The story of Mary Ball Washington is one of overcoming a lifetime of adversity. Often overshadowed by her larger than life son George, Mary’s place in history fluctuated from saint to shrew with many historians ignoring the obstacles she faced and overcame. The archaeological record sheds light on some of the strategies Mary used to navigate her way through mid-18th century life as a widow while trying to maintain her own social status and that of her children. Fragments of highly-specialized ceramics excavated at Ferry Farm, the plantation Mary called home for much of her life, speaks to her efforts.
Specialized dishes are those designed for a very specific job unlike, say, a bowl which is multi-purpose. We have uncovered evidence of many dishes Mary owned that fulfilled single tasks. These type of ceramics are a sign of gentility. Most households could not afford these items and likely did not possess the resources to make the food and drink that they were designed to hold.
As the 18th century progressed, so did dining habits. Increasingly, people of means gravitated toward dinners with multiple courses of entrees, appetizers, beverages, and deserts. Previously, most meals consisted of large one-pot creations with multiple ingredients. In order to pull course cooking off, one required the specialized dishes designed for serving multiple courses.
One prime example of such specialized dishes from Ferry Farm is Mary’s elaborately decorated creamware sauce boats. The sauce boats are a luxury in and of themselves. They’re highly decorated and were very fashionable at the time. Not only were they expensive, but they showed that Mary had the refinement to serve her guests the fancy sauces being introduced into colonial cooking. They also indicated that she had a trained kitchen staff of enslaved workers capable of executing these new and intricate recipes. You never thought a sauce boat could hold so much meaning, did you?
Fragments of an extremely fancy white salt glazed fruit dish are further examples of Mary’s calculated purchasing of dishes. Previously written about here and here, this dish was meant to display fruit, another luxury in the 18th century. Being able to afford non-local or out-of-season fruit was a status symbol and necessitated the proper dish to proudly display the fruit. To put the rarity of fruit in perspective, in colonial America, pineapples were so expensive you could rent one for display at parties in the holiday season because most people couldn’t afford to buy one outright. While renting a fruit may seem ridiculous to modern readers, the action highlights just how important being seen to own certain items was during the colonial era. Of course, we still engage in this same behavior today, but just not with pineapples.
Ferry Farm archaeologists also excavated fragments of two creamware condiment dishes. Once again, the ability to serve various condiments to dinner guests conveyed status. Condiments could include relishes, dips, mustards, ketchups (mushroom ketchup being the preferred type), and pickled vegetables such as capers. Castor sets were also a way to serve other condiments such as olive oil, vinegar, pepper, etc. Generally, these castor sets were only owned by well-to-do households in the colonial period. The base of a creamware castor was recovered at Ferry Farm.
The fact that so many of Mary’s specialized ceramics are made of creamware should also be noted. Creamware was invented in 1762 and wasn’t the most expensive type of ceramic (that was porcelain) but it was highly fashionable. Mary, as a widow with five children and a diminished income following her husband’s death, likely couldn’t afford much porcelain. She opted for the less expensive but still highly-desirable creamware, instead.
The Washington family went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to visiting friends, neighbors, and relatives. At Ferry Farm, this burden fell solely on Mary after the death of her husband. Her specialized ceramics served to illustrate her place within the gentry class despite her diminished income and refusal to remarry after being widowed. Her goal was to remain independent while raising five children to be successful adults and members of the Virginia gentry class. In doing so, she likely realized that the socioeconomic security of her children would ensure her own into the future as well. Consequently, it was important that Mary cultivate a refined household with appropriate table and teawares. Ceramic artifacts from Ferry Farm reveal a woman who carefully selected choice ceramics to perform very specific tasks, while at the same time not overextending her budget. These ceramics contributed to her goal of remaining a part of the gentry class and teaching her children genteel habits so they could do the same. It was a task in which she overwhelmingly succeeded.
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist