Making Syllabub

The holiday season has arrived at Historic Kenmore, bringing with it our annual display in the house of colonial wintry traditions from greenery to lovely desserts. Two years ago, I explored the mysterious origin of Betty Lewis’s hedgehog cake and even made a pretty passable replica.  This year, there is another dessert on our table at Kenmore that I have been eager to talk about and even taste, syllabub.

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

Display of desserts popular in the 18th century inside the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

Syllabub is no longer the favorite staple dessert it once was two hundred years ago. I decided to investigate this fluffy confection to learn its history and to attempt to recreate it. You may find that it’s worth reviving this old classic for your upcoming holiday celebrations!

One of the earliest references to this frothy treat is from a 16th century Tudor drama called Thersytes, when a character states, “You and I…muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe!”[1]  It continued to be mentioned through the 17th and 18th century in plays, poetry, art, diaries and cookbooks.  From poet laureate Ben Jonson to famous diarist Samuel Pepys to pioneers in household management like Hannah Woolley, Eliza Smith, and Hannah Glasse, they all knew and appreciated this sweet treat.[2]

Through the centuries, syllabub evolved to suit changing taste and convenience.

One of the oldest and most legendary syllabub recipes was informally known as “under the cow”.[3]   To make it, a poor dairymaid was supposed to milk a cow directly over a bowl of sugar, sack (a white fortified wine), brandy, and cider to create a “fine frothy top.” Then she was to let it sit for a few hours in a cool place.  It sounds simple, rustic, and even pretty tasty. However, this recipe was more fantasy than reality and incredibly impractical.  Despite being unsanitary, it doesn’t seem to work and splits the milk in a most unappetizing way.[4]

If you don’t have a live cow, another syllabub recipe, also rather dubious, was the so-called “Poured or Teapot” approach[5].  This method called for the maker to fill a container with milk and then, from a substantial height, pour it into a bowl of sugar, wine, cider or bandy, and a bit of lemon to create a light and frothy mixture.  This could actually work, if the maker used a heavily enriched cream (similar to modern heavy whipping cream). Otherwise, it also tended to create an unpleasant curdle. [6]

The two former methods, if they worked, were supposed to create a syllabub that was more of a drink and that was pretty heavy on the spirits.  By the 18th century, however, the “Whipt syllabub” became the most popular style of syllabub. It contained less alcohol and was used as a topping instead of as a drink.  The recipe called for the whipping of cream, wine, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg whites. As the froth started to develop, the maker spooned it off into a sieve and let it dry.  After drying, the maker placed the little clouds of froth on top of a glass of sweet wine or jelly.[7]

The Sense of Taste (1744) by Philippe Mercier

“The Sense of Taste” (mid-to-late 1740s) by Philippe Mercier includes some “Whipt syllabubs” on the table. Credit: Yale Center for British Art

I decided to try this fourth style and used a recipe for my experiment called an “Everlasting syllabub” found on page 276 of Mrs. Eliza Smith’s cookbook The compleat housewife, or Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, published in 1773.[8] Betty Washington Lewis owned this book, which is listed on the 1781 probate inventory of Kenmore. Additionally, I picked this recipe because I don’t have access to a cow, didn’t want to create too much of a mess, and wanted to create a dessert rather than a liquor-infused drink.

RECIPE

18th century recipe
To make Lemon Syllabubs
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it in your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them overnight.

Recipe using modern measurements and a mixer and that makes less syllabub:
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

1 cup white sugar
½ cup white wine or apple juice for non-alcoholic
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tsp of grated lemon zest
Nutmeg to sprinkle on top

Whip the cream and sugar (slowly tbsp. at a time) in a bowl until the cream begins to thicken.  Add white wine, lemon juice and zest and continue to whip until light and fluffy and just holds a peak.  Make sure that all the sugar has dissolved and does not give the syllabub a grainy texture. Serve chilled with a dash of nutmeg or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

Syllabub can sit in the fridge for a few hours but you may get some separation of the wine and cream. 

Everlasting syllabub creates a fluffier mousse that is great on its own or as a topping on jellies and trifles.  The recipe is quite simple and requires heavy cream, white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar. This is all beaten together until it is almost the texture of modern whipped cream.  The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and it took less than 15 minutes to create and serve.

After taste-testing my refreshing treat with several colleagues, we arrived at a consensus that this indeed is a dessert that needs revived for our holiday celebrations.  It is light, fluffy, and citrusy and would be a great palate cleanser after a heavy dinner or a nice change from dense baked goods.  For families with children, a non-alcoholic version can be made by replacing the wine with apple juice.

Finished Syllabub

The syllabub we made topped with lemon zest and nutmeg.

Our experiment was a success and many of you may now have a new dessert gracing your holiday table, if you can keep from eating it all yourself.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Syllabub.” The Foods of England Project, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/syllabuboldtype.htm.

[2] Day, Ivan. “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not ‘Jumble it a pritie while’?” Historic Food, https://www.historicfood.com/Syllabubs%20Essay.pdf; Pepys, Samuel. “Sunday 3 August 1662.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/08/03/; Woolley, Hannah. The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex. Duck Lane near West Smithfield, Richard Lowndes, 1672. J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 114; Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, Company of Bookfellers, 1747, pg 218.

[3] MacDonell, Anne. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. London, Philip Lee Warner, 1910, pg 120.

[4] Day.

[5] Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. London, C. Rivington, 1723.

[6] Day.

[7] Nott.

[8] Smith, Eliza. The Complete Housewife: or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London, J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 276.

 

 

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All About Sugar Cones

Furnishings posts logo finalIn a post several months ago, we discussed a piece of furniture listed in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory that gave us some interesting insight into the daily life of the Washington family – the sugar box.  Recently, our reproduction sugar box arrived and is now on display in the Parlor, just as the probate inventory indicated.  It’s been popular among our visitors, most of whom had probably never given much thought as to how colonial Virginians used and stored sugar. It also began to raise some questions among our staff.  Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story of sugar in the 18th century than we thought!

Sugar box 1

The sugar box was made by Fredericksburg craftsman Steve Dietrich, who used a cellarette in the Kenmore collection as inspiration. It is made of black walnut from King George County, and has hardware similar to fragmentary pieces found in archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm.

Sugar box 2

Sugar box with the lid raised.

By now, most history buffs know that refined sugar was sold by 18th century merchants in the form of cones, usually called loaves, which were wrapped in bright blue paper and sealed with red wax.  You can even buy souvenir sugar cones in any number of historic site gift shops.  Perhaps because we’re accustomed to seeing these small souvenir sugar cones, and because we hear it reiterated time and again that refined sugar was such a precious commodity in the 18th century, we tend to think that colonial Americans kept one of these dainty cones safely under lock and key in a little chest, carefully rationing out tiny portions as needed.  That notion, however, is quickly squashed when you see the sugar box in the Washington house.  The interior compartments of the box – there are two of them – are quite wide, and very deep, too, measuring 14 inches deep, 14 inches long, and 11 inches wide..  If the box was intended to hold two loaves of sugar, how big were these cones?? As often happens in our line of work, one question leads to another, and sometimes you discover some interesting and little-known facts.

Sugar box 3

Sugar loves and nippers inside the sugar box.

The Kenmore historic manuscript collection came in handy in addressing these questions.  This document collection includes more shop accounts and receipts for purchased goods than any other type of document, and it was an easy task to do a quick search for records relating to the purchase of sugar.

Betty and Fielding Lewis made regular purchases of “loaf sugar,” “sugar loaves,” “white sugar,” “brown sugar,” and sometimes “brown sugar loaves.” The prices they paid ranged all over the place, probably indicating a fluctuating market or scarcity at any given time.  On occasion, the account records gave size and weight information on the loaves being purchased, and they were impressive! The smallest loaf mentioned weighed 5 pounds, 9 ounces.[1]  The largest? It came in at 50 pounds![2] Interestingly, that 50 pound sugar loaf cost £3, 15 shillings whereas the 5 pound loaf was valued at roughly 7 shillings, meaning the 5 pound loaf was worth significantly more per pound than the much larger cone.  Even taking a fluctuating market into account, that’s an enormous difference.  What would cause that?

Sugar loaves

A closer view of the sugar loaves.

Sugar nippers

Sugar nippers were used to cut the loaves.

The answer to both the questions of why sugar cones varied in size so much, and why their value could be so wildly different lies in how refined sugar was produced.  Get ready – you had no idea this was how sugar was made! First, raw sugar from sugar cane was boiled with lime water to remove impurities (yep, lime!).  The resulting liquid was mixed with egg whites, ox blood or sometimes charcoal to further purify the liquid (yep, blood!).  This step produced a layer on top of the sugar liquid that was scraped off and put aside  – it was known as the scum (more about this later).[3]

The sugar liquid was then alternately re-boiled and allowed to evaporate a few times before it reached the optimal thickness, and was then left in a vat to cool.  As it cooled, the liquid began to crystallize, at which point it was poured into cone-shaped molds.  The pointed end of the mold had an open hole in it, but this was initially plugged with a twist of paper.  Once the sugar began to harden, the paper plug was removed so remaining liquid could drain out.[4]  This liquid was also saved and set aside  – it was called the bastard (more about this later too).

Sounds pretty straight forward, but that’s not the end.  The process up until this point produced a more refined, light-color sugar…but it’s still not the pure, bright-white sugar that was so highly coveted.  How did they get the sugar to that final state? Well, a layer of white clay slip was poured over the large end of the cone, and slowly the clay percolated down through the sugar cone, adhering to particles and pushing out any remaining molasses.  This process might be repeated two or three more times to make the most valuable refined sugar.[5]  In the end, those 18th century folks who wanted the good stuff were actually ingesting quite a bit of lime and dissolved clay in their daily cup of tea.  Delicious!

Anyway, once the whitening process was complete the dried cones were carefully tapped out of their molds and the hardened lump of clay that had formed at the nose of the cone was broken off, giving the sugar cone its distinctive bull-nose shape.  These cones were then wrapped in blue paper, which enhanced the bright white color.

Now, back to those scums and bastards.  Both of these bi-products could be recycled again and again to make increasingly inferior sugar, each batch being less refined and less white (and requiring more lime, clay and blood to make it look good).  Eventually very little of either was left, and the resulting “rubbish scums” were simply thrown out.  The inferior sugar liquid produced in this recycling process didn’t crystallize as easily as pure sugar liquid did, and so larger and larger cones were needed to form it.  Therefore, the larger a sugar cone, the lesser the quality of its sugar.  And thus, larger cones were cheaper than smaller ones.  The best sugar came in cones about 5 inches tall, while merchants could acquire mid-range sugar in cones up to 3 feet tall and 14 inches in diameter.[6]  But any level of refined sugar was still a luxury.  Betty and Fielding Lewis’s accounts show that when white sugar was scarce or expensive, they resorted to cheaper molasses (which was actually itself a bi-product of the bastards) to sweeten their foods.

So, now we know why the compartments in the Washingtons’ sugar box were so large.  For general, daily use, they probably purchased medium-grade sugar cones at about 2 feet tall, 7 inches in diameter.  One of those cones might last them for the better part of a year, assuming they could keep the bugs away and keep the sugar relatively dry in Virginia’s summer humidity (no easy task, and likely meant that they simply didn’t use sugar in the summer).

As we know from teawares recovered archaeologically [PDF], Mary Washington was an avid tea drinker and collector of fine teawares. We can also surmise that she may have invested in the occasional small cone of truly fine sugar to serve guests to her tea table in the Hall Back Room, where she did her entertaining.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Lewis, Betty in Account with John Legg, 20th January 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 365.

[2] Account, undated. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 1099.

[3] Porter, George Richardson. The Nature and Properties of the Sugar Cane: With Practical Directions for the Improvement of Its Culture, and the Manufacture of Its Products (London: Smith, Elder, 1843), 271-273.

[4] Magid, Barbara H. Sugar Refining Pottery from Alexandria and Baltimore, Ceramics in America 2005, Robert Hunter, ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2005), 223-224.

[5] Silliman, Benjamin, Manual on the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane and the Fabrication and Refinement of Sugar (Washington, D.C.: Printed by Francis Preston Blair, 1833).

[6] David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), 139.

No Refrigerator? No Problem!: Preserving and Storing Meat in the 1700s

It’s easy to take our refrigerators for granted.  There they sit in our kitchens quietly keeping our food safe to eat and making our lives quite easy.  It may be difficult to imagine but a large percentage of time on an 18th century homestead such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm was spent preserving food for long term storage.

Before grocery stores and refrigeration, most foods were only available at particular times of the year – this is called seasonality.  Eggs, for instance, were not plentiful in the fall and winter when hens traditionally stop laying.  Certain fish, such as shad and herring, can only be caught during the few weeks a year when they spawn. And, of course, most crops were harvested in the fall.  So when food was available it needed to be preserved and stored properly if there was any hope of enjoying it in the future.

Food preservation was especially important in the fall and early winter, which was butchering season for large animals.  Chickens and small game were enjoyed year round because they could be eaten in one or two meals. A larger pig or cow, however, would spoil in mere days when exposed to the humid and hot Virginia summers. Therefore butchering was left to the cold months.  Even the frosty temperatures were not enough to stave off decay and therefore long term preservation techniques were employed to guarantee a supply of meat throughout the year.

To begin, preservation involved many people.  In my own household today, we butcher two hogs once a year and it’s a family event with our neighbors and friends helping out.  In the Washingtons’ case, a number of their slaves were put to this task and likely butchered dozens of hogs at once to ensure the family and the enslaved population had enough meat for the upcoming year.

Pigs were the preferred livestock for meat in Virginia, as anyone who lives here knows well.  We love our pork.  This is not a coincidence as pork’s high fat content aids with preservation and helps the meat survive the nasty summers previously mentioned.

Butcher Diagram for Pig

A butcher’s diagram showing the main cuts of pork and from where the come on a pig. Credit: Wikipedia/Pearson Scott Foresman.

After butchering, the next step in preservation was to treat the meat in a manner that would facilitate storage.  This usually involved drying, salting, or a combination of the two.  The idea was to reduce the meat’s water content, which promotes spoilage, and kill or inhibit bacterial growth.  Salting pork drew out moisture so small meat cuts could be rubbed down with salt and then stored in even more salt, which was relatively cheap in the 1700s and keeps the nasty bacteria at bay.  Furthermore, adding the chemical compound saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the rub kept meat edible even longer and had the added benefit of ‘fixing’ the nice red color of the meat.  Saltpetre is still in use today for food preservation (and also makes great gunpowder and fertilizer, strangely enough).

A technique that worked even better for long term storage was brining.  This process involved soaking the meat in a salt water mixture and was good for larger cuts, like hams.  Meat could be stored in the brine and packed tightly in covered jars or casks in a cool environment for months.  The Washingtons had cellars in their house ideal for this purpose and the archaeological record at Ferry Farm is full of fragments of stoneware and earthenware jars – the Tupperware of their day.

Of course all this salted meat would need to be soaked in water before it was edible.  Even the salt-loving Virginians couldn’t palate it otherwise.

Adding the extra step of smoking to the salting process preserved the meat even longer.  The smokehouse was ubiquitous on 18th century farms and, while we know the Washingtons had a smokehouse, we have yet to locate it archaeologically.  We have found evidence for a smokehouse that predates the Washingtons moving to Ferry Farm, however.

Washington House and Work Yards

Archaeologists have not located where the smokehouse stood when the Washingtons lived at Ferry Farm. Perhaps it stood among the fenced-in work yards behind the family home. More archaeological exploration will be necessary to place the structure on the landscape.

Your basic smokehouse was a small, square, one room structure with a pyramid-shaped roof and rafters in the roof to hang meat on.  In the middle of the room was a fire pit or box where a fire was kept going for days at a low temperature. It dried the meat without cooking it and exposed the meat to a lot of smoke, which inhibits decay and is a deterrent for bugs and vermin.  Have you ever wondered why mosquitos don’t seem to bite much when you’re around a camp fire?  It’s the smoke.

One final common preservation and storing technique was to pot meat.  This involved packing cooked meat tightly into a jar and capping it with a generous amount of butter, lard, or tallow (rendered beef fat).  An unappetizing as this may sound it kept meat safe to eat for weeks or months in the right environment.  Potted meat is still popular in certain areas, although you’ll find it in cans, nowadays.

Ceramic Storage Vessel (5)

A complete redware storage jar.

A variety of ceramic pots like the above redware jar were available for storage of preserved meat and other foodstuffs in the 1700s.  Below are photos showing four different types of storage vessel sherds excavated at Ferry Farm:

All of the above mentioned preservation and storage techniques lend their own unique taste to meat, many of these flavors are now considered very desirable and the main reason these techniques are still employed for various foods, even though we don’t require them any longer thanks to refrigerators and freezers.  Think salted bacon, Spam, smoked barbeque, and delicious salty ham.  What originated as necessary methods for making food last have evolved into our own unique modern cuisine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Oliver, Sandra L. Food in Colonial and Federal America.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London. 2005

Olmert, Michael.  Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies – Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.  2009.

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont.  Eating In America.  The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey.  1995.

“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider.  In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast that loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples.  Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced.  Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995

At the Kids’ Table …with George Washington?

Happy-Thanksgiving-One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall.  It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year.  With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.

We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century.  Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house.  Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.

What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often.  They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories.  Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production.  Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together.  Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.

In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished.  There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating.  Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit.  They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.[1]

The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces.   Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms.  Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.

The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time.  The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights.  As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).

Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period.  When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.

Hall on the Probate

Section of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 showing the furniture and personal property listed in the Hall.

The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories.[2]  The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans.  When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table.  But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids.  Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.

An Election Entertainment Hogarth 1754

“An Election Entertainment” (1754) by William Hogarth. The painting shows a Whig banquet thrown to win votes through food and drink, a common practice in both England and the Colonies. Two dining tables – a rectangular one and a round one – are visible. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Porject / Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm).  Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.

We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research.  Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.”  In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table.  In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.

Kenmore Dining Room on 12th Night

Kenmore’s Dining Room with both the round and square tables displayed during a performance of the annual holiday theatrical drama “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” each year in early January.  This season’s performances will take place January 5, 6, and 7. Visit kenmore.org for details.

So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons.  In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.  Basic Books, 2013.

[2] The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information.  Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=287

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/pdfs/wshgtn43.pdf

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=122