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

Advertisements

Dining Room vs. Dining Room

Several months ago, Historic Kenmore concluded the refurnishing effort in the Dining Room.  After painstaking research and scientific investigation, that room has been returned to a state that would be immensely familiar to Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis.

It might look somewhat unfamiliar, however, to later occupants of Kenmore.  The first picture below was taken sometime between 1880 and 1902 when the Howard family occupied the house.

When, in 1881, Kenmore was purchased by Mr. William Key Howard of Maryland, the place was in deplorable condition.

Kenmore suffered considerable damage to its ornamental plaster ceilings during the Civil War. Young William K. Howard, Jr. urged his father to allow him to repair them. When scaffoldings were built, the artistic lad worked long and patiently making his own molds for replacement elements when needed.

The Howards saved the ceiling but, naturally, their goal was not to return the building to its colonial-era appearance.  When Kenmore became a historic house museum, changes still had to be made over many decades to achieve a historically accurate décor that closely resembles the one the Lewises would have known in the late 1700s.

The second picture shows the dining room as it appears today after meticulous restoration and refurnishing.  Comparing the two photos, we see the biggest architectural change to the room was the removal of the gothic arched niches on each side of the fireplace.  The arches were returned to the original square doors.

The narrow oak flooring, which replaced the original floor stained with the blood of Civil War soldiers who received medical treatment at Kenmore, was itself replaced with heart pine flooring.  Late last year, the floor was covered with a beautiful replica 18th century carpet.

Decorative coal grating and surrounding bricks were removed from the fireplaces making them larger.

The wood molding put on the walls to create false panels was removed and replaced with plaster molding whose original location was found during removal of paint during restoration work.

Those are just a few of the changes both large and small that can be seen when comparing these two photos.  The changes occurred over many decades and involved many dedicated people but each started, in many ways, with the Howards.  They and all the rest of us who have spent our days at Kenmore have taken something old and made it new again.

Heather Baldus, Collections Manager
Zac Cunningham, Manager of Educational Programs

Hanging Portraits in Kenmore’s Drawing Room

The George Washington Foundation’s curators recently oversaw the hanging of portraits in Historic Kenmore’s Drawing Room. Portraits of Fielding and Betty Lewis painted by John Wollaston as well as of John Lewis and Fielding Lewis, Jr. painted by Charles Willson Peale were returned to the room where they hung originally. In this video showing the installation process, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations, also explains the significance of these types of portraits to the Lewis family and the rest of Virginia’s gentry.  You can also read more about the portraits and the installation process on “The Rooms at Kenmore” blog at http://kenmore.org/wordpress.

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

Today – January 6 – marks the end of Christmas or, at least, it did two centuries ago.   If we lived in the days of George Washington, Betty Washington Lewis, and Fielding Lewis and moved within their social circle, we would all be preparing for the grandest celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which began on December 25.  This grand event, known as Twelfth Night, was celebrated much in the same way that many of us mark New Year’s Eve with family and friends gathered together for food, drink, sweets, music, dancing, games, and conversation.

This past weekend, Historic Kenmore hosted just such a celebration in the form of a theatrical presentation titled “Twelfth Night at Kenmore.”  Set in January 1776, as Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis end their first Christmas in their newly built home, “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” depicted an unusual seasonal celebration, as the growing American Revolution brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and members of the enslaved community.

Christmas in Fredericksburg with George Washington, 1769

Six-year-old George Washington and his family moved to the land we call Ferry Farm late in 1738, perhaps even in time to mark Christmas in their new home.  If so, it was the first of many.  George lived at Ferry Farm into young adulthood.  Interestingly, the best documented Christmas he spent in Fredericksburg was actually in 1769, long after his boyhood years, and it paints a picture of the holiday as typically celebrated in Virginia, past and present.

George Washington at age 40 in 1772, three years after the Christmas of 1769. By J.W. Paradise (engraving) from a picture by J.G. Chapman after Charles Wilson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

After the House of Burgesses recessed, 36-year-old George Washington left Williamsburg for home on December 21, 1769.  Instead of traveling all the way to Mount Vernon, he stopped in Fredericksburg on December 23 and stayed in town through Christmas.  He arrived at “4 Oclock in the Aftern.” and went to the home of his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis. In 1769, the Lewis family did not yet live in the brick home we call Kenmore.  Instead, they were located near the present-day corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets.  That evening, George “ding. [dined] at Colo. Lewis” and he and Fielding may have been joined by George’s sister Betty, his young nephews George, Charles, Samuel, Lawrence, Robert, and his niece Betty.  Christmas was a period of rest that Virginians used for long visits and large meals with family and friends.  The meals amounted to feasts and a Christmas meal at Mount Vernon once featured, for example, “an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, & a variety of wines & punch. . .”[1]

On Christmas Eve, which was a Sunday, George “Went to Prayers, & dined afterwds. at Colo. Lewis.”  The prayer service he attended probably took place at St. George’s Church, an wooden structure located on the site of today’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. Many colonial Virginians combined the holiday’s religious nature with secular activities such as parties, much as we do today.  Washington was no different.  After his morning at church, he passed the evening in Julian’s Tavern with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm, where George’s mother Mary still lived.  This tavern was located at the corner of Amelia and Caroline Streets.

Christmas Day was spent with the Lewis family and George won 2 pounds and 5 shillings playing cards.  Card playing for money was another aspect of Christmas carousing enjoyed by Virginians, whether men, women, or children.  Popular games included whist (similar to bridge), and piquet (similar to rummy) and were great ways to pass the time when visiting family and friends during Christmas.

On December 26, Washington prepared to continue his journey home by going to to the barber and paying for repairs to his carriage.  Before leaving, though, he again “Dined at Colo. Lewis” and then “went over the River and logd at my Mothers” for his final night in Fredericksburg.  After giving Mary 6 pounds in cash, George left Ferry Farm on the 27th and arrived home at Mount Vernon on December 28.

The Christmas season of the colonial era lasted much longer than ours does, extending into January and concluding on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  During the first days of 1770 at Mount Vernon, Washington and his family continued visiting friends and hosted two dinners, including one on Twelfth Night.  It appears to have been a relatively subdued affair with only immediate family and four or five neighbors.  Three years later, on January 6, 1773, he had at least fourteen guests, excluding his own family, at a Twelfth Night celebration.

Christmas 1769 was one of many that George Washington spent in Fredericksburg.  It is the only one for which he recorded his activities, however.  He spent time with family, he enjoyed several good meals, he went to church, he drank at a local tavern, he won some money at cards, and he attended or hosted several celebratory gatherings.  All-in-all, his was a Christmas spent in ways not all that different from the ways many of us will spend our own holidays.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Theophilus Bradbury quoted in Laura F. Winner, A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010: 130.