Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

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The Wine Bottle: Ubiquitous and Informative

Ah, the humble wine bottle.  There are few historical archaeological sites without them and Ferry Farm is no exception.  Our current mending project has produced about a dozen wine bottles from one Washington house cellar feature alone.  Readily identifiable because their form has changed little in the past 250 years, these beauties are sometimes overlooked in favor of fancier or more exotic artifacts.  However, there is much we can learn from the sherds of wine bottles and much history wrapped up in their existence on colonial sites.

Wine Bottles 1

Mid-18th century bottle neck and base fragments excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

Let’s start with what wine bottles cannot tell us. They can’t actually tell us whether or not folks were drinking wine.  Huh?  Well, ‘wine’ bottles of the colonial period held anything from vinegar to gin and all liquids in between.   Yes, many contained wine but the modern use of ‘wine’ to describe these bottles, with their tall, cylindrical shape and dark green-colored glass, is really just a reflection of what we exclusively drink from them currently.

Most 18th and 19th century wine bottles held a variety of substances over their lifetimes.  Bottles were not cheap before industrialization made them relatively disposable and were often listed in probate inventories.  Recycling is nothing new.  Your average 18th century household carefully cleaned out each empty bottle for reuse when needed.  The inside was scoured with sand, small pebbles, or lead shot (which is a terrible idea). It is not uncommon to find wine bottles archaeologically that exhibit heavy use wear on the inside and outside from years of being drained, cleaned, refilled and used for storage, serving, and transport.  Truly, the wine bottle was a workhorse.

Wine Bottles 2

An example of what the bottles excavated at Ferry Farm looked when they were whole.

Where did these ever-present bottles come from?  For the most part, from England.  This isn’t surprising given that colonials weren’t really allowed to trade with any other countries.  While there were some early glass houses in the Americas, their production was nowhere near that of England’s well-established glass industry.  The English produced squat and sturdy wine bottles of very dark glass often dubbed ‘black glass’ able to survive shipping across the Atlantic.  They were filled before the trip and used as ballast in the ship, the contents often being worth more than the bottle itself.

For the most part, these ‘black glass’ wine bottles were filled with wine but not the wine that you’re likely familiar with.  Your typical red or white wine would not survive the months-long tumultuous ocean journey (with its extremes of temperature and humidity) from Europe to America. It would be vinegar by the time it arrived, if you were lucky.

However, wine fortified with a hard liquor such as brandy would halt fermentation and oxidation processes and make the wine both transportable AND much higher octane once it arrived for thirsty colonials.  Subsequently, a lot of the wine enjoyed in 18th century America was fortified.  Not only did these fortified wines such as Madeira, port, sherry, Masala, or Malaga survive the nasty voyage across the ocean, they actually tasted better once they reached their destination.  Fortified wines are total masochists and basically thrive under neglect and abuse.  The more rocking of the boat the better.  Fortified wines also love extremes of temperature and humidity.  In fact, bottlers often documented the voyage a particular wine took.  Madeira and Port that traveled south of the equator and then back north again fetched top dollar because they had been exposed to the extreme conditions of the tropics.

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“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But why import all this wine?  Surely it would have been cheaper and easier to make it locally like most other colonial food and beverages.  Well, the colonists tried….and tried…and tried.  Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the great innovators of his day and a celebrated lover of wine, failed in this task, although not for lack of effort.  It turns out that European grapes do not do well in the Americas and tend to wither from disease and pests.  Additionally, North America’s few native grapes are ill-suited to making fine wine.  It was not until recently in our history as a country that we’ve succeeded in growing hybrid grape varieties that will produce a palatable wine.  We had a much better track record of making wine out of pretty much everything else (dandelions, apples, barley, peaches, quince, and any berry they could get their hands on).  Seeing as it was unimaginable that our founding fathers go without one of their favorite beverages, both wine and wine bottles ended up making their way across the Atlantic in large quantities.

All of this brings us back to the Washington family wine bottles.  Their presence is not a surprise but finding them has us pondering the importance of wine in the colonies, the intricacies of colonial transatlantic trade, and the value of seemingly everyday objects in colonial society.  Of course it’s also fun to contemplate all of the libations they may have held over the years until a careless hand shattered them and banished the bottles to the trash midden where they would await discovery by archaeologists two and a half centuries later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Grasse, Steven.  Colonial Spirits:  A Toast to Our Drunken History.  Abrams Image, New York.  2016

Hancock, David.  Oceans of Wine:  Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  2009.

Jones, Olive R.  Cylindrical English Wine & Beer Bottles 1735-1850.  Minister of Supply and Services, Canada.  1986.

Drinking Vessels and Their Drinks

The goal of studying archaeological artifacts and, indeed, the goal of studying history more broadly is to understand the people who lived in the past both in the small moments and in the times of monumental change.  Something as ordinary as the beverages people drank and the objects from which they drank reveal what life was like in the past.  In this post, we examine three popular beverages, the vessels used to drink them, and their historical significance.

Tea: In the 18th century English speaking world, tea was synonymous with high society. Not only was the tea itself expensive (since it was shipped from across the globe) but the entire culture around tea was costly. One could not serve tea without a proper tea service or equipage. The first English references to tea come from early 17th century English merchants abroad in Asia. However, tea wouldn’t enjoy universal English adoration until later in the century when Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal in 1662 and brought the practice from Europe into England. From then on, tea represented wealth and high society wherever the English went, including across the Atlantic. Over a hundred years later, however, Parliament inadvertently changed tea’s beloved status amongst their North American colonists as colonists boycotted the drink to show their displeasure with the mother country’s rule. Even with that change, tea remained a highly-prized status symbol among many and even inspired some Americans to create ‘Liberty Teas’ from locally grown herbs and fruits.

Like the tea itself, teawares (the vessels in which tea was prepared and served) were fashionable and reflected societal trends.   Well-to-do families like the Lewises of Historic Kenmore exhibited their finest teawares and were expected to update their china cabinet with the most stylish wares they could afford.  Silver topped the list followed by porcelain. If those were lacking, elaborately decorated and finely potted stone and earthenwares would do in a pinch.  At the end of the Revolution, Fielding and Betty Lewis were reeling from wartime expenses so their teawares likely resembled this lovely creamware piece with a delicate strawberry flower at the base of the handle.  While not the most expensive teaware at the time, this molded creamware exhibited good taste and was suitable for the Lewis family to use while serving tea to their guests.

Drinking Vessels (2)

Punch: Much like tea, punch was also a status symbol in the 18th century. A punch’s different ingredients usually came from all over the world and were therefore quite expensive. Punch is first written about by 17th century English sailors. The word ‘punch’ is believed to come from the Hindustani word ‘paanstch’, meaning ‘five’, and may explain why historic punches have 5 parts: sweet, sour, strong, weak, and spice. Typically, the sweet was sugar, the sour was a citrus fruit such as lemons, limes, or oranges, the weak was water or tea, the strong was alcohols like rum or whiskey, and the spices could be nutmeg or cinammon. These 5-parts allowed punch to be made from any number of ingredients and to take on unique identities and flavors. Punches varied greatly between taverns and recipes (receipts) were closely guarded secrets. What was not flexible was the necessity of punch. Colonials could hardly have an elegant ball, a large celebration, or even a small get-together without the ubiquitous drink.

As with tea, imbibing punch was a communal event requiring fancy equipage.  The bowls themselves ranged from elaborately decorated to elegantly simple and came in many sizes. The smallest served a single individual while grand bowls served lavish parties with dozens of tipplers.  Some bowls even conveyed political opinions or leveled jokes at members of society.  Suitable for a modest gathering of friends, this tin-glazed punch bowl displayed at Kenmore was owned by the family during their more prosperous pre-war days. By the time they moved to Kenmore, however, this cheerfully hand-painted bowl was falling out of fashion.  Tin-glaze was less refined than later wares and was easily chipped and cracked, making it less desirable.

Drinking Vessels (3)

Fortified wine:  In 18th century America, fortified wine reigned supreme.  Lacking our own wine industry, despite the best efforts of Thomas Jefferson and others to establish wine grapes in the colonies, we relied on imported wines from Europe.  Because of the ocean journey, fortified wines such as Madeira, port, and sherry became very popular.  These wines shared one thing in common:  The fermentation process was halted by the addition of brandy.   This upped the alcohol content considerably and made the wine portable over long distances.   Most wines prefer a quiet life in a cool environment.  Fortified varieties, however, thrive on chaos and age better when subjected to extremes of temperature, humidity, and constant sloshing around in the belly of a huge ship.  These choice wines even exhibited labels documenting their torturous journeys.  Wines that traveled south of the equator before eventually making their way up the coast to the colonies were especially prized.  Once a fortified wine found its way into a household, it was likely stored in an attic or on a portico, where it would continue to improve while battered by cold winters and sweltering heat.

Today, fortified wines are considered desert wines to be consumed after dinner.  The colonists, however, needed no such excuse to pop open a bottle of fine Madeira.  They did, however, traditionally drink these more potent wines from smaller glasses.    This lovely lead glass example is hand-blown and engraved using a copper wheel.  Probably manufactured in England in the late 1700s, one can only imagine the delicious wines it once held!

Drinking Vessels (1)

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services