Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire

Furnishings posts logo finalThe 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.

Scren Tore

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” highlighted in pink.

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.

Escrutoire1

The reproduction scrutoire that will be displayed inside the completed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Escrutoire2.JPG

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!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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Photos: Building George’s House – North Chimney

Brickmasons Ray Cannetti, Robert Hall, and Kevin Nieto recently finished building the second of three chimneys for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Located on the house’s north side and made from hand molded brick by the Old Carolina Brick Company, this chimney includes two fireplaces. One fireplace each on the first and second floors.  These images show Kevin working on the second story’s fireplace as well as the entire chimney after it was completed and the scaffolding around it was removed last week. To see photos of the east chimney being built click here.

Building George’s House: Why Red? How We Picked the Paint

A few weeks ago at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, painters finished painting the exterior of the Washington house.  They used a red color known as “Spanish brown.” The paint is linseed oil-based and actually behaves more like a stain.  Modern oil-based paint can, in a way, be thought of as a plastic that laying atop the surface and coating the wood.  The historic pigment we used actually seeps into the wood itself and essentially stains the wood the deep red.

Washington House without Scaffolding

River-facing side of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

 

House Painting (8)

Falling snow against the new paint on the Washington house.

In the 18th century, the pigment came from clay mixed with red lead, an iron oxide. The paint was “made by grinding the earth into a very fine powered consistency that would then be added to the linseed oil and turpentine – the content of the dirt and the amount used ultimately determined the color” which could range from “burnt orange through reds and into browns.”

Why did we choose Spanish brown as the Washington house’s exterior paint?  Well, we have evidence, both documentary and archaeologically, that suggests the original Washington home was this very color.

First, our archaeologists recovered fragments of plaster with Spanish brown on them, which demonstrates the color was available and used at Ferry Farm.

Second, Mason Locke Weems wrote “The house in which he lived is still to be seen. It lifts its low and modest front of faded red, over the turbid waters of the Rappahannock.” (Page 11)  While Weems included myths about Washington, his biography was published in 1800 meaning the house could certainly have still been standing for either him to visit or for persons who had seen the house to describe it too him.  We know the house became a ruin just after 1830.

Finally, when paint analysis of colonial houses is done, Spanish brown is frequently encountered.  The color was extremely popular during the 1700s.  Here in Virginia paint analysis found it used at William Randolph’s Tuckahoe and in Williamsburg at Nathaniel Walthoe’s storehouse, Bruton Parish Church, and, most notably, the Peyton Randolph House.[1]

Peyton Randolph House

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg. Credit: Wikipedia / Jrcla2

Spanish brown was also popular beyond Virginia.  It adorned the Palmer-Marsh House in North Carolina and Sotterley Plantation in Maryland.[2]  A survey of advertisements for Rhode Island paint shops between 1760 and 1819 found it offered “in nearly every ad.”

Palmer Marsh House

Palmer Marsh House in Bath, North Carolina. Credit: North Carolina Historic Sites

Spanish brown was “the ubiquitous color of colonial America” and “was cheap, probably the cheapest available – dirt cheap because it was dirt.”  Its inexpensiveness did not prevent it from being popular among the gentry class.  If possible, the Washingtons and their fellow gentry would have preferred homes of brick that symbolized “dominance, prosperity, and social status.” With this desire in mind, “red paint in its various shades can be seen as an attempt to give otherwise well-finished frame buildings the same aura of permanence that brickwork offered.”[3]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Susan Buck and Willie Graham, Chap. 15 “Paint” in The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg, ed. by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury, Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 364.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Photos: Building George’s House – Painting the Exterior

Painters recently finished painting the exterior of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.  The house was painted a red color common to the 18th century and known as “Spanish brown.”  The paint was linseed oil-based just as it would have been in the 1700s.  We’ll have a more detailed blog post in a few weeks explaining how we came to choose Spanish brown as the color to use.  In the meantime, here are a few photos of the painters working as well as of the finished job.

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