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.
Previously 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.
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.
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
You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before. Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today. It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.
As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial. At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population. In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut. Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods. Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology. The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however. Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it. A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels. The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.
The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country. Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be. The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life. Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important. An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s. It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers). The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.
Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal. Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers. As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn. Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!” At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.
The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes. It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way. Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives. Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done. Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business. Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.
For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore. We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation. In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial. Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance. As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table. However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.
Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions. Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research. Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different. In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
After lengthy research and an occasional head-scratcher, the furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is finished! Reproduction furnishings are now being made. The probate inventory made after Augustine Washington’s death in 1743 guided us in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written over 270 years ago before standardized spelling, certain objects named on the inventory were pretty unfamiliar to us. Some items in particular required some detective work to determine what exactly they were.
The first unusual item was a scrutoire in the Hall, which we wrote about in part 1. The second unusual item in the inventory was listed in the Parlor. At first glance, it didn’t seem so mysterious. It is a “sugar box”, which was not an unknown term in 18th century probate inventories, especially those from the southern American colonies. Obviously, we can assume the item was intended for the storage of sugar, but beyond that it gets a little murky.
The descriptor “sugar” is often found in front of a variety of furniture forms in probate inventories – chests, cupboards, cases, boxes, etc. The two most common combinations are “sugar box” and “sugar chest,” with the boxes more common to coastal Virginia and North Carolina inventories and the chests being more likely to show up on inventories further inland.
Only a few 18th century identified sugar chests still exist. They are all finely made boxes on stands of turned or carved legs, equipped with drawers and compartments, and adorned with fine hardware. In short, sugar chests were considered fine pieces of furniture, not simply storage devices. They were status symbols, probably placed on prominent display in the best rooms of a house, signifying to visitors that this household, even though far inland, could afford the rare and expensive commodity of sugar.
So, what were the sugar boxes of coastal Virginia like? Until recently, no known sugar boxes were thought to have survived, but new scholarship may indicate that they were hidden in plain sight all along. Bottle cases, or cellarettes, are known forms found in all sorts of households in colonial Virginia. They were simply crates, or sometimes something more elaborate, intended to store bottles of alcohol. The interiors were divided into standard size compartments (4”x4”) to fit the standardized gin bottles being produced in England.
Occasionally, a bottle case would surface that had abnormally large compartments inside, perhaps only two or three. The assumption was made that these bottle cases were simply intended for larger sized alcohol containers. The prevailing theory now, though, is that these particular cases, which almost always look like miniature blanket chests, were actually the mysterious sugar boxes. The two or three large compartments were intended to hold loaves of sugar, or perhaps cones of sugar.
Sugar boxes were not nearly as elaborate and finely made as their inland sugar chest counterparts for one basic reason – it was much easier for coastal Virginians to access imported sugar than it was for inland colonists. Sugar wasn’t nearly the status symbol on the coast that it was inland. Coastal Virginians didn’t need to show off their sugar – they simply needed to store it.
As a result of this current scholarship on 18th century sugar boxes, a piece from the Foundation’s own collection has been selected for reproduction. It was originally cataloged as a Virginia-made cellarette, as its interior is divided into compartments. However, its exterior can be described as a diminutive blanket chest. In reproducing the piece, the interior will be divided into only two compartments instead of the current arrangement for multiple bottles. Thus, we will have a sugar chest in the Washington house.
As you seen with both the scrutoire and sugar box listed on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory, even when we have 270 year-old written documentation, there can still be mysteries to solve!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
 Collie, P.E. Are Cellarets from the East Coast and Sugar Chests from Kentucky? Edenton Historical Commission, 2016. http://ehcnc.org/decorative-arts/furniture/cellarets-and-sugar-chests/
The furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is done, and the reproduction furnishings are being made. Whew! It was a long process, filled with lengthy research and sometimes a few head-scratchers. Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory was our guiding document in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written more than 270 years ago (and long before spelling was standardized) the names on it for certain objects were pretty unfamiliar to us. Some items in particular required some digging to determine what exactly they were.
Right off, we have the enigmatic entry on the first line of the inventory for the Hall. The handwritten words seemed to be “Scren Fore” or perhaps “Scren Tore”, with a valuation of 13 shillings. There is no colonial-era furnishing known by that name, and extensive research turned up very little evidence as to what the inventory-takers could have meant by a “scren fore” or “scren tore.” At present, our best educated guess is that “scren tore” was an attempt at phonetically spelling the word “scrutoire”, a furniture form unique to the Rappahannock river valley and eastern Virginia during the first half of the 18th century. Several variations of the word “scrutoire” show up in advertisements and probate inventories from those early years, suggesting there was a wide interpretation of how to spell and pronounce the word. In fact, it is believed that “scrutoire” itself is a corruption of the French word “escritoire,” which describes a diminutive ladies’ desk.
A scrutoire in colonial Virginia was also a desk, topped with a bookcase or shelving, and enclosed with two pairs of doors. The main difference between a scrutoire and a bookcase-on-desk of the variety we are most accustomed to seeing is that there is no slant-top, or fall-front writing surface in a scrutoire. Rather, the writing surface is a pull-put board, which is also hidden by the doors when closed. When not in use, a scrutoire resembles a cabinet or cupboard.
The scrutoire is usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, as the desks almost always feature slots for oversized ledgers, and a variety of cubbyholes and small drawers for accounting purposes. It appears that the scrutoire was a form brought to the Virginia colony by Scottish furniture makers, who settled near the Rappahannock and along the eastern shore, in places like Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. In Scotland, the scrutoire had existed as far back as the 17th century.
The valuation given to the supposed scrutoire in the probate inventory was also a somewhat problematic clue. At just 13 shillings, it seems rather low for a significant case piece. However, this oddity may be explained by Sumpter Priddy in his 2012 article on scrutoires in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ journal. As they were a form popular in Scotland as early as the 17th century, they arrived in colonial Virginia rather early in its history, and by the mid-18th century had fallen out of favor to the more common slant-front bookcase-on-desk. While their valuations in early probate inventories show them to be highly valued household furnishings, by mid-century, they are almost universally given low values, indicating their old, worn-out, unfashionable status in the household.
A scrutoire currently in the collections of Mount Vernon served as the basis for our reproduction. This example dates to slightly after Augustine Washington’s death. It is attributed to Robert Walker, a Scottish craftsman who counted Augustine and Mary Washington among his clients in the 1740s and 1750s. Later, he would produce pieces for the next generation of the Washington family as well as for Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law at Kenmore. It seems likely that if the Washingtons of Ferry Farm did indeed own a scrutoire, it would have been produced by their favorite local Scottish craftsman. The Mount Vernon piece does have a tradition of ownership on Virginia’s Northern Neck, where it descended in the Jett family, who lived in close proximity to the Washingtons at Pope’s Creek, and were not far from Fredericksburg and the later Washington home at Ferry Farm.
We’re pretty confident we’ve solved the mystery of the “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” but that left at least one other strange item on Augustine Washington’s 270-year-old probate inventory to investigate. We’ll turn to that mystery in part 2 of this post in early August!
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations