Mickey Owen Was Found in the Plaster!: A Look at Some Curious Inclusions Found in Plaster from Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for the unique decorative plasterwork seen on many of its ceilings. However, some of its most unusual pieces of plaster were discovered during repair work being done in 1989. These were pieces of plaster that contained large clumps of animal hair and newspaper. An inspection of this plaster, considering an architectural artifact, in the Archaeology Lab has led to several theories about the reasons for these unconventional inclusions. But before we discuss these, it is important to first understand how historic plaster was made and used.

chamber-ceiling

Decorative plasterwork ceiling in the bed chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Plaster was one of the main finishes for interior walls in the United States until the introduction of drywall in the mid-20th century. The two main types produced were lime plaster and gypsum plaster. Lime plaster was made of water, lime, sand, and a fibrous material. The lime could be derived from limestone or oyster shells. The plaster found in Kenmore was probably made from oyster shells from the Rappahannock River, instead of limestone which is not native to this region. The fibrous material was some sort of animal hair such as horsehair, cow hair, hog hair, or even yak hair.[1] Gypsum plaster was introduced in the early 19th century and was often used in conjunction with lime plaster. Gypsum plaster did not require a fibrous binder and would eventually replace lime plaster as a finish coat.

Plaster was applied in a three-coat process. First was the scratch coat, which had the highest hair content of the three coats. This coat was applied to lathe board causing the plaster to ‘key’ (adhere) into the spaces between the lathes. Next, was the brown coat, which was dark in color due to its high content of sand. The last coat to be applied was the finish coat. This coat contained no hair, little sand, and a slightly higher lime content to create a smooth white finish.[2]

Now that we have a better understanding of how plaster is produced, let’s take a closer look at the unique pieces found at Kenmore. As discussed earlier, it is not unusual to find animal hair in plaster; however, the pieces pulled from Kenmore have exceptionally large clumps of hair not normally seen. Hair was added to plaster to act as a binder. It helped to hold the plaster together, reduce shrinkage, and improve strength.[3] Contrary to what one may believe, the process for obtaining hair for plaster was very selective. The hair had to be long, freshly cut, clean, non-greasy, and dry in order to be used in plaster. It also does not appear that people used hair from their own animals; instead, they bought hair from a tanner’s yard or a merchant. When choosing a hair type, horsehair was favored for its length and strength compared to cow or hog hair. [4]  However, horsehair was probably the most expensive and difficult to obtain out of the three.

Plaster 01

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains a large clump of animal hair.

Once the hair was acquired, it was mixed with the plaster. During this process, it was important to evenly distribute the hair throughout the plaster.[5] This was where the tradesmen making the plaster pieces found at Kenmore made a mistake. They did not distribute the hair properly causing the large clumps that we see. This caused problems when applying the plaster as well as limited the plaster’s strength.[6] Therefore, it can be concluded that the person making this plaster may not have been trained in plasterwork or was a worker under a tradesman who did not follow directions properly. Perhaps this is some experimental plaster made by William Key Howard, Jr. before he started his restoration of the decorative plasterwork on the ceilings of Kenmore in the post-Civil War period.

The next interesting inclusion found in the Kenmore plaster was pieces of newspaper. Newspaper was not used historically for the manufacture of plaster; however, a dozen or so pieces of plaster pulled from Kenmore included newspaper fragments. The newspaper appears to have been torn or balled up and then covered in plaster. A skilled tradesman would not have made or applied plaster in this way. From this, we can conclude that whoever applied this plaster was not trained.

Plaster 02

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains both animal hair and newspaper.

From inspection of the newspaper, perhaps we can learn a little more about who may have done this. Unfortunately, no dates can be found on the newspaper pieces to give a specific time frame. However, from careful inspection of the incomplete newspaper pieces, it appears that many of the pieces are from the comics or the sports section. On one of the small pieces the words Dodgers, shortstop, and Mickey Owen can be identified. From this, it can be assumed that the paper dates between 1941-1945, the years in which Mickey Owen played for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers experienced winning seasons in both 1941 and 1942, due to the skill of Mickey Owen and his teammates.[7] Therefore, it is likely that the newspaper article came from one of these two years. The time frame can also be limited to the months encompassing baseball season (April to October).

Plaster 03

Kenmore plaster bit containing newspaper that mentions Mickey Owen playing for the Dodgers.

With a probable date range for the plaster pieces, we can begin to look at who occupied Kenmore at the time and why they might have made plaster in this way. In 1922, Kenmore was purchased by the Kenmore Association and was operating as a museum by the 1940s. In the early ‘40s, the Kenmore Association was concluding one of its restorations. A possible theory for the inclusion of newspaper in the plaster is that this plaster was used to patch a hole during the restoration. The small amount of plaster found with newspaper inclusions and the way the newspaper is distributed throughout the plaster, with most of the newspaper layered on the bottom and consecutive layers of plaster seen on top, does point to a possible patch job,.

From the Kenmore 1941 correspondence records, a few references to repair work inside the house were found. In June of 1941, there is a reference to rewiring being done in the house. There is also mention of fire alarms being installed so that they do not show. Finally, the interior walls and ceilings were painted. On the receipt, the painter lists that some of the walls had to be mended. This is the most probable repair in which the newspaper would have been used as a patch. The hired painter was likely not trained in making/repairing historic plaster. This tradesman probably wanted a quick fix and layered newspaper over the spot and plastered over that in order to finish the paint job.

While plaster may not be the most exciting building material to study, it can give a lot of useful insight into the construction and repair of a house. Conclusions about the people commissioning and conducting the work can be derived from the composition and application of plaster. With a little investigation, even unusual inclusions in the plaster can lead to some surprising discoveries about the people who lived and worked at Kenmore and about the life story of Kenmore itself.

Tessa Honeycutt, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

[1] Henry, Allison, and John Stewart. Practical Building Conservation: Mortars, Plasters and Renders. Ashgate, 2009.

[2] Practical Building Conservation

[3] Practical Building Conservation

[4] Hodgson, Frederick Thomas. Plaster and Plastering: Mortars and Cements, How to Make and How to Use. New York: The Industrial Publication Company, 1901

[5] Ibid.

[6] Practical Building Conservation

[7] Ibid.

Video – Building George’s House: Oyster Slaking

In this video, stone and brick mason Ray Cannetti and his crew turn burnt oyster shells from last summer’s lime rick burn into powdered lime to use in mortar in the reconstructed Washington house chimneys.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project at here.

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

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Furnishings posts logo finalOn Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.” Meghan surveyed how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house using traditional decorative arts scholarship but also adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan discussed how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Video – Lecture: “The Mother of the Father of Our Country”

On Tuesday, September 12, 2017, Laura Galke, archaeologist, small finds analyst and site director at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.” Laura examined how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura explored how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflect their strategy for overcoming setbacks and exhibiting British colonial refinement.  The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Video – Lecture: “Building George’s House, Introducing the New Ferry Farm”

On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, Dave Muraca, director of archaeology and vice president of museum content at The George Washington Foundation, presented “Building George’s House: Introducing the New Ferry Farm,” his account of the last eighteen months as George Washington’s Ferry Farm witnessed the careful reconstruction of the Washington house using many traditional techniques. Dave reviewed the archaeology that made the reconstruction possible and recounted the work of the skilled craftsmen building George’s house. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

Lecture Series will Introduce the New Ferry Farm

Aerial House Photo

A recent aerial view of the Washington house in the midst of construction at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Photo credit: Jimmy Cline

As construction of the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nears completion, we want to share the many years of archaeology, historical research, scientific investigation, skilled craftsmanship, and hard work that made building this reconstruction possible.  Next month, The George Washington Foundation will present a lecture series titled George Washington: Boy Before Legend – Introducing the New Ferry Farm over three consecutive Tuesdays.

First, on Tuesday, September 5, Dave Muraca, archaeologist and the Foundation’s vice president of museum content, will present “Building George’s House,” his account of the last eighteen months as Ferry Farm witnessed the careful reconstruction of the Washington House using many traditional techniques.  Dave’s talk will review the archaeology that made our replica possible and recount the work of the skilled craftsmen building George’s house.

Second, on Tuesday, September 12, archaeologist and artifacts analysts Laura Galke will present “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.”  Laura’s lecture will examine how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura will also discuss how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflected their strategy for overcoming setbacks and for exhibiting British colonial refinement.

Finally, on Tuesday, September 19, Meghan Budinger, director of curatorial operations, will survey how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house in “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.”  In recent years, accuracy in historic house museums has become a primary focus of the curator’s presentation to the public.  How we know what we know about the past has become almost as interesting as the objects we curate.  As such, curators are not only decorative arts scholars, but have adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan will discuss how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations.

Each lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. and admission is free. The lectures will take place at Central Rappahannock Regional Library Headquarters, 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.  For more information, call 540-370-0732 ext. 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Then, in October, celebrate the construction of the Washington house at a special ribbon-cutting event at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  More details soon!

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs