyed playing games, watching horseraces, or going to an evening of theatre. But for anyone who has ever passed the time with solitaire or gone all-in with a pair of Kings, you have passed the time in a way George Washington would recognize immediately.

The entire history of playing cards is massive and sometimes convoluted. Opposing origins, numerous legends, and the lack of definitive documentation make a ‘brief history’ all but impossible. But a few things are known.

Playing cards used strictly for games have been around for thousands of years but the oldest recognizable relatives to our modern playing cards appeared in Europe in the latter half of the 1300s. At this time, France saw a rise in the popularity of expensive and elaborate fortune-telling  Tarot cards, not the everyman game familiar to modern audiences.

Around the same time, we find references to card games in Italy that speak most directly to our modern notion of cards. Here their earliest decks contain familiar features: cards numbered one to ten, four royal court cards, and four suits including cups/chalices (coppe), coins(denari), swords (spade), and club/baton (bastoni).


Suits in a reproduction set of 18th century playing cards seen in a screen capture from an upcoming Lives & Legacies video about how to play Whist, a game popular with colonial Americans.

By the beginning of the new century, the 1400s, references to people playing ‘cards’ are seen all across Europe.  Card numbers, royalty, and suit continued to change across Europe for the next 200 years and featured plenty of regional differences.

For the most part there were four suits, but what those suits were was debatable. Other suits in Europe (some even today) included roses, bells, acorns, shields, leaves, pikes, tiles, clovers, hearts, and of course diamonds.

The royal cards varied from deck to deck, much like the royalty and ruling elite varied in the nations of Europe. Some decks had no queen, others included clergy, sometimes it was three royal cardsand other times there were four. There was one constant, however, there was always a King and he was the highest in the deck.


The King, Queen, and Knave in a reproduction set of 18th century playing cards. When printed numbers and letters (K, Q, J) were added to cards, the Knave came to be called the Jack so it would not be mistaken for the King.

By the early 17th century, England had a standardized deck (based on the ‘French’ deck) made up of the four suits we know, numeric cards one to ten, Knave, Queen, and King. This is the deck we still use today.

By this time, cards even started to play a role in politics. In 1615, as an effort to cease the importation of foreign cards and raise revenue, King James I placed a duty on imported cards and appointed an office to inspect playing cards. Although initially unpopular with commoners who preferred the cheap foreign cards, ultimately the duty persisted. The King and Parliament tried to levy a similar duty with the Stamp Act 150 years later, which many credit with beginning American opposition to British taxation that ultimately led to Revolution.

Those 150 years were incredibly important to the growth the Colonies and of Virginia. They grew from rugged outposts in a strange land to thriving cities and societies that weather the French and Indian War. The colonists earned their right to leisure and wanted to enjoy it!

Gaming Table (1)

The walnut gaming table in Historic Kenmore’s drawing room was made in England around the year 1760. The table top is covered in green baize (felted wool, similar to what you find on modern billiards tables) with wells to hold gaming chips and “turrets” at the corners to hold candlesticks.

Gaming Table (2)

The table has a possible connection to the Washington family, in that it might have descended through George Washington’s younger brother Charles’s family. That connection is still the subject of research, and it may be a while before we are able to conclusively prove or disprove that provenance.

Prior to the Revolution, Virginians prided themselves in being British! They enjoyed British rights, food, drink, and pastimes like horseracing, dancing, and of course, playing cards. It would not be uncommon to see cards being played at the taverns or at gaming tables in drawing rooms, by all members of Virginia society. We only need to look at the probate inventory of Fielding Lewis to discover what games they played for among the books included in his library it lists ‘Hoyl 1 Vol’.

In 1742, Edmond Hoyle published a Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. This pamphlet taught the rules to Whist as well as the best hands/plays  and was an immediate success! Hoyle continued to expand his Treatise to include other games such as back gammon and chess. Ultimately, the book’s 15 editions made it the standard instructional for card games in the English-speaking world. You can read a bit more about Hoyle and, more importantly, about gaming pieces used in the 1700s on The Rooms at Kenmore blog here.


Front page of Hoyle’s Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, published in 1743.

And, finally, if there is any doubt to whether or not colonial men enjoyed the pastime of playing cards, we need only look at George Washington and Colonel Fielding Lewis. On December 23, 1769, George Washington stopped in Fredericksburg while returning home to Mt. Vernon. He would spend Christmas Day with his sister and brother-in-law and won ‘£2 5s at cards’. Whether George and Fielding both enjoyed that specific game may be lost to history, but how they spent that holiday is undeniable; they played cards.

Whether for the game of Whist set out on Kenmore’s gaming table or the game of Hearts you play with your family at home, playing cards have a history that can be traced over the centuries and across the globe. It is a history that we share as directly with one another as well as with our founding fathers.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Editor’s Note: Watch for an upcoming video about how to play the game of Whist coming soon!