Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box

Furnishings posts logo finalAfter 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.

Augustine Washington's Probate Inventory

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Sugar Box” highlighted in pink.

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.[1]

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.

Cellarette (1)

Cellarette at Historic Kenmore that has been selected for reproduction as a Sugar Box for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Cellarette (2)

An interior view of the cellarette at Kenmore shows the large compartment on the upper right that may have been used for sugar storage.

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!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] 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/

 

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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

Video: Furnishing George’s House – Painting the Corner Cupboard

Furnishings posts logo finalOver the last week on Lives & Legacies, we’ve been talking a lot about the Washington house corner cupboard!  We’re obviously excited because not only is the cupboard beautiful and a beautifully-made piece but because it also represents a shift from building the structure of the Washington house itself to an increased focus on the interior details as well as the start of the furnishing process.

As you learned in last week’s video and written post, talented joiners from Colonial Williamsburg built the corner cupboard. They also painted it and, recently, shared a quick timelapse video of the painting on the Historic Trades & Skills of Colonial Williamsburg Facebook page.  We wanted to share the video too!

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

Furnishing George’s House: The Corner Cupboard

Furnishings posts logo finalAs construction of the Washington house at Ferry Farm continues, our attention is turning to the furnishings of the house.  Our goal is to furnish the house entirely with reproductions of 18th century pieces, so that our visitors can fully interact with them, without fear of damage to an irreplaceable piece.  Guests will be able to sit on the chairs, open drawers, pick up the utensils on the table, smell the smoke from real fires in the fireplaces, and feel the breeze coming through open windows.  In short, the interior of the house will be as close to what the Washington family would have known as we can make it both in design and experience.

Making the Corner Cupboard 1

The joiners at Colonial Williamsburg (l-r): Peter Hudson, Amanda Doggett, Scott Krogh, Ted Boscana.

Fully furnishing the house will take several years, but the first piece in the process is already on its way to Ferry Farm! It is a corner cupboard, made for us by the talented craftsmen in Colonial Williamsburg’s joiners’ shop and based upon an original 18th century corner cupboard in the CW collection.  The story of our corner cupboard is an interesting one, and embodies the work solving mysteries with both history and science that we do at Ferry Farm every day.

The story of the corner cupboard begins with Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory, but not because the corner cupboard is listed in the document.  Rather, the fact that it wasn’t listed in the inventory is what caught our attention.  In the Parlor, the inventory lists a variety of furnishings, including 3 chairs, a table, a desk, a mirror and a set of window curtains.  A value is given for each of these line items, as expected.

The document also lists a value for “lumber in the room and cubbord.” This phrase tells us several things.  First, in the 18th century, “lumber” was the term used for what we might call junk today. Lumber was a group of odds and ends or a mish-mash of objects, none of which had much value, and usually lumped together and appraised as a group. “Lumber” did not mean wood. The Washingtons were not storing piles of wood in their Parlor.

Probate Inventory - Corner Cupboard

Page from Augustine Washington’s probate inventory showing the “Lumber in the Room & Cubbord” as recorded by the inventory takers in 1743.

“Lumber in the room and cubbord” tells us that there was an assortment of junk in the room – not overly useful info, although maybe it does help us all relate to the family a bit since most of us have a junk drawer or closet somewhere in our homes.  The important info that the phrase reveals is the existence of a “cubbord” (phonetic spelling for cupboard) in the room.  The fact that the cupboard is only mentioned as a container for the lumber and not as a piece of furniture (it is not given a line item, and is not given a value of its own in the inventory) tells us that the people conducting the inventory felt that the cupboard was not a free-standing piece, but rather a part of the architecture of the house itself.  In other words, it was what we would call a built-in.

In the 18th century, built-ins were not exactly common, but they were popular among the upper gentry, and usually took the form of corner cupboards.  These corner cupboards served as storage places usually in the a cabinet section in the lower half of the piece covered by a pair of doors. More importantly, they were a place to display luxury goods, like fine ceramics or important silver pieces  on the open shelves in the top half of the piece.  Through this research, thorough knowledge of 18th century material culture, and some logic, we concluded with strong certainty that the Washington house had a corner cupboard in the Parlor.

Because corner cupboards were built in to the structure of a house in the 18th century, they usually were not constructed by the same furniture makers who produced the chairs and tables for a house.  Instead, they were crafted by joiners, who specialized in more architectural work.  It was decided to have our corner cupboard constructed off-site at Colonial Williamsburg, so that the historically trained craftsmen there would have ready access to the piece we were trying to reproduce.  This original piece dates to approximately 1745 and was probably from the James River Basin region of Virginia.

Conservators at Colonial Williamsburg performed paint analysis on the remnants of original pigments still embedded in the wood of the original cupboard and determined that it was painted a light gray.  As the purpose of corner cupboards was often to display fine ceramics, they were usually painted in subdued colors that would contrast with any bright or heavily-painted ceramics.

Unfortunately, most of the best ceramics found archaeologically at Ferry Farm are white or lightly-painted.  Gray would not have done much for them.  So, research was done by architectural historian Mark Wenger into the paint analysis of the trims and moldings in other Virginia homes of the time period.  In the end, it was decided that the cupboard will be painted a dark red color, with a dark gray interior.

Finished Corner Cupboard

The finished reproduction corner cupboard for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

A quirk of 18th century construction methods dictates that all the decorative trims and moldings in a house would be in place before plastering, and then plaster would be applied up to those trims, rather than the trim being applied over finished plaster.  So, the corner cupboard will need to be in place inside the house before the plaster can be applied.  The day when this special corner cupboard will take its place in the Washington house is fast approaching!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations