Digging Up a Card Table

Tantalizing evidence of historic furniture use exists within the soils of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and that evidence gives us a more complete view of how the Washington family lived in the 1700s. The hundreds of items archaeologists and students have uncovered represent the remains of furniture broken or embellishments lost. The ruthless outdoor elements leave scant vestiges of furniture’s former glory. Wood disintegrates into soil, so these relics typically include only iron and brass hardware, such as drawer pulls, casters, bolts, keyhole escutcheons, or hinges. Over half of the hardware found consists of brass tacks.  Such brass studs were often used in furniture upholstery, but were also popular for saddles, trunks, even antique wig stands: anytime a leather covering was added to a wooden frame or base.

One particularly interesting brass hinge was unearthed in 2007 and boasts an exciting past. This hinge, part of a folding card table, was a crucial element in the popular Virginia domestic pastime of playing games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Card tables provided a luxurious accessory for popular social entertaining and were part of a well-appointed home.  Providing guests with such pleasant amusements reflected well upon the Washington family.

card-table-hinge

18th century card table hinge excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Archaeological investigations sponsored by The George Washington Foundation have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that the Washingtons’ mid-1700s home was filled with fashionable accessories to enhance social bonding.  These tools included tea wares, stemmed drinking glasses, glass decanters, fashionable dining utensils, and smoking pipes. The recovery of a card table hinge provides another element of their well-equipped home.

cardtable-hinge-on-table

Gentleman often played card games together, but occasionally women joined the amusement as well (Porter and Porter 1782:466-467). Playing cards allowed ladies and gentlemen a refined form of amusement in a convivial atmosphere, without raising critical eyebrows from discerning social commentators in Virginia.  These games were occasions in which mixed company – men and women – could enjoy companionship and pass the time in a genial way. It was one of the few entertainments in which men and women could directly compete (Sturtz 1996:169-171). Lucy Byrd’s acumen prompted her husband William to cheat on at least one occasion (Sturtz 1996:172-173, 175-176).

Such benign competition also allowed players to showcase their skills. William Byrd II thought that such games provided an effective antidote to “disagreeable” company, as it allowed the time spent with tiresome guests to pass quickly (Sturtz 1996:175). Tea or stronger beverages might lubricate such gatherings, which enhanced social bonds.

hogarths-wanstead-house

Card playing (group at card table in painting’s center) and tea drinking (group at table at painting’s right) provided elegant entertainment as depicted in The Assembly at Wanstead House (1728-31) by William Hogarth. Public domain. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia

If card games included a little wager, they were all the more thrilling.  Self-assured gambling and an indifference to losing money demonstrated a gentleman’s independence from monetary anxiety (Isaac 1974:352; Koda and Bolton 2006:100; Sturtz 1996:166). Such competitive confidence went a long way towards refuting any rumors of financial stress from which a gentleman might be suffering in the community.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, these occasions were increasingly viewed as a source of social disorder (Isaac 1974:358-359), but such amusements remained popular social events in Virginia.

Cards were a popular Virginia pastime and specific furniture such as folding card tables existed as luxurious accessories to support this pasttime (Isaac 1974:352). Hospitality was an important part of these occasions (Isaac 1974:352) and the folding card table made the game and the hospitality possible.  Applying knowledge of the past to particular objects like a card table hinge excavated at Ferry Farm gives us a more complete picture of the lives led by the Washington family here in the 18th century.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

References Cited

Porter, James and William Porter
1782 Letters Addressed to Two Young Married Ladies, on the Most Interesting Subjects. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature.  British Periodicals.  Printed for J. Dodsley, London.

Goodison, Nicholas
1975 The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.  Furniture History 11:1-30.

Issac, Rhys
1974  Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765-1775. The William and Mary Quarterly 31(3):345-368.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton
2006  Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Video: Picnicking with Washington

In this video, we talk about how people, including George Washington, picnicked in the 18th century and take a closer look at one particular piece of furniture used while on a picnic 200 years ago.

You can read more about picnicking customs of the 1700s here.

“Dined at the Barbicue”: Washington Goes Picnicking

In the summer of 1770, George Washington came to Fredericksburg for an extended stay. His time here would seem familiar to anyone who has gone back to their childhood hometown. While in town he visited his mother, went to the tavern to play cards with old friends, and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. But the most interesting moment of his stay was on August 4, 1770 when he records…

“Dined at the Barbicue with a great deal of other Company and stay’d there till Sunset.”

GW BBQ Diary Entry (2)

While it is difficult to understand what exactly he meant by ‘Barbicue’. It is safe to assume that it was a communal meal similar to a modern day cook-out. Going to a cookout, a barbecue or a picnic, in today’s parlance, all mean pretty much the same thing – eating well-known foods while outdoors, probably seated on the ground, in a casual atmosphere.  Above all, it is a highly social gathering.  We use these kinds of meals to celebrate national holidays, family occasions or just a beautiful day – it’s what Americans do.  But where did this past-time come from?

In England, the idea of consuming light fare outdoors in the form of a picnic had been around since as early as 1748, when the word “picnic” first shows up in writing.  The word was probably a corruption of the French “pique nique” which basically means “to pick at small foods,” but for the English a picnic meant a fully mobile meal and all the accoutrements necessary to eat it.  Baskets of food were packed, equipment for entertainment (games of cricket or maybe some hunting or fishing) was gathered, and wagons were loaded (usually one for guests, and one or more for the provisions).  Then, the party set off to a pre-determined picturesque location, where it was all unpacked and set up by servants.  Although we might be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff these picnics required (everything from chairs and tables to cutlery and glassware), an 18th century English picnic was still considered a very informal affair by that time’s standards.  Guests might even be asked to contribute dishes to the meal (a forerunner of our potlucks), making recipes for picnic food were all the rage by the late 18th century.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers' Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers’ Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

While picnic’s etymology is relatively easy to trace, ‘Barbecue’ is far more difficult to pin down in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the term itself is nearly impossible to decipher. The earliest known recording comes from a Spanish explorer in 1526, who used it as a verb meaning to roast meat. In 1672, the first reference in English came from the writings of John Lederer, a German explorer of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Originally written in Latin, Lederer’s expedition reports were translated into English by Maryland’s Governor Sir William Talbot and published.

Many scholars believe the word “barbecue” most likely derives from the West Indian word “barbacoa” in the 16th century.  Believed to be a Taino word (although this is still up to scholarly debate), it is a term for slow-roasting meat over hot coals, usually using plenty of green saplings that would have created a lot of smoke. The meat originally roasted in this style was probably not the ubiquitous pork barbecue. While Christopher Columbus did bring some pigs on his voyage, it is Hernando de Soto who is credited with introducing the pig into Central America and Florida in 1539.

The word, and the meat, was probably encountered by ships’ crews during the colonial period and eventually made its way to the American colonies.  Slow-roasting meat and spicing it with various rubs and marinades was a familiar concept in a many parts of the world, and especially on the African continent, so enslaved Africans living in the colonies also helped to proliferate the cooking method.  As happened with many traditions from around the globe that found their way to the New World, a true “barbecue” as George would know it quickly became a uniquely American concept, combining the English love of a good outdoor meal and the exotic foods and cooking methods of the West Indies and Africa.

While the first American barbecues were practical affairs, held among enslaved communities or farming populations during the slaughtering season so as to quickly cook and preserve as much meat as possible, they very quickly took on a much more social aspect.  An entire town might gather for a barbecue, which might last for several days, perhaps to coincide with court days or a market.

Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington recorded his attendance at six such affairs in his diary, including one barbecue that he hosted himself, another that was probably held at Fielding Lewis’s house in Fredericksburg, and a third in Alexandria at which he stayed all night.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Video: How to Play Whist

Colonial Americans often played cards for leisure and enjoyment and one of the most popular card games of the period was Whist. In this video we show you how to play this game.

You can read a bit about the history of playing cards themselves here.