Ten Rarely-Displayed Objects from Kenmore’s Collection

It is impossible for museums to exhibit the thousands of objects in their collections.  Historic Kenmore is no exception. While each of our objects is certainly unique and interesting, not every piece fits within our current interpretation of the life and times of the Lewis family.

One reason museums might not display items is they are not from the time period being interpreted.  Our curator selects each object shown to the public after exhaustive study of primary resources like wills, probate inventories, letters and diaries and making sure it illustrates 18th century life in a wealthy Virginian home.  If we displayed pieces we have from the 1600s or 1960s, it would detract from the story of the Lewis family in the 1700s.

A second reason museums might not display items is preservation and conservation.  Items that are two-hundred years old or more are very delicate and require special environments with proper temperatures, relative humidity, restricted lighting, and limited handling.  Material like textiles and papers don’t do well on display for long periods of time.  These items are better utilized in temporary exhibits in our visitors center or as digital content.

In this list, I present ten of my favorite objects from Kenmore’s collection not often exhibited because they don’t quite match the history we’re trying to share or because they are too delicate for display. Besure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the objects.

Ivory Silk Overdress and Petticoat

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One portion of the floral embroidery on the dress in Kenmore’s collection. The gown’s material is so delicate in some areas that we felt it best not to try and photograph the complete gown.

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Robe à la Française, c. 1770, similar in style to the dress in Kenmore’s collection. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Wikipedia

In Kenmore’s collection is an extremely delicate  overdress and petticoat with a brocaded multicolor floral pattern in the open robe style that dates from about 1775-1785. The particular cut of the open robe style was also known as “a la francaise” or “sack-back gown”.  This robe à la francaise is an illustration of the Rococo aesthetic that was popular during the eighteenth century.  I find clothing to be some of the most personal historic artifacts in any collection.  These pieces are not simply costumes but functional everyday garments that were used, stained, and mended by their owners.  Being able to see and handle this tangible historic link is as close to time-travel as we will get but, at the same times, textiles are extremely fragile and must be handled only rarely.

empire-dress

Empire-style dress in Kenmore’s collection photograph while still laying in its storage box.

Empire Waist Dress
This cream-colored silk dress dates from between 1790 and 1820 and features a pattern of flower sprays and vines with row of pink brocaded flowers along bottom.  Cut in neo-classical style popular in the early nineteenth century with an “empire-style” waist, square neck and loose skirt.  Regency fashion is one of my favorite fashion epochs.  I find the empire-waisted silhouette to be flattering and probably the most comfortable of all historic women’s styles.  This piece doesn’t come out of storage much because it is a little too late for the Lewis era.

“A New and Exact Map of the Dominions”
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Drawn by London cartographer Herman Moll in 1715, this map shows a fascinatingly detailed view of the Atlantic coastline from present-day South Carolina to Newfoundland, Canada indicating counties, mountains, towns, Indian settlements, rivers and bodies of water.  Insets along the bottom are maps of the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas, Charles-Town, and a small map of the “Principal Port of North America.” At right center is an inset showing a fully-colored view of Niagara Falls, with cute little beavers in the foreground building a dam.

“View of London”

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Close-up of a portion of Frederick de Wit’s “View of London.”

This colored engraving done by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit shows a topographic view of the London with “The River Thames” across the center of map.  In the upper right corner there is a key with 148 streets, churches, wharves, theatres, and monuments listed and identified on the plan with a corresponding number. As an Anglophile who went to graduate school in London and spent over a year exploring that city’s streets,  I like seeing many familiar streets and sites on this map.  It shows that London city’s center has changed very little across the centuries.

Bourdaloue
bourdaloe
This creamware bourdaloue is a smaller and more feminine version of a chamber pot circa 1780-1790.  In an era without public toilets, the bourdaloue provided a lady with a portable and relatively clean means of relieving herself away from home.  The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape and a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other and allowed usage from a squatting or standing position.  The bowl would then be given to the lady’s maid who disposed of the waste discretely.  Little everyday artifacts can get overlooked but they these fascinating little pieces give us a whole picture of colonial life. Plus, everyone loves chamber pots!

The Gentleman’s Magazine
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This March 1752 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine includes articles on poetry, music, weather, gardening tips, criminal proceedings, history, and social services.  It’s amusing to read the various articles today and reflect on how similar they can be to our current news. There is a riveting report on the trial of Miss Blandy for poisoning her father, an account of the history of the Incas, and birth, marriage, and death announcements for the upper-crust of London society.  The Gentleman’s Magazine is digitized and can be read here. The Gentleman’s Magazine was founded in London in 1731 and remained in continuous print for 191 years.

Homer’s The Iliad translated by Alexander Pope
iliad
These five volumes of Homer’s The Iliad were translated into English by the poet Alexander Pope between 1715 and 1720.  Written around the 8th century BC, Homer’s timeless story has influenced great artists for 2,000 years.  Pope was one of those artists.  He suffered from many health problems but was one of the few English poets able to earn a living from his literary works and I just think it’s cool that we have these special books in our collection.  Pope translated the epic verse for the publisher Bernard Lintot and earned the significant sum of £210.

Marrow Spoon
marrow-spoon
This silver marrow spoon, circa 1722, features a long narrow scoop at one end and a broader spoon at the other.  Enjoying bone-marrow was so common that utensils were created to assist the diner in retrieving every morsel. These spoons were used at the table to get the tasty marrow out of the center of the bones without having to rudely gnaw, suck, slurp, bang, crack, or bite.  The fashionableness of certain food can be traced through the evolution of dining implements.  Today, our familiarity with the double scooped spoon and its purpose has waned just like roasted long-bone sprinkled with salt is no longer a prevalent dish on our tables.

Mary Washington Monument Stone

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Painted on this view of the stone are the ‘new’ [current] monument and the Mary Washington House.

This is an Aquia sandstone fragment from the original Mary Washington Monument that was started in 1833 when President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone. The monument was never finished and was heavily damaged during the Civil war. In 1892, in order to raise money for a new memorial, the Mary Washington Monument Association began to sell off the original pieces painted by local women as “relics”.  While some felt this was desecrating Mary’s grave, the Association raised enough money for a new monument. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the new monument, which still stands today. Although the way the group went about raising funds for the new memorial is not how it would be done today, these stones represent the beginning of the American preservation movement at the turn of the century.

sampler

The sampler’s poem has large faded from view. It read: “Learn to contemn all Praise betimes / For Flattery Is the Nurse of Crimes / With early Virtue plant thy Breast / The Specious Arts of Vice detest / Youth like softened Wax with Ease will take / Those Images that first Impressions make / If those be fair their Actions will be bright / If foul they’ll clouded be with Shades of / Night.”

Sampler by Betty Washington Lewis
This sampler was embroidered, signed, and dated by Betty Washington Lewis on February 25, 1805.  Betty was the daughter of Howell Lewis and the granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Girls demonstrated or tested their needlework skills by making samplers and often included the alphabet, figures, decorative motifs and, usually, a name and date.  This is one of the few textiles in our collection directly related to and created by a member of the Lewis family.  When an item is clearly marked with the date and who made it, it really doesn’t get much better for a historian!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

In Memory of Mother Washington

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The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.