Making 18th Century Glass & Ceramic Reproductions: An Update

The replica Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been open for tours for one year now but we still continue to add reproduction furniture and objects to the rooms inside. Since the house is a replica built using archaeology, historic research, and expert knowledge, we are using the same three foundations to create replica objects to display inside the house so that visitors may have a hands-on interactive experience.  Guests may sit on chairs, lie on the beds, pick up tumblers, hold tea pots and much more! Here in the archaeology lab at Ferry Farm, we’re always hard at work making new reproduction ceramic and glass items for the Washington house, as seen in this video.  Let’s take a look at some of our newest additions!

This adorable little teapot is a reproduction of a ware type called Littler’s Blue which had a very short run between 1750 and 1765.  These pots were often gilded with gold so we found a tiny blue teapot and made it fabulous.

We needed a decanter for the Washington house and while the shape of this one wasn’t perfect we were able to engrave it with a tulip motif based on artifacts recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm. And because we caught gilding fever one of our very talented interns embellished it further to match eighteenth century examples. We also whittled down the ridiculous cork, although we’re searching for a more appropriate glass one.

We’ve excavated a lot of Chinese porcelain with what is called at ‘Imari’ palette, which is defined by under the glaze blue hand-painting, over-the-glaze red painting, and gilding.  Reproduction Imari is hard to find so we turned this plain white teapot into an Imari.  Our inspiration was the 18th century teapot below featuring cute little silkie chickens!

Our staff then set out to turn this colonial revival basin into a tin-glazed serving bowl.  Our excavations have turned up quite a bit of hand-painted polychrome tin-glaze so it was a must have for the new house.  We decided to copy the eighteenth century bowl below. A little bit of paint and presto!  Bye basin and hello serving bowl!  Can you spot the tiny bee hidden among the flowers?

We’ve been very fortunate to have a few extremely artistic interns, one of whom decorated this milk glass tumbler with an eighteenth century design from the vase below.  Some artistic license was taken and we decided to leave out the odd crab/lobster/crayfish….thing at the feet of the lady.  We think she turned out pretty nicely and since we’ve excavated a lot of painted milk glass at Ferry Farm she is a good fit for the house!

If you’d like to see any of these in person, please come take a tour of the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm!  Where, unlike most museums, touching the (reproduction) objects is highly encouraged!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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Good Clean Fun: An Experiment in Colonial Soap Making

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is busy reconstructing the Washington House and, behind the scenes, we are equally busy creating educational and interpretive activities to take place inside and outside the house.  One common colonial chore you may eventually see being done outside the house is laundry.  While doing laundry is still part of our routines, the way we do it today looks a lot different from methods used a few hundred years ago.

History Campers doing laundry

Children learning how to do laundry using 18th century methods during History Camp at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

To begin with, in the past, most households had to make their own soap.  I’m not talking about lavender-infused goat’s milk soap with rosehip essential oils and colloidal oatmeal exfoliant.  I’m referring to a very basic soap composed of animal or vegetal fats combined with lye water.  The end result was considered a success if it removed dirt without burning your skin off.  Consequently, we figured it would be a good idea if we made some soap, just to get an idea of how it is done.

For our soap making experiment, we needed two basic ingredients: lye and animal fat. Fortunately, I raise pigs and had plenty of lard to contribute to the effort so we already had our first ingredient.  Soap making was often a fall or early winter activity as this corresponded with the butchering of pigs and cows.  Alternatively, a household could save up their old cooking grease to turn into soap (yum).  The lye, our second ingredient, was easy to obtain….online!  I did briefly look into making our own lye and quickly realized this was a task far too time consuming.

Colonists, however, not having the benefit of Amazon, wouldn’t have had a choice.  To make lye, they began with a hopper filled with many fires worth of hardwood ashes.  After enough ashes were secured, water would be filtered through it and collected below.  The resulting liquid was boiled down to create the correct concentration, which involved a lot of guess work.  If the lye was too weak it would not react enough with the fats to create soap.  If it was too strong, the soap would impart nasty chemical burns.  Colonial soap making involved quite a lot of effort.

Along with purchasing the lye online, we took yet another shortcut and used crockpots instead of a fire.  This way we could regulate the temperature and keep it steady.  Imagine standing in front of a hot fire and stirring a pot of caustic lye and smelly animal fat for hours and hours? No, thank you, I’ll use the crockpot!

Our first step was to melt the lard in the pot and then slowly add in the lye water.  The resulting chemical reaction was quite interesting.  Initially, the clear lard turned a creamy caramel color before it thinned into the consistency of melted butter.  Then it began to turn darker and separate into what can only be described as an ‘applesauce’ texture.  After what seemed like an eternity of stirring, the mixture progressed into a ‘mashed potato’ phase (hungry yet?).  This fluffy concoction was transferred to a mold and left to set up for a few days.

Four Stages of Soap Making

These four pictures show the consistency of the soap in four stages: caramel (top left), melted butter (top right), applesauce (bottom left), mashed potatoes (bottom right). Credit: Elisa Gale

Our helpful instructor taught us the ‘zap’ test to roughly determine the pH of the soap, which was also a technique used by colonials.  This involves touching the tip of your tongue to the soap.  If you get a strong taste or ‘zap’, it means the pH is off, the soap is too alkaline, and could irritate your skin.  If you taste nothing or only get a slight zap, it’s safe and good soap.  After much soap licking, it was determined that we had indeed produced legitimate soap.  This conclusion was further supported by our crockpots filling up with happy suds when we rinsed them with water.

Soap and Suds

The photo on the left shows the newly made soap cooling in a parchment paper-covered wooden mold while the photo on the right shows suds in a slow cooker. Credit: Elisa Gale

Zap test

Zap test!

If you were a colonist, making soap is where doing your laundry started.  It took months of preparation just to make soap, a product so cheap, easily obtainable, and ubiquitous in today’s society that we rarely give it a second thought.  If you’re interested in learning more about how soap was made come to Ferry Farm this Fourth of July where there will be a traditional soap making demonstration!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Photos: Glue Through a Microscope

While living at Ferry Farm, Mary Washington, mother of George, owned a creamware punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif and cherry accents.  Archaeologists excavated pieces of this bowl from the cellar of the Washington home and subsequently discovered glue residue on the sherds.

PunchBowl

cherry-sherds

interior-glue copy

We’ve written about the importance of the bowl’s discovery here and even showed how we recreated a glue similar to the one used to repair the bowl here.

As part of our continuing efforts to learn as much as we can about the punch bowl and these glue residues, we took the sherds to the archaeology lab at Dovetail Cultural Resource Group here in Fredericksburg, where they took photos using a microscope.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

Glue: The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Found

As an archaeologist, I am often asked “What is the coolest thing you’ve ever found?”  The answer is complicated.  Although I’ve unearthed 10,000 year old Paleoindian hearths, elaborate porcelains, coins, long lost jewelry, and ancient stone tools, I say that the coolest thing I’ve ever found is …. glue.  This proclamation always elicits questioning looks from well-meaning folks who expect something a little more glamorous.  Let me tell you why, to date, glue is the “coolest thing I’ve ever found.”

It’s not just the glue itself that is incredible but also the object on which the glue was found.  When I started working at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, my first assignment was to examine creamware associated with Mary Washington, George’s mother, which was excavated from the cellar of the Washington home.  I focused on a lovely punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif with cherry accents.  Obviously, we adore cherries at Ferry Farm, being the setting of the fabled chopping down of a certain tree by young George, and we wanted to learn more about it.

PunchBowl

cherry-sherds

The punch bowl was manufactured in the 1760s or early 1770s.  It exhibited a lot of use wear, indicating it was obviously a favorite of Mary’s.  The punch bowl was of a size designed to be passed around at a gathering for each guest to take a sip directly from it.  This was a time before germs were well understood.  Thankfully, for health’s sake, 18th century punch contained a hefty amount of alcohol.  This also meant that punch was not cheap.  Actually, the production and drinking of punch was very much a ceremonial form of conspicuous consumption.  Mary chose this special bowl as much for its beauty as for its function.

After close inspection of the vessel, I noticed a strange substance adhering to many of the edges.  This unsightly brown stuff extended across the many breaks in the bowl and, upon microscopic examination, exhibited suspicious brush marks.  Furthermore, additional ceramics from the same cellar excavation revealed similar residues.  Could it be glue? If it were, this would shed light on a previously unknown behavior taking place in the Washington home – the breaking and subsequent repair of ceramics.  We had to know!  What followed was a multi-year study during which we tested the historic glue residue samples utilizing mass spectrometry courtesy of Eastern Michigan University. We spent months researching historic glues, replicating those glues, and then breaking and mending much thrift store pottery with the aforementioned glue in the name of science.  The conclusion?  We had indeed discovered eighteenth century glues!

interior-glue copy

While this may not seem like a ‘eureka’ moment, it was actually quite significant.  First of all, it’s amazing that 250-year-old glue survived in the ground for so long.  Second, the discovery improves our understanding of Mary Washington, a woman that gave birth to and shaped the young life of our first president.  By replicating period glues and mending modern pottery, we also learned that the vessels Mary had repaired probably were not used for anything other than display after mending.  They could not have held a liquid, which means that after it was broken and mended, the beloved punch bowl was probably relegated to mantle or shelf where the delicate hand-painted flowers and charming cherries could be admired but never used for its intended purpose ever again.

We also concluded that Mary herself would probably not have made and applied the glues personally.  Turns out making eighteenth century glues involved a wide array of bizarre and often stinky ingredients including ox gall, animal hide, bull’s blood, garlic, eggs, cheese, isinglass (extracted from a fish’s swim bladder), and the slime from garden snails (yep). Watch the video below to see how colonial-era glue was made. You can also click here. It was a time consuming and messy endeavor that was likely undertaken by the enslaved people living at Ferry Farm rather than by the mistress of the house.

To date, seven vessels belonging to Mary exhibit glue residue.  Interestingly, even though a professional mender was operating in the town of Fredericksburg just across the river from where she lived, Mary chose to have glue prepared at home with which to repair her ceramics. That, plus the fact that she had these pieces mended even though she could never use them again means Mary was a thrifty woman who saw the value in displaying the objects.  Perhaps demonstrating that she owned these highly fashionable ceramics took precedence over using them?

What makes the glues even more exciting is that nowhere in the historic record does it mention that Mary was repairing ceramics at home.  Our only evidence for this activity is archaeological and it has revealed a previously unknown aspect of her life.  Perhaps now the question is not “Did George chop down the cherry tree?” but rather “Did George break the cherry punch bowl”?

And all that is why glue is the coolest thing I’ve ever found.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Video – Experimental Archaeology: Stone Tool Making

Archaeologists at Ferry Farm regularly find evidence of ‘expedient’ tool making by Native Americans. These quickly-made tools were created for a single, immediate job and, once used, just discarded. In this video, we break off a flake of obsidian and use it to fillet a fish.

See the other videos in our Experimental Archaeology series: glue-making, stoneboiling, and earth oven cooking.

Video: The Science of History – Experimental Archaeology & Stoneboiling

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. Native American occupation of Ferry Farm left behind many artifacts including fire-cracked rocks. This video shows how those rock artifacts were made through a cooking technique known as stoneboiling.

See the first video in our Science of History series here.