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.

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

Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

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Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

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A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

What Is This Artifact?

With building work on the reconstructed Washington family home at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly finished, our archaeologists are in the midst of identifying Washington-owned plates, bowls, glasses, and other household artifacts to be used to furnish the house once construction is finally complete.

While working to identify things, archaeologists sometimes encounter a “mystery artifact” that either can’t be identified or has been altered to serve an unknown purpose from what was originally intended.  We wrote about one especially perplexing mystery artifact almost three years ago.  With that mystery artifact, someone intentionally and for unknown reasons chipped away the edges of that 18th century leaded glass base from a cup or mug to form a disc .

Recently, during analysis of the Washington family’s table glass, Ferry Farm archaeologists discovered another base from an 18th century drinking glass that someone tried to modify by actually breaking or knapping off flakes of glass. It was an apparent attempt to turn the base into a disc. As before, we don’t know for what reason.

Mystery Glass Base

To confirm the glass was knapped, Ferry Farm archaeologists got “science-y” and asked nearby Dovetail Cultural Resource Group in Fredericksburg to take photographs of the glass base using a microscope camera.

Using this microscope camera made the clear glass appear green in the resulting photos.  More importantly, the photos helped us to see flake scars from knapping, which we’ve outlined in black in the photo below, and thus confirm that the glass was actually knapped by someone.

Microscope Photo of Mystery Glass Base

As often happens when studying the past, however, our analysis provided answers but also created many more questions.  Who did the knapping?  Was it perhaps the job of an enslaved worker?  What was the goal?  Why make these modifications?  Although it’s the science of history, even archaeology can’t yet provide answers to these questions.  In fact, we many never have the answers.  In the end, sometimes not knowing is just as much a part of archaeology as knowing.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

The Colorful Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are identifying items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  In a previous blog post, we looked at some of the fancy colorless glass that adorned the Washington family’s dining table.  While this clear glass definitely dominates our collection, we’ve also discovered quite a few vessels of colored glass including deep cobalt blue, amethyst, smoky quartz, and milky white.

Glass is made from silica sand, soda ash, and lime. Its color is dictated, in part, by impurities in the silica sand such as iron which causes the glass to turn the dark shades of green seen in early colonial wine bottles.

Early glassmakers found ways to reduce the amount of this iron and created colorless glass. Colorless glass was by far the most common used as tableware. Much of the clear glass on Mary Washington’s table was also made with a lead oxide additive, which achieved the desired “crystal clear” look and produced heavier and more refractive table glass.

Early glassmakers also found that when other types of metal oxides were added to the silica sand, soda ash, and lime, the result was different colors of glass. This colored glass could still be infused with some amount of lead oxide to give it clarity.

Glassblowing

French glass blowers at work. Credit: Bill Lindsey / Society for Historical Archaeology

The glass belonging to the Washingtons discussed below was handmade in the 1700s, meaning it was mouth-blown by a skilled glass blower and, in some cases, hand decorated.

Cobalt Blue Goblet or Wine Glass
Our first piece is a base sherd with partial stem.  The beautiful sapphire color of this sturdy stemware was created using cobalt oxide as a coloring agent.

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Likely made in England, it has a rather hefty base compared to our other stemwares and belonged to a goblet or wine glass. Any number of beverages could have been held in this glass, although today we commonly associate goblets with water and wine glasses with, well, wine.

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Smoky Quartz Wine Rinser
The wine rinser has passed out of use in modern society.  It was used on the formal gentry table for washing wine glasses between uses or meal courses. When a new wine was brought to the table, the glasses would be placed in the rinser to flush the previous wine from the glass.  The small spouts on either side are meant to support an upside-down wine glass by the stem in water.

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Not only did tableware like this reflect wealth enough to afford multiple wines and meal courses, it was also a colorful piece that stood out among the colorless wine glasses on the table. The smoky-colored lip fragments and the thin, blue green fragments in our collection are believed to be from two different wine rinsers.

The smoky fragment is a rather unusual color but was created with similar metal oxides as the blue/green piece. Greys, greens, and colors-in-between are created using mixtures of iron, chromium, and copper. Adding cobalt to this mix created variations of blue/green.

The amethyst rinser pictured below is from our own collection at Historic Kenmore. Amethyst glass was created using manganese and sometimes nickel.

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Amethyst Wine Rinser from the Historic Kenmore collection.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler
This tumbler or beaker fragment is made from opaque white or ‘milk’ glass and was produced by adding tin or zinc oxides, fluorides, and phosphates to the glass.  Germany was known for its production of milk glass but it was produced in other parts of Europe as well. In general, tumblers were used for mixed alcoholic beverages and, like other table wares, reflected the status the owner wanted to present to visitors.  Although it is difficult to see, this vessel was hand-painted or ‘enameled’.  Centuries in the dirt were not kind to the decoration, however, and we are left only with a ghost of the original painting known as a ‘fugitive design’.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler

Milk glass with fugitive design recovered by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

At one time, this glass was vibrant and colorful and was likely gilded with gold leaf like the German example pictured below.

Amethyst Glass
We only have a small fragment of deep purple amethyst glass, and cannot determine a vessel form without a bigger piece.

Amethyst Glass (2)

Small piece of amethyst glass recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm.

Again, like with the other colored pieces of tableware, amethyst was for formal dining and a showpiece to visitors. The shape and faceting of this fragment may have resembled this circa 1800 amethyst goblet.One of the rarer table glass colors is Amethyst. As mentioned earlier, this color was created with the addition of manganese and sometimes nickel as a coloring agent.

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramic & Glass Specialist

Source:

Mackay, James. Antiques at a Glance: Glass.PRC Publishing Ltd. London. 2002. Print.