Agreeable Amusements: Music & Dancing in the Life of George Washington

On September 10, 1748, sixteen-year-old George Washington paid 3 shillings, 9 pence to a “musick master for my entrance.” Young Washington recorded these sparse details in Ledger Book Zero, a personal account ledger listing credits and debits with family, friends, and business associates between 1747 and 1750. This, as far as we can tell, is the first reference to music in the life of George Washington. By no means, would it be the last. Music was an important part of Washington’s life, just as it is with many of us today.

Ledger Book Zero, young George Washington’s personal account book, shows payment to a “musick master for my entrance.”

What was teenage age George paying for when he paid the “musick master for . . . entrance”?  Well, the lack of details makes it impossible to say with certainty.  The most obvious possibility is that he was paying for music lessons.  However, letters written by George himself and a friend indicate that Washington had little to no musical talent. Francis Hopkinson, a colleague during the war, composed a series of songs for harpsichord or piano and dedicated them to Washington. In a letter to George dated December 1, 1788, Hopkins explained his dedication even though George could “neither play Musick nor sing Songs.”  In a reply on February 5, 1789, Washington agreed, writing “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument.” Despite a professed musical inability, it is still possible young George was paying for music lessons in 1748. Often, you might pursue lessons only to discover that you do not have the aptitude.

Regardless, while apparently not musical himself, music surrounded Washington. As Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson notes, “Washington was the head of a household where his wife, her two children, and her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music.” In particular, granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis became fairly skilled at the harpsichord, despite an apparent reluctance to learn. In the summer of 1798, a visiting Polish nobleman enthusiastically claimed that Nelly “plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.”

Another Washington family member with an interest in music was George’s niece Harriot Washington, daughter of Samuel. The first letter in the record between Harriot and her guardian and uncle George was written on April 2, 1790.  Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while President Washington was in New York. The niece asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.”  Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.”  The records consulted reveal no response from Washington. Eventually, Harriot would come to Historic Kenmore to live with her aunt Betty Washington Lewis. She again asked uncle George for a guitar in May of 1792. About a month later, he paid $17 for one. Harriot’s capabilities with the instrument are unknown.

Besides family, another major source of music in Washington’s life was the Continental Army. Music was crucial to 18th century militaries. Fifes and drums issued commands during battle and put a spring in the step during weary marches. Much like the army’s initially amateur soldiers, its fifers and drummers (who were often boys serving with their soldier-fathers) took time to practice and professionalize.

On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued a set of orders. One order dealt with the army’s music, which the General bluntly lamented was “very bad.” He ordered “that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them: Stated hours to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington concluded, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

A notable musical moment in the army’s history was the birthday serenade for General Washington on February 22, 1778 at Valley Forge. The musicians of Proctor’s Artillery played outside the General’s headquarters. Washington’s expense account lists a payment of 1 pound, 5 shillings to Proctor’s band. Joseph Lee Boyle, longtime historian at Valley Forge, explains that “Colonel Proctor commanded an artillery regiment, and this was one of the few, perhaps the only, unit to have musicians besides fifers and drummers. In 1779 ten ‘musicians’ are listed in the band, but not what instruments they played.” Mount Vernon scholars note that this was “the first public recognition of [Washington’s] birthday.”

We’ve seen that music was definitely a part of Washington’s life but it was played by others mostly. George could not play an instrument nor sing. He may have paid for music lessons only to discover his inability. Another reasonable theory, however, is that he paid the “musick master for my entrance” to dancing lessons. Later in life, Washington uses similar phrasing – “Mr McKay entrance to Dancing” – to record a payment of 10 shillings for lessons for stepson John Parke Custis.

Dancing was the leisure time obsession of most Virginians but especially those in the wealthy gentry. For the upper class, explains Amy Stallings, “ being a skilled dancer was an indication of good breeding” and allowed one to “put one’s gentility, accomplishment, beauty, and economic means on display in hopes of impressing—or, in some cases, intimidating—”others. As Philip G. Smucker adds, “Dexterity on the dance floor maintained social status.”

Maintaining social status and the appearance of good breeding skyrocketed in importance to George and the Washington family after the death of father Augustine in 1743. His death created financial hardship and jeopardized the family’s social standing. Without a father, George’s life changed radically. Assisted and supported by both mother Mary and half-brother Lawrence, George was forced to acquire the refined skills and customs of the upper class in Fredericksburg instead of in England while at boarding school.

One of those skills was dancing and the mystery “musick master” perhaps taught teenage George that skill.  Over the course of the 18th century, as Stallings notes, “a market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe.”  Virginia’s urban centers with their greater populations and high number of visitors “often boasted multiple dancing schools . . . Dancing masters operated in at least Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739.” Traveling dance instructors served Virginia’s far-flung rural population. These masters usually “taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week.”

If Washington was schooled in dancing by the “musick master,” he probably learned the era’s popular minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes. These fancy dances typically began any ball and were the best opportunities to show off one’s dancing abilities and good breeding. The minuet was the most important. As Stallings explains, “A man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor.”

A fanciful early 20th century painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The Victory Ball, 1781.” While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown.

Whether he was paying for dancing lessons in 1748 or not, young Washington learned to dance in some fashion, discovering both an extraordinary natural talent and life-long passion for it.  Numerous contemporaries recorded instances of Washington dancing and praised his abilities.

“His Excellency . . .  and Mrs. Greene . . . danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” – General Nathanael Greene to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Middle Brook, New Jersey, March 19, 1779.

“His Excellency General Washington was unusually cheerful. He attended the ball in the evening, and with a dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.” – General Nathanael Greene to Joseph Reed, Morristown, New Jersey, Tuesday, February 29, 1780.

“The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” – James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., Annapolis, Maryland, December 25, 1783.

“He . . . attended the ball of the 22nd of February; opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls.” – Judge Francis T. Brooke (1784).

And finally a word on his dancing from George Washington himself, written on November 12, 1799, just a month prior to his death and turning down an invitation from to a grand function in Alexandria. He wrote,

Gentlemen

Mrs Washington and myself have been honoured with your polite invitation to the Assemblies in Alexandria, this Winter; and thank you for this mark of your attention. But alas! our dancing days are no more; we wish, however, all those whose relish for so agreeable, & innocent an amusement [emphasis added], all the pleasure the Season will afford them. and I am Gentlemen Your Most Obedient and Obliged Humble Servant

Go: Washington

George saw music and dancing both as “agreeable.” From the mostly taciturn Washington, this is high praise indeed.

Join us on Saturday, April 10 for The Arts at Kenmore: Music on the Lawn and hear 18th century music group Colonial Faire performs music from all walks of colonial society – the music of the taverns, the manor houses, on the streets and on the battlefields. The evening’s opening act will include a short talk exploring the importance of music to George Washington and a theater scene depicting Washington’s first dancing lesson. For more information and tickets, visit kenmore.org/events.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

“Ya Basic”: Washington and “The Bread and Butter Ball”

It was in February 1760 that George and Martha attended a ball that fell short of his expectations. As he somewhat whimsically recorded in his diary, the tables lacked linen, beverages were watered down, and the food offered compared to basic prison fare. In today’s slang, George might characterize the uninspiring party as, “Ya Basic,” an insult meaning unadorned and simple. This blog post considers the origins of George’s refined taste, and the lofty heights to which his social expectations had risen by his late twenties. By this point in Washington’s life, he expected certain amenities and refreshments at such festivities, groomed as he was from childhood in graceful civility and elegant dress

In 1758, George’s careful attention to attire, good looks, and courtesy contributed significantly to winning the widow Martha Dandridge Custis’s attention. George was trained in etiquette from a young age. Under his mother Mary’s training at Ferry Farm, George read The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior and committed these winning guidelines for manners to memory.

Now, imagine it is mid-February 1760. George and Martha are beginning their second year of marriage. As a wealthy widow, Martha brought property and wealth to the union that propelled George to the upper tiers of Virginia colonial society overnight. Together, they had the resources to shape their Mount Vernon home and landscape to their liking. The mansion house at Mount Vernon was enlarged from its original footprint, but at this point in time was not yet expanded to its final (just over 11,000 square foot) size. The young couple set about purchasing household goods, food, and clothing that celebrated their prosperous position and growing influence in Virginia colonial society and that anticipated their continued social assent. George is about to turn 29 years old. The world is his oyster.

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An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph by Lemercier from a painting by Julius Brutus Steans, c. 1853, in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At a time when such items were luxuries, George’s parents furnished their Ferry Farm home with table linens and napkins (collectively known as napery) in abundance. We know this thanks to the survival of the 1743 probate inventory conducted at the death of Washington’s father, Augustine. Augustine’s inventory carefully enumerated that thirteen tablecloths protected their dining surfaces and over 30 napkins kept Washington family faces spotless. Many of the napkins were made from white linen, a high maintenance color choice. The family’s profuse employment of such fussy napkins was possible through the efforts of their enslaved workers: Lucy, Sue, Judy, Nan, Betty, Jenny, Phillis, and Hannah. At least some of these enslaved females frequently toiled at cleaning these indulgent white luxuries.

Linens on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

Section listing the family’s linens on the probate inventory done in 1743 following the death of Augustine Washington, George’s father.

Knowing how to use napkins and tablecloths was the focus of a number of guidelines included in The Rules of Civility, which were foundational lessons that George and his siblings practiced under their parents’ guidance. This childhood training allowed each of the Washingtons to wield their napkins and utensils with well-honed grace as adults. Polite behavior not only made a good impression, it dramatically increased social opportunities, and distinguished the Washingtons from ‘less polished’ colonists, most of whom lacked napery, forks, or the opportunity to practice refined etiquette.

Similarly, bedclothes were a luxury that George took for granted prior to his travels to the mountains in the western portion of the Virginia colony during the spring of 1748. In an early example of his reaction upon encountering unexpected rusticity, Washington’s diary indicates that he and his companions stayed at Isaac Pennington’s, in present-day Berryville, Virginia. It was clearly the first time that George had encountered a mattress made from straw and which, furthermore, lacked sheets but did have “…only one thread bear blanket with double its weight of vermin such as Lice Fleas etc.”  The pragmatic Washington vowed to sleep outdoors by a campfire during his travels from that time forward.

The following night he stayed in (present-day) Winchester, Virginia, and was relieved to discover the inn featured “…a good feather bed with clean sheets….” However, just ten days later, George was appalled by the lack of a tablecloth and of utensils during supper at the home of a Justice of the Peace in Frederick County. He compensated, using his own utensils which he had thoughtfully brought along for the trip. Washington’s personal table utensils were originally intended for his backcountry, deep woods, prepared-around-the-campfire meals. That these basic utensils had to be employed at the home of a Justice of the Peace took young Washington by surprise.

These brief encounters with startling rusticity – a lack of table linen and utensils, primitive straw mattresses, a shortage of bedclothes, or flea-infested beds — were so unusual to this young Virginian that George noted them as part of his otherwise concise diary entries. Table linen, bedclothes, clean laundry, and table utensils were part of his take-for-granted world of this gentleman. For most Virginia colonists of the time, these items represented extravagant treats, not basic necessities.

As he grew, Washington traveled in elevated social circles, allowing him to refine his manners and to adapt new forms of sophisticated behavior. Expectations for comfort and refreshments continued to grow in the colony overall as improved shipping, extended credit, and cheaper goods increased. George had a long association with the aristocratic Fairfax family, who lived next door to his older, half-brother Lawrence whom he frequently visited. Furthermore, Washington was the product of two propertied, multigenerational Virginia families, each of whom had immigrated to the colony during the 1650s. Sustained by a host of enslaved washers, ironers, and cleaners, propertied families surrounded themselves by amenities and practiced manners that quickly became fundamental behaviors among the well-heeled.

Through these experiences, Washington developed an urbane taste and refined style to which many Virginians aspired, but few attained. His marriage to Martha, a wealthy widow, cemented his membership amongst the top families. Their home at Mount Vernon was elegantly furnished and its landscape was groomed to be productive and impressive to visitors. The young couple enjoyed financial security and an extensive social network.

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

A fanciful early 20th century painting titled “The Victory Ball, 1781” and painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown. Credit: Wikipedia.

This is why, on a chilly mid-February day in 1760, party hosts Carlyle Laurie and Robert Wilson must have eagerly anticipated this elegant pair of ascendant young Virginians attendance to their ball. George and Martha journeyed to Alexandria for the festivities, where they socialized, dined, and danced. George even indulged in a game of cards (that evening he noted in his account book the loss of seven shillings, about $74.00 in modern currency). While the activities in which guests participated were festive, the refreshments served fell far short of expectations. While Washington’s criticism might seem a trifle petty, his evaluation seems to have been largely limited to his personal diary:

Went to a Ball at Alexandria – where musick and dancing was the chief entertainment. However in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuets with tea and coffee which the drinkers of coud not distinguish from hot water sweetened. Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table Cloths and Napkins and that no Apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the bread and butter ball.

We can only imagine the shared glances that more discriminating guests may have exchanged, as they employed their own handkerchiefs in the absence of anticipated napery. Just envision the puckered faces and furrowed brows that guests made as they sipped the weak, tepid tea they were presented upon tables that lacked tablecloths! Were the offerings truly so pitiable, or is it possible that George’s expectations exceeded that which the typical Alexandria social affair could provide?

Dive into George’s diaries to learn more about his fascinating life, humble beginnings, and social ascent. Dorothy Twohig edited Washington’s diary entries, George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment, which is as entertaining to read as it is an invaluable insight into Washington’s lifePlease visit us at his boyhood home in Stafford, Virginia for George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 18. Unlike Alexandria of old, Fredericksburg table linens abound and refreshments shall be more than bread and butter.  In fact, there shall be birthday cake!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Galke, Laura J. 2009.
“The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits.” Northeast Historical Archaeology 38: 29-48.

Garrett, Nicholas D.
2018 Shipwrecked in the Land of King Tobacco: The First Washington Family Immigrant to America. Independently published.

Levy, Philip
2015 George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape. West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.

Saxton, Martha
2019 The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, the Mother of our Nation’s Father. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

Twohig, Dorothy
1998 The Making of George Washington. In George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, edited by Warren R. Hofstra, pp 3-34. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.