How Many Curlers did a Harried Hairdresser Need? Let’s Do the Math!

After unearthing over 200 wig hair curlers from Washington’s Boyhood Home, we were in a position to do something that – to our knowledge – has never been done before: crossmend all those curler fragments. As a result, we can now predict the minimum number of curlers the Washington family’s harried hairdressers needed.


Plate 1: A wig hair curler fresh from the excavation of the Washingtons’ task yard. Note the “WB” mark on its end, which we believe to be the Initials of its British manufacturer. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University/Bernard Means.

If you remember our blog post from way back in January 2015, these unglazed ceramic curlers were often used by wigmakers to create the curled styles of a wig’s coiffure during the making of a new peruke (Plate 1). We’ve also learned that hair stylists employed curlers to freshen the lagging curls upon an existing wig, after a gentleman had worn it out. How often a wig needed to be re-set depended upon the standards of the gentleman, and the activities and weather that he and his stylish coiffure encountered. Because curlers had to be heated to be effective, they were only used when wigs were safely removed from the gentleman’s head.

Before our crossmending could commence, the curlers had to be washed, cataloged, and labeled. Then, all of the labeled curler fragments could be compared and evaluated for crossmending. Previous analysis revealed that the assemblage included nine different sizes (Plate 2). Most of our curlers are smaller diameter, especially sizes one and two (for shorter hair/narrow width curls). Within each size, width and even length varied: they were not manufactured in a standardized way. This was the eighteenth century, after all.

Ferry Farm All Nine-b-Smaller

Plate 2: Representatives of the nine different curler sizes from Ferry Farm. These nine sizes were analytically imposed. They may not necessarily represent historically defined categories.


Plate 3: There were three varieties of maker’s marks. A few curlers had no marks.

Most curlers had one of three varieties of maker’s marks (Plate 3). However, a handful exhibited no mark at all. It was within these subcategories that the cross mending began. And the results were surprising.

You’ve probably broken a glass or plate. They usually break into many pieces. In contrast, curlers tend to break into two fragments at their weakest point: near the center of the curler (Plate 4). With a single mend you can often get a complete or near complete specimen (Plate 5).

FF18 Curlers h.shopt.small

Plate 4: Curlers tend to break into two fragments.

One of the primary goals of crossmending was to determine whether we had found all of the curlers used here during the mid-1700s, or just a portion of them. If we had found the entire assemblage, for example, our 194 curler fragments should result in 97 crossmended curlers. That is to say, they should all mend to another fragment. An example of a crossmend is shown in Plate 5.

Archaeologists refer to this process of mending fragmented remains of a larger item together as “crossmending.” Whether glass bottles. tablewares, ceramic vessels, or even the bones of animals, this process allows us to determine the minimum number of any given item in the recovered collection. For example, if after crossmending, you have three right hind cow legs and two left hind cow legs you know that were a minimum of three cows on site. This is a dramatic oversimplification, but you get the idea. This educated guess of the least number of specimens present is called the minimum number of individuals, or MNI.


Plate 5: A typical curler crossmend from Ferry Farm. Two fragments mend to form a complete specimen. Often, these curlers break in the middle, as shown.

After weeks of dedicated crossmendingby steadfast interns, enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated Foundation staff, a total of fifteen whole curlers were crossmended from thirty previously disparate fragments. When added to our impressive collection of complete curlers (n=20), a total of 35 complete curlers (20 complete, excavated curlers and an additional 15 formed from 30 mended fragments) make up the Ferry Farm assemblage.

Another exciting result of this exercise was that we now had two complete (mended) size one curlers and a mended size eight curler: previously these two respective sizes were only represented by disjointed fragments. Unfortunately, no mended size nine curlers were discovered. Size nine continues to be represented by fragments, and it is the only size from Ferry Farm for which we have no complete examples.

So what’s the minimum number of curlers that the Washingtons’ hairdresser used to curl their many wigs? Let’s do the math!

There are        164 molded curler fragments with no matches
+  1 hand made curler fragment
+20 whole (unbroken) molded curlers
+15 mended molded curlers (from 30 fragments)
                          (a minimum of) 200 curlers

Another informative aspect of crossmending is seeing from what areas of the site the mended curlers were found (Figure 1). As Figure 1 shows, a clear relationship between the work yard, where the majority of curlers were discovered and the Washington House can be seen. This adds additional evidence to our hypothesis that the majority of curling tasks took place in the eastern work yard and that finishing tasks associated with wigs (powdering, drying the washed, wet wig, and final elegant touches) took place in the parlor. The parlor has emerged as an area of wig hair maintenance, since eight curlers/curler fragments were recovered from the parlor room root cellar.


Figure 1: This bird’s-eye view of the Washington house and surrounding yard shows where ten of the crossmended fragments mend to their respective mates. A ‘path’ between the work yard – where the majority of curlers were used – and the Parlor inside the house is evident.

While wearing wigs was highly fashionable among refined British colonial gentleman, little is known about how they were maintained, how often they were cleaned and set, and how these crucial activities were performed at the household level. The data recovered from Ferry Farm is providing new information and innovative analysis of this poorly understood, but essential hairdressing routine

All in all, a terrific exercise!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Inside the Archaeology Lab: Putting Artifacts on Exhibit

Here on Lives & Legacies we’ve shown you a variety of important tasks that take place inside the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. You’ve seen how we wash, catalog, label, and then mend vessels with archival glue. One goal of all this work is to piece together whole artifacts from the many broken bits found and share that whole artifact with our visitors as part of the exhibits in our museum gallery.  Right now, a new exhibit of white salt-glazed stoneware vessels is on display at Ferry Farm. It took numerous staff and volunteers working hundreds of hours to get the vessels on display ready to be exhibited. Here’s how we did it!

Seven reconstructed white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware vessels make up a new exhibit at Ferry Farm.  These pieces, which include two dinner plates, a fruit dish, three ointment pots (used for mixing medicines and cosmetics), and a tea ware or condiment pot lid, were all excavated from the Ferry Farm site. These ceramics were popular during the mid-18th century and most likely graced the tables of the Washington family.


White salt glaze stoneware fruit dish, 1740-1765. The dish is decorated with a molded “dot, diaper, basket” pattern and would have been displayed prominently in the Washington house at Ferry Farm. An almost identical dish has been excavated at Mount Vernon and additional sherds with a similar pattern were recovered across the river at Kenmore. This may signify a Washington family preference for the motif or indicate that someone within the family acquired multiple fruit dishes and gave them as gifts, something George Washington was known to do.

In preparation for the exhibit, I spent the better part of three weeks in August and September finishing the documentation for the individual vessels and then meticulously gluing them together. This relatively small amount of time spent at the end of the project was only the tip of the iceberg – the total amount of time spent getting these pieces ready for exhibition encompassed a year and a half! Preparing these pieces to be displayed involved the hard work of numerous archaeology lab staff and volunteers.

November 2014 – January 2015: Executive decisions are made…
First, discussions were held within the archaeology department about studying Ferry Farm’s archaeological collection of white salt-glazed stoneware. Such a study would answer questions about the material setting of the Washington household and help with interpreting the forthcoming Washington house replica to the public. The project was given the go-ahead.

January 2015: Getting the lists together…
Using our searchable artifact database, we generated a list of every piece of white salt-glazed stoneware in our collection.  A total number of 1,623 artifact bags were on this list, representing over 2,800 actual sherds.


Screencap of the artifact database.

February 2015: Puzzle-solving begins!
We started pulling the 1,623 artifact bags from storage, and by my records, we were still pulling artifact bags in June.  Lab staff, volunteers, and, on rainy days, the excavation field crews helped with pulling the artifacts.

After making sure the sherds were labeled correctly, we laid them all out on one of the lab tables, which had been covered in a black foam board to make it easier to see the all-white ceramics. The sherds were first separated by decorative variations, such as plain white salt-glazed, slip-dipped, scratch blue, or dipped with iron oxide, and next by vessel part, such as rims, bases, and bodies. Then the cross-mending began.


Sherds of white salt glaze stoneware waiting to be mended together.

Over the next eleven months, countless hours were spent at the table looking for mends between the sherds.  Having identifiable vessel parts, such as rims and molded and decorative elements, helped in the matching process, but there were hundreds of plain white, non-descript sherds to try and fit together.  Pieces that mended were taped together with painter’s tape, which doesn’t leave an adhesive residue on the artifacts.

A friendly competition began and whoever had the most mends at the end of each month won a free lunch!  In all, everyone spent countless, addictive hours each week scrutinizing the sherds and patiently putting together “puzzles” for which, unfortunately, the majority of the pieces were missing.


“Do these match?”


Puzzle solved!

January 2016: Minimum Vessel Count…
After eleven months, we cried “uncle” to the cross-mending and started the minimum vessel count by figuring out how many and what types of individual WSG vessels were represented in our collection.  Under the supervision of Mara Kaktins, The George Washington Foundation’s ceramic and glass specialist, the sherds were separated into what we believed were individual vessels using the bases and rim styles.  By late April, our choices were firm and over sixty white salt-glazed vessels were identified.

July 2016: Putting the paperwork in order….
Treatment reports were started on the most complete vessels, which would be included in the new exhibit.  Each report listed all the sherds that made up each vessel and their condition. Photographs were taken to help with the mending and gluing.  The remaining white salt-glazed sherds on the table were separated into bags according to decorative and body type, their contexts recorded in a spreadsheet for our records, and then returned in storage.

August 2016: Finally, the fun part – gluing!
I started gluing the vessels using a product called B-72, an archival glue that can be removed, if necessary, and that we mix ourselves in the lab.  The design of the upcoming exhibit, including the layout, mounts and signage, was created by Meghan Budinger and Heather Baldus, the Foundation’s curatorial team.


White salt glaze stoneware lid, 1720-1780. This lid could have been used with any of several different vessels related to serving tea, such as a tea pot, a punch put (a large version of a tea pot), or a tea canister. Tea was an important part of 18th century life, and displaying fine teawares demonstrated social status.

September 2016: Finishing touches…
The white salt-glazed stoneware exhibit is now installed and ready for the enjoyment of our visitors to Ferry Farm. A total of 614 days from report prep to exhibition!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Photos: Glue Through a Microscope

While living at Ferry Farm, Mary Washington, mother of George, owned a creamware punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif and cherry accents.  Archaeologists excavated pieces of this bowl from the cellar of the Washington home and subsequently discovered glue residue on the sherds.



interior-glue copy

We’ve written about the importance of the bowl’s discovery here and even showed how we recreated a glue similar to the one used to repair the bowl here.

As part of our continuing efforts to learn as much as we can about the punch bowl and these glue residues, we took the sherds to the archaeology lab at Dovetail Cultural Resource Group here in Fredericksburg, where they took photos using a microscope.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs


Glue: The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Found

As an archaeologist, I am often asked “What is the coolest thing you’ve ever found?”  The answer is complicated.  Although I’ve unearthed 10,000 year old Paleoindian hearths, elaborate porcelains, coins, long lost jewelry, and ancient stone tools, I say that the coolest thing I’ve ever found is …. glue.  This proclamation always elicits questioning looks from well-meaning folks who expect something a little more glamorous.  Let me tell you why, to date, glue is the “coolest thing I’ve ever found.”

It’s not just the glue itself that is incredible but also the object on which the glue was found.  When I started working at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, my first assignment was to examine creamware associated with Mary Washington, George’s mother, which was excavated from the cellar of the Washington home.  I focused on a lovely punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif with cherry accents.  Obviously, we adore cherries at Ferry Farm, being the setting of the fabled chopping down of a certain tree by young George, and we wanted to learn more about it.



The punch bowl was manufactured in the 1760s or early 1770s.  It exhibited a lot of use wear, indicating it was obviously a favorite of Mary’s.  The punch bowl was of a size designed to be passed around at a gathering for each guest to take a sip directly from it.  This was a time before germs were well understood.  Thankfully, for health’s sake, 18th century punch contained a hefty amount of alcohol.  This also meant that punch was not cheap.  Actually, the production and drinking of punch was very much a ceremonial form of conspicuous consumption.  Mary chose this special bowl as much for its beauty as for its function.

After close inspection of the vessel, I noticed a strange substance adhering to many of the edges.  This unsightly brown stuff extended across the many breaks in the bowl and, upon microscopic examination, exhibited suspicious brush marks.  Furthermore, additional ceramics from the same cellar excavation revealed similar residues.  Could it be glue? If it were, this would shed light on a previously unknown behavior taking place in the Washington home – the breaking and subsequent repair of ceramics.  We had to know!  What followed was a multi-year study during which we tested the historic glue residue samples utilizing mass spectrometry courtesy of Eastern Michigan University. We spent months researching historic glues, replicating those glues, and then breaking and mending much thrift store pottery with the aforementioned glue in the name of science.  The conclusion?  We had indeed discovered eighteenth century glues!

interior-glue copy

While this may not seem like a ‘eureka’ moment, it was actually quite significant.  First of all, it’s amazing that 250-year-old glue survived in the ground for so long.  Second, the discovery improves our understanding of Mary Washington, a woman that gave birth to and shaped the young life of our first president.  By replicating period glues and mending modern pottery, we also learned that the vessels Mary had repaired probably were not used for anything other than display after mending.  They could not have held a liquid, which means that after it was broken and mended, the beloved punch bowl was probably relegated to mantle or shelf where the delicate hand-painted flowers and charming cherries could be admired but never used for its intended purpose ever again.

We also concluded that Mary herself would probably not have made and applied the glues personally.  Turns out making eighteenth century glues involved a wide array of bizarre and often stinky ingredients including ox gall, animal hide, bull’s blood, garlic, eggs, cheese, isinglass (extracted from a fish’s swim bladder), and the slime from garden snails (yep). Watch the video below to see how colonial-era glue was made. You can also click here. It was a time consuming and messy endeavor that was likely undertaken by the enslaved people living at Ferry Farm rather than by the mistress of the house.

To date, seven vessels belonging to Mary exhibit glue residue.  Interestingly, even though a professional mender was operating in the town of Fredericksburg just across the river from where she lived, Mary chose to have glue prepared at home with which to repair her ceramics. That, plus the fact that she had these pieces mended even though she could never use them again means Mary was a thrifty woman who saw the value in displaying the objects.  Perhaps demonstrating that she owned these highly fashionable ceramics took precedence over using them?

What makes the glues even more exciting is that nowhere in the historic record does it mention that Mary was repairing ceramics at home.  Our only evidence for this activity is archaeological and it has revealed a previously unknown aspect of her life.  Perhaps now the question is not “Did George chop down the cherry tree?” but rather “Did George break the cherry punch bowl”?

And all that is why glue is the coolest thing I’ve ever found.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

After Digging: What Happens in the Archaeology Lab?

Intro to Lab (3)

Artifacts excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Here at Ferry Farm for the last 13 years, professional archaeologists have been exploring the local landscape, digging hundreds of excavation units in their quest to reveal the history of all those who lived here, including, of course, the Washington family.  Their investigative efforts have resulted in a multitude of artifacts dating from the earliest prehistoric Native American occupation of this riverine site, through the Colonial and Civil War periods, all the way to a 1990s occupation of the farm.

So, what happens to all the artifacts that are uncovered and dug up with trowels and shovels? All of those items are important pieces to the puzzle of reconstructing the history of this site, but only if they are cleaned up and recognizable.  That is the purpose of the archaeology lab here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.   With the help of both professional staff and dedicated volunteers, every single artifact that has come out of the ground is washed, dried, identified, labelled, and, finally, catalogued into a searchable computer database.

The archaeology lab is located within the Ferry Farm Visitor Center which houses museum exhibits, storage rooms for the artifacts, and other administrative offices.  Visitors making their way through the exhibits can check out our lab spaces through large windows, allowing them a peek into our work spaces and giving them the ability to see the different processes the artifacts go through.

Intro to Lab (1)

The visitor’s view of the Archaeology Lab.

While archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm take place every year, actual digging occurs only three months out of the year.  Artifact processing and analysis in the lab goes on for 12 months out of the year.  Archaeologists often say that “1 day in the field equals 3 days in the lab” and, in general, that adage is true.  Once the artifact bags come into the lab, it can be six months to one year or more before an entire artifact collection is completely processed.

So where does it all start? Well, in the wet lab…

Wet Lab

Intro to Lab (4)

Where artifacts are washed inside the Wet Lab.

The wet lab is a small room where the artifacts are washed and dried.  It is fitted out with two sinks – the artifacts are washed only with water – and a countertop to provide space for the washing process.  Toothbrushes, dental picks, pipe cleaners, washtubs, and other cleaning tools are handily arranged for easy access by the staff.

The washing process is pretty straightforward.  The artifacts, covered with dirt from the field excavation, are poured out of the bag onto a tray.  The washer separates the different items on the tray and proceeds to carefully wash them with a tooth brush and water.  After a quick rinse, the washed items are placed on a tray covered with mesh and the tray is placed in a drying rackThe washing process can be seen in this video. The artifacts stay on the drying racks for at least a week to make sure they are completely dried before being bagged.  Large windows allow visitors to watch this process and to see the “treasures from the earth” as they are uncovered and completely revealed, often for the first time in 200 years or more!

Dry Lab

Intro to Lab (2)

Volunteers work in the Dry Lab.

The dry lab is a larger space containing desk space for the staff, the small finds cabinets, and long tables used for labeling and other projects.  It is here that the dried artifacts are placed into acid-free plastic bags, catalogued, and then labelled by the staff and volunteers.  Our staff spends quite a bit of time cataloguing the artifacts, which involves identifying, counting, measuring, and weighing all the artifacts.  The cataloging process can be seen in this video. Each artifact is labeled with identifying information and the address of the exact location where it was found on the site.  Research is always an ongoing activity as identifying and dating specific artifacts helps in understanding Ferry Farm’s past and the people who once occupied this ground.

Time is also spent on the mending, conservation, and analysis of artifact collections. The small finds cabinets contain hundreds of unique artifacts that are studied because of their personal relationships to the individuals that lived here.  Long term projects, such as our current white-salt glazed ceramic mending, take place in the dry lab space, where a table covered with hundreds of ceramic sherds awaits matching. And as with the wet lab, museum visitors can look through the windows and observe all the projects being currently worked on.

Having an archaeology lab on site is very convenient for the archaeologists that work at Ferry Farm as it allows them easy access to the artifacts at all stages of their processing.  Future plans for Ferry Farm rely on knowing what has been found here and weaving together that data with the historical record.  It also gives the public an exciting chance to see all the work that goes into getting the artifacts ready for further research.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

The Science of History: Experimental Archaeology & Colonial Cheese Glue

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. When archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm found glue residue on sherds of Mary Washington’s china, they developed ways to recreate this glue. This video explains the glue making process and what recreating the glues revealed about Mary.


Mending Those Humble Sherds

What do archaeologists do with the broken ceramic and glass artifacts after these objects have been excavated, cleaned, and catalogued? They are cool to look at but what do these little pieces actually tell us about the past? How can we use them to understand the lives of those who purchased, used, and eventually discarded them?

One method is by mending the sherds (‘sherd’ is the term we use to describe broken pieces of ceramic and glass) to re-create the vessels. We mend by spreading out all of the fragments on a table and carefully seeing which ones fit together. Then, we use non-damaging tape to join the pieces temporarily. If deemed appropriate, we might decide to carefully glue the sherds together – with removable archival glue, of course!

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington's Ferry Farm

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

As archaeologists mend and a vessel takes shape, we can determine a number of details about the object we couldn’t when it was just a pile of broken stuff! First, we can figure out what type of vessel it was and what its uses were. Determining the vessel type helps us figure out what activities took place in a given excavation area. Cooking vessels mean the area was used for food preparation. Plates, bowls, and cups show the area was used for dining while crocks indicate a storage area.

Second, we can determine how much a mended vessel was used by the “use-wear” present on it. For instance, a chamber pot kept under a bed and drawn out from its storage place a couple of times a day will start to exhibit wear marks on the base where it is dragged across the floor. These grooves usually run parallel with the handle. The longer the pot is used the more wear it acquires. The same goes for knife-marks on dinner plates or stir-marks in drinking vessels. However, it is difficult to truly examine the use of a chamber pot using just one sherd. It is preferable to have as much of a whole vessel as possible, so we must mend!

Yay! They match!

Yay! They match!

Within the archaeological community, the general opinion is that mending is a fun activity. It definitely is! What is more fun than taking ancient fragments long-ago discarded by their owners and creating tankards, porringers, teapots, jugs, and all manner of other vessels that say something about who used them? It is one thing to show someone a sherd of porcelain and say “George Washington’s mother may have owned this” and quite another to show them a mended teapot and declare “George Washington was served tea from this very pot!” That being said, mending is also frustrating at times. Imagine taking 100 puzzles, mixing them all together, throwing away 90 percent of the pieces, and then trying to work the puzzles! This is basically mending in a nutshell. Some of us stare at the sherds for so long that we see them when we close our eyes or go to sleep! Now, that’s dedication!

It is rare that an entire vessel can be completely reconstructed. When an object is broken, perhaps all of the fragments do not get swept up and deposited in the same place. Areas where people lived sometimes become agricultural fields and are plowed for decades or longer, resulting in fragments of vessels being further broken and scattered about the landscape. Insects and animals move artifacts when burrowing in the soil, a process termed ‘bioturbation’. We do the best we can with the artifacts we’ve recovered.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830.  This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830. Excavated at Historic Kenmore. This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Still, archaeologists really love when we mend a vessel to near perfection and put it on display for the public along with all the information we’ve learned from it. We’ve actually just finished mending German Westerwald stonewares and we’ll share some of that project’s results in the not-too-distant future. Soon, we’ll be moving onto English white stonewares. On your next visit to Ferry Farm, you’ll likely see a mending project on display in our laboratory and maybe some of our talented staff working hard to unlock the secrets contained within those humble sherds!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics and Glass Specialist