The Mystery of the Mane Comb

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, and other engine-driven devices, people of the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries used horses, mules, and other four-legged draft animals to transport themselves, pull their wagons and carriages, and help manage the chores of farm and rural life.

Just like the time and expense we currently spend on car, truck, and small engine maintenance to keep those running smoothly, an equal amount of attention is essential to keeping horses healthy, clean, and physically fit so that they can perform the tasks we ask of them. The process of grooming a horse not only improves the health of their skin, coat, hooves, mane, and tails but it also allows the groomer to notice any health issues or problems that aren’t apparent until seen up close.

A mane comb, an essential horse grooming tool, was excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from an early nineteenth-century context. This rusty iron alloy comb is incomplete, measuring two inches high with a broken width of 1 ¼ inches.  The finished width might have been between 3 and 4 inches.  What makes this find interesting is that there is a decorative “G” inset above the comb’s teeth.  This letter was obviously followed by others, but what the complete word or initials indicate is a complete mystery.  Was the word a favorite horse’s name or just the name of the comb maker?  Was it actually a person’s name? And, of course, if it is a person name, could it possibly be George Washington’s name?

Mane comb

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mane combs are just one piece in any essential grooming kit for horses, which also includes curry combs, brushes, hoof picks, and grooming cloths.  The mane comb is used to comb out the tangles and remove debris from the mane and tail of horses.  It can be very simple and utilitarian in looks, similar to a common hair comb, or more ornate and decorative, such as this example that is stored on a leather backing. Our mane comb falls between these two extremes. It does not have an elaborative top but it is still decorated within the handle area with a swirled scroll, raised beading along the outer band, and the letter “G–”.

CT-5774-5_W-1520

A simple modern mane comb. Credit: MyEquineStore.com

original

A more ornate antique mane comb with decorative handle. Credit: Roger Jones & Co.

DRAWING OF COMB inked1

A drawing of the mane comb excavated at Ferry Farm clearly showing the decorative inset “G”.

Ferry Farm archaeologists are curating a number of artifacts related to animal husbandry, an assemblage dominated by utilitarian buckles. Such buckles may have been part of harnesses but these fasteners had many uses around a farm. Horseshoes are the next most frequently recovered item, and they date from throughout the 1800s and 1900s. A few are of a style of manufacture that reliably derives from the colonial era. Bits, stirrups, curb chains, and harness rings were also lost or discarded by their owners. A mid-1800s iron alloy brace for a saddle was also discovered. Ferry Farm archaeologists found evidence for mules as well, as our collection includes a few mule shoes. A few bolts for carriages or wagons were recovered. Perhaps our favorite animal husbandry objects are the brass ornaments used to embellish leather horse tack. Several of these have been recovered and all date from the colonial period, when these early New World equestrians relished showing off their fine steeds.

So if there are any horse-loving readers out there who recognize this style of mane comb or have a clue as to what “G” could be the start of, please let us know.  We may never know but we do hope that maybe the “G” is the beginning of the name of our site’s most famous horseman, George, who was certainly well known for his horsemanship skills!

Juby Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director

Show Horse: How Colonial Horse and Rider Looked Their Best

"Washington Before Yorktown" by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

“Washington Before Yorktown” by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts inspired by this year’s Summer Olympics. This week, it’s an equestrian-inspired post from Archaeologist Laura Galke, who briefly looks at some of the ornaments found on 18th century horse tack.

What an impressive sight the Washingtons made as they rode their horses with bridles and straps embellished with these shiny brass decorations.  Today, people who study these decorations refer to them as “mounts” or “leather ornaments.”  They were used to ornament the leather straps, nosebands, harnesses, and reins of horses. Individual riders enjoyed these, but they also could adorn steeds that pulled carriages.  About twenty of these ornaments have been found during recent excavations at Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Colonial Virginians, including George Washington, took pride in owning horses. Adorning their stallions with such flashy decorations attracted attention to their owners as they journeyed through the streets, on the ferries, and along the trails of Colonial Virginia and beyond.  It was also a great way to draw attention to a favorite steed or an elegant carriage in a public setting. Unlike household adornments – which were esteemed by an intimate circle of family, friends, and enslaved attendants – investments in these leather ornaments were appreciated by a wider audience as rider and horse proudly paraded about the colony and region.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

In Colonial households, men typically purchased these showy trimmings. Indeed, they bought most things associated with the stable: horses or transportation.  Horse milliners were the source for such tack.  However, purchases related to the health of livestock, such as medicine, was the responsibility of women.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

George Washington was an accomplished rider praised by Thomas Jefferson as “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”  Leather ornaments and mounts like those excavated at Ferry Farm helped to create that graceful appearance for George and all horse-loving Virginians.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Cofield, Sara Rivers
2008  A Preliminary Study of 17th– and 18th-Century Leather Ornaments from Maryland.  Maryland Archaeology 44(2):12-27.  Available online http://www.jefpat.org/research.html

Griffiths, Nick
2004  Harness Pendants and Associated Fittings.  In The Medieval Horse and its Equipment, c. 1150 – c. 1450, edited by John Clark, pp. 61-71.  The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

McBane, Susan
1992  The Illustrated Guide to Horse Tack.  David and Charles.  Milanostampa, Brunel House Newton Abbot Devon.

Noel Hume, Ivor
1991  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Vintage Books, New York.

Vickery, Amanda
2009  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Fredericksburg’s June Fair

Ask someone to list traditional summertime activities and they will probably mention picnics, family reunions, beach vacations, mountain getaways, and baseball games. Their list is likely to include going to the fair as well.  The fair as a summer pastime is a long tradition and like many American traditions can be traced back to the age of Washington.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his wife Mary and their five children, including six-year-old George, to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Coincidentally, in the same year, the colony’s General Assembly authorized two fairs to be held each year in Fredericksburg (pg. 35). This act built on an earlier ordinance passed in 1705 allowing for ‘markets and fairs’ as a necessary and civilizing element of early Virginian society.

Although other cities held fairs, Fredericksburg was one of the few that held a fair in June.  Sometimes called June Fair, it was one of the oldest and largest in the colony.  June Fair and other fairs were “first and foremost a market ‘for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandizes.’ Prizes, ‘or bounties,’ were sometimes offered for the best stock and poultry” (pg. 18).

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726, Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Although this painting depicts a busy London agricultural market in the early 1700s, a similar hustle and bustle likely filled Fredericksburg during June Fair.  Covent Garden (1726) by Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Fairs were about more than agriculture, however. The importance of a summer fair was its ability to gather people from all over the surrounding counties to a single central location to conduct business and government and to offer social interactions and entertainments.  In an agricultural colony such as Virginia, homes and plantations were very distant from one another and, for much of the year, people hardly saw anyone besides their immediate neighbors and family members.  Most colonial Virginians traveled no more than fifty miles from home in their lifetimes. This made for an isolated existence focused on the constant attendance of crops. During natural seasonal breaks, however, farmers traveled to a town to sell those crops at the fair.

Fairs were not just for farmers to sell. Court sessions, also known as ‘Public Times’, often coincided with fairs. Soon merchants and entertainers saw opportunity in the large numbers of people gathered together at the fair. Many people got paid or, more likely, an increase in credit and ready money made the fair a natural time to celebrate, entertain, gamble, and socialize.

Among the amusements common to colonial-era fairs,

“contests for prizes . . . in cudgeling, wrestling, manual-exercises, foot-racing, dancing, singing, violin-playing, greased-pig-chasing, etc. Prizes were offered to the most beautiful maid.  In towns large enough to warrant their attention, companies of actors sometimes arranged to give plays during fairs. Such plays, however, were held at the local play-house or theatre, and not on the market-square, where the fair usually took place” (pg. 19).

For example, in 1752, an acting troupe known as “THE Company of COMEDIANS, from the new Theatre at Williamsburg, propose[d] … to proceed to Fredericksburg, to play during the Continuance of June Fair.” The troupe hoped “That all Gentlemen and Ladies, who are Lovers of Theatrical Entertainments, will favour us with their Company.”

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Advertisement in The Virginia Gazette announcing the appearance of the Company of Comedians at June Fair in 1752.

The fair brought people together to conduct more than agricultural business.  Indeed, “the fair was also a place where men met to make and pay debts. Land, houses, storehouses, and personal property were offered for sale at fairs — privately and by public auction” (pg. 18).

During June Fair in 1751, 19-year-old George Washington auctioned off two of his lots in Fredericksburg.  His announcement of the sale in The Virginia Gazette offered the lots, “where Mr. Doncastle and Mr. Black lately kept Tavern, next June Fair, to the highest Bidder, for Cash or Bills. Eight Months Credit will be allow’d on giving Security, as usual” and was signed “George Washington.”

Washington Virginia Gazette Ad

Announcement placed in The Virginia Gazette by George Washington announcing his intention to auction off two lots of his land in Fredericksburg at June Fair in 1751.

A decade later at June Fair in 1760, George’s account ledger shows him paying Fielding Lewis £40.  Furthermore, just few days before paying his debt to brother-in-law Fielding, George also bought tickets to a ball and lost money on a horse race, both popular fair activities.

Indeed, “the most popular attractions of the fairs in Virginia and Maryland were the horse-races . . . held at race-tracks near the town. Purses were subscribed, and many gentlemen, who had no interest in the other activities, would attend the races” (pg. 19).

Gambling at the fair, mainly in the form of lotteries, even supported more noble pursuits.  At June Fair in 1769, a lottery was undertaken to raise £450 for building a new church and for purchasing an organ for that church.  The drawing was to take place on “the 7th day of JUNE next (being the first day of the Fredericksburg fair) at the town-house” and was supervised and supported by a host of the town’s luminaries including Charles Dick, Hugh Mercer, Charles Washington (George’s brother), George Weedon, and Fielding Lewis.

June Fair was a community event attended by Virginians from across the colony and brought George Washington back to his boyhood home on more than one occasion.  At the fair, Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, enjoyed a play and gambled on the horses.  June Fair, much like today’s summer pastimes, was a moment in the year to enjoy the summer weather and the company of neighbors, friends, and family before returning to isolated plantations and farms and the unending work of plowing, planting, and harvest.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services