Tacks-ation without Representation

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Tacks recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Let’s do our tacks! I know you’ve been dreading doing your tacks, and putting it off as long as you could, but time is running out. It is time to do our tacks, friends.

Whether iron alloy or copper alloy, tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack at a site.  Delicate items have disappeared but their tacks remain.  There is “tacks-ation without representation.”

Copper alloy tacks often called brass tacks are one of those artifacts that archaeologists occasionally encounter. They tend to occur in small quantities at any given site. Archaeologists also recover iron alloy tacks used in cabinetry, furniture, and architecture but this blog will focus mainly upon brass tacks.

Brass tacks were shiny beacons of taste that drew well-deserved attention to the fine fabric or leather coverings that encased upholstered furniture. Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory lists eleven “leather bottom” chairs in the home’s hall where George and his family dined while sitting upon these chairs. It was likely that brass tacks secured the leather to the frame of the chairs. Leather was an especially popular chair covering in Virginia, due in part to its availability to talented Williamsburg craftsmen.

Augustine Washington Probate Inventory

A portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory from 1743. The highlighted entry shows eleven leather bottom chairs in the Hall.  The entry reads “11 Leather Bottom Do.” The Do. is an abbreviation for “ditto” meaning the prior entry will indicate the item being inventoried.

Leather Chair with Example Tacks

A modern leather chair using tacks that are similar in appearance and function to 18th century tacks.

Furthermore, a couch was located in the passage, and might also have been tastefully tack adorned. While often associated with furniture cushions, tacks were also widely popular on saddles, carriages, and riding chairs. Copper alloy tacks even embellished trunks, coffins, and were employed to hang window coverings.

To date, 127 copper alloy tacks have been discovered by excavators at Ferry Farm. They are scattered throughout the yard spaces surrounding the multiple colonial and antebellum-era dwellings of this site. This assemblage of tacks represents a very small proportion of the tacks used here historically. Like many of our discoveries at this site, the vast majority represent items that were inadvertently lost. Such loss increased when the items they adorned were used, cleaned, repaired, or moved.

Declaration of Independence (1818) by John Trumbull

“Taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the American colonists against British Parliament in the years following the French and Indian War. The victory against the French had been costly, and Britain needed her colonists to contribute to defraying the costs. Parliament opted to impose a variety of taxes – such as on paper and upon tea – and the King’s North American subjects found these fees increasingly irksome. Because the colonists lacked a representative in Britain, Parliament was unable to benefit from the perspective and wisdom of the colonies. Being taxed without such representation was unacceptable, and the colonists took steps to provincial they had no influence on legislation and taxation upon the colonists. The “Declaration of Independence” (1818) by John Trumbull. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

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The shanks of tacks can be square in cross section or round, their ends pointed or blunt, depending upon their function and method of manufacture. Sometimes the shanks are straight and other times they are bent. Bending a shank was sometimes done to ensure the tack was well fastened, and less likely to be lost. However, it can be difficult – some might argue impossible – to discern whether bent shanks were an intentional part of their past function, or whether the shanks were altered as an incidental consequence of their loss, burial, and exposure to subsequent activities that occurred at the site. Occasionally, the shank is missing altogether: broken off and irrevocably misplaced.

Tacks are a timely reminder that the archaeological record does not preserve all of the items that the families who lived here used. The artifacts that we unearth from the yards surrounding the dwellings that were here only represent those things that preserve well and were sturdy. The primary components of furniture decompose readily, often because they are manufactured from organic items. The fabric, leather, canvas, marsh grass, Spanish moss, horsehair, iron hardware, and wood that typified colonial upholstered items do not survive long in the environmental conditions under which the archaeological record of Ferry Farm is exposed. Even under ideal, indoor circumstances, upholstery fairs poorly over time, becoming faded, outdated, and brittle. Cushioning sags and droops over time. Addressing these maintenance issues can result in replacement of these materials and the unintentional loss or even the replacement of its hardware, including tacks.

Despite these limitations, tacks often reflect the use of upholstered furniture, even if the furniture itself has not endured. Most sites lack probate inventories or wills, and tacks provide important clues to the presence of upholstered furniture, trunks, and horse tack. Hence the “tacks-ation without representation” title: while the delicate items which these tacks graced have literally disappeared or are no longer represented, their tacks bear testament to their presence on the site. In the coming years, as archaeologists record more attributes and generate larger collections of these items, their full interpretive potential may be realized.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director

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Why Were There Weird Animal Feet on 18th Century Furniture?

Furnishings posts logo finalAs more of reproduction furnishings for the Washington house get underway, I thought I might address one of the more notable characteristics of the pieces: their feet.  Anyone familiar with antique furniture has noticed the sometimes rather odd appearance of foot shapes at the end of table and chair legs.  We have a variety of feet among the Washington house furnishings, some more unusual to our modern eyes than others.  There are three furniture styles represented in the Washington house furnishings: William and Mary (the earliest, dating from the late 17th century to the very early 18th century), Queen Anne (early to mid-18th century) and a bit of Chippendale (mid-18th century onward).  Each of these styles had their own weird feet.

Probably the most well-known type of furniture foot is the “ball-and-claw.” As the name suggests, the foot looks like the talons or claws of a large animal or bird gripping a ball.  The talons or claws could be quite detailed and realistic or a bit more stylized.

Furniture Feet (1)

An example of the ball-and-claw foot on a reproduction escritoire — a massive cabinet-sized desk — that will sit in the Hall of the Washington house.

Why did these somewhat grotesque feet take hold in furniture design? In the early 17th century, design elements and decoration from the Orient began showing up in everything from ceramics to textiles to furniture all over Europe, as maritime trading vessels brought Asian goods to new markets.  The image of a dragon’s claw gripping a precious stone had been a common symbol in Chinese mythology for centuries, and was usually intended to symbolize the Emperor’s protection of knowledge.  As with many Chinese decorative elements imported to Europe at the time, the reason it was used in China was less important to European buyers than its exotic look.

In England, the ball-and-claw style of foot was used primarily during the Queen Anne period and faded in popularity as the Chippendale style came into vogue.  In America, however, the ball-and-claw remained a popular decorative feature well into the 19th century.  As a result, American Chippendale style chairs will often have ball-and-claw feet, while English Chippendale chairs often do not.  During the height of its popularity, English furniture makers adapted the ball-and-claw style to other types of claws, often favoring a lion’s paw, to represent the King.  In America, eagle talons were the preferred model.  The level of detail portrayed was purely up to the desire and skill level of the furniture maker and carver.

Another animal-inspired foot found on furnishings in the Washington house is known as the “pied de biche” (literally translated from the French as “doe’s foot”) or hoof foot.  Much like a ball-and-claw, this style can either be an exact replication of a delicate deer’s cloven hoof, or it can be a shape inspired by the graceful curve of a deer leg and foot.

Furniture Feet (3)

An example of a “pied de biche” furniture leg on a gaming table that will be displayed in the Washington house.

The reason for its popularity comes from two related trends in furnishings.  In the early 18th century there was a strong backlash against the bold, heavy, bulky style of the William and Mary period, which resulted in something completely opposite – the very graceful and delicate curves of the Queen Anne style.  This preference for lighter furnishings in the Queen Anne period also ushered in the beginnings of interest in classical themes, such as ancient Roman and Greek art.  Animal feet were featured prominently in classic Roman style, and the legs and feet of a deer just so happened to emulate the graceful, delicate curves that exemplified the Queen Anne style, so it was a perfect match.  Pied de biche feet are often found on Queen Anne furnishings in both England and America, but it was raised to a real art form by the French.

The last weird foot that we’ll cover in this installment is probably the most mysterious, simply because we aren’t sure exactly why it came into being.  Known as the trifid foot in America, this style is found mostly on Queen Anne furniture.  In some cases it appears to be more of a three-toed paw, while on other pieces it looks like three webbed toes.  The webbed toes may have been its original iteration, because in Britain this style of foot is often referred to as a “drake” foot, drake referring to a male duck.  Interestingly, it was Irish furniture makers who began using stylized duck feet on their work, and so the trifid foot shows up in American in regions with high Irish immigration, like the area around Fredericksburg. As to why the Irish chose duck feet, well, that remains a mystery, nevertheless we can add the trifid foot to the list of unusual animal feet in the Washington house.

Furniture Feet (2)

A trifid foot on a chair at Historic Kenmore.

So whether it was Chinese dragons or Roman deer, furniture designs of the 18th century were looking to the past for inspiration, although the actual reasons behind these choices are sometimes forgotten.  Visitors to the Washington house will have the chance to see a wide variety of homages to these ancient cultures, whether they know it or not.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Photos: “Antiques” Hunt!

Furnishings posts logo finalSeveral weeks ago, staff from George Washington’s Ferry Farm went hunting for objects to go into the reconstructed Washington house, which will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces to allow our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers, and pick up the plates on the table.  Finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat but staff members have traveled to a variety of flea markets and consignment shops on the hunt for 20th century Colonial Revival objects that will pass as 18th century.  Here are a few photos from one of these trips…

To learn more about the reconstructed Washington house furnishing effort, you might wish to read these blog posts…

Furnishing George’s House: The Corner Cupboard
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire
Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box
Search for Washington House Furnishings Takes Exciting Turn!
Just What is Colonial Revival?
Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Finding Clues in Curtain Rings

What do you think curtains look like after hundreds of years in Virginia’s soils? Naturally, the cloth portions of such tasteful textiles quickly erode away. But archaeologists do occasionally discover curtain rings. It’s likely that brass rings such as these became separated from their stylish drapery due to cloth tearing or – occasionally – because the ring itself breaks (see third ring from left in photo below).

Curtain Rings

Possible curtain rings recovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm. These are made from solid brass. Such rings supported bed curtains, wall hangings, and window curtains.

These archaeological gems from the soils that surround Washington’s boyhood home provide details regarding the Washington family’s decisions about the furnishing of their home. Drapery provided privacy, embellished an otherwise drab surface, enhanced warmth, and allowed occupants to control the amount of sunlight in a room. Despite these contributions to comfort and elegant style, window curtains remained somewhat uncommon in colonial households during the second quarter of the 18th century, when documents demonstrate that the Washington home had curtains.

Curtains and wall hangings were noted in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory (see photo below). This document was created after Augustine, George’s father, died. It listed his possessions and their value. Probate inventories were created by gentlemen from the neighborhood who assessed the value of the recently deceased’s possessions for estate and tax purposes. Benjamin Berryman, Hancock Lee, and Adam Reid performed this task for the Washingtons in 1743.

The window hangings recorded in Augustine’s probate in the hall back room, which served as Augustine and Mary’s bed chamber, were almost twice as expensive as those found in the parlor room. They were valued at two shillings six pence for a single window curtain. The probate inventory also notes two additional sets of fine curtains under the heading “linen.” These were even more expensive than those within the home’s rooms.  One pair was composed of silk while the other was made from cotton.

ProbateP286HallBackRmCurtainsSmall copy

This detail from Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory indicates that the hall back room had two window hangings valued at 8 shillings.

While the assemblage of curtain rings excavated at Ferry Farm may appear modest, it is worth noting that Foundation archaeologists have excavated over 900 five-ft.-by-five-ft. excavation squares! That’s well over 22,000 square feet of soil screened.[1] Every inch of soil is screened through ¼-inch mesh screen and artifacts from all time periods are cleaned, cataloged, and curated at Ferry Farm. It is only through such a thorough and extensive excavation strategy, that any evidence for brass rings that supported wall and window hangings can be discovered.

If Ferry Farm was the homestead of a less famous family (whose records were less diligently preserved) or the home of a family who lacked the income level to warrant a probate inventory, these excavated rings would be the sole evidence of the existence of wall hangings, window hangings, or bed curtains. The few rings recovered from these extensive excavations alone allow us to infer that this family had hangings. Just how these rings were employed is not known with certainty using the material record alone but these archaeological remains alongside the probate inventory provide an exceptional opportunity for Foundation scholars to understand the mid-18th century Washingtons.

The presence of brass rings at Ferry Farm illustrates the importance of thorough excavation to recover small finds artifacts. Together with the probate inventory, these rings allow archaeologists, curators, and material culture specialists to compare – and to appreciate – what the Washingtons owed in 1743 versus what was preserved in the ground after hundreds of years.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

[1]Most excavation units extend to a depth of about one foot, though some proceed to even greater depths.

Further reading
Muraca, David, John Coombs, Phil Levy, Laura Galke, Paul Nasca and Amy Muraca
2011 Small Finds, Space, and Social Context: Exploring Agency in Historical Archaeology. Northeast Historical Archaeology 40:1-20.

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

 

 

Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Furnishings posts logo finalPreviously on Lives and Legacies, curator Meghan Budinger laid out a wonderful summary of the Colonial Revival movement.  At no point did she weigh-in with her opinion of Colonial Revival and she should be applauded for her diplomacy.  To be honest, though, many historians, material culture specialists, and decorative arts enthusiasts (among others) can get a little ‘judgy’ when it comes to Colonial Revival.

Copies of copies rarely turn out as nice as the original and, as Meghan discussed, Colonial Revival items conform more to our notion of how things looked in the 18th century than how they actually looked in the 18th century.

When dealing with ceramics, Colonial Revival copies are almost always ‘clunky’ compared to the beauties they seek to emulate.  This is because the reproductions are machine made, while the colonial originals were handmade and hand-decorated. It’s very hard to imitate that kind of craftsmanship with a machine.  Experts call it being ‘debased’.  The copy is simply of a lower quality and slightly distorted.

Take for example this, um, interesting platter made between 1935 and 1941 by The Homer Laughlin China Company. It is a hideous imitation of the beautiful shell edge decoration popular in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century.  Of course, not all Colonial Revival is quite this debased as this extreme example.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 3

This 20th century Colonial Revival reproduction made by The Homer Laughlin China Company is a ‘debased’ version of a shell edge platter from the 18th century pictured below.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 4

Some are actually pretty accurate, like this tasteful white granite pitcher or this stoneware mustard pot, which dates from 1993.  I’m pretty sure it came from The Cracker Barrel.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 2

Colonial Revival white granite pitcher.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 1

Colonial Revival stoneware mustard pot dating from 1993 and perhaps sold by The Cracker Barrel.

It just so happens that our awesome team of specialists (curators and archaeologists – a fun bunch) are currently furnishing the Washington house at Ferry Farm with reproductions the public may handle as we create an interactive house. Original 18th century objects are not an option.  Good colonial reproductions can sometimes cost as much as originals and can also be surprisingly hard to find.  Thus, despite our prejudices, we’re finding ourselves extremely grateful for the glut of Colonial Revival tea and tablewares currently on the market.

Colonial Revival pieces are often quite sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and no member of our staff will dissolve into tears if a stoneware crock with cobalt blue hand-painted decoration originally purchased at The Cracker Barrel in 1997 broke.  We might actually celebrate it.  And so we hunt for modern items that straddle the line between historically accurate and, if need be, expendable.  We are diligently scouring auction sites, thrift and junk shops, antique markets, and sometimes our own cupboards in our never ending quest for Colonial Revival.  We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress and hope you can visit the Washington House to see how we did!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist