Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Previously on Lives and Legacies, curator Meghan Budinger laid out a wonderful summary of the Colonial Revival movement.  At no point did she weigh-in with her opinion of Colonial Revival and she should be applauded for her diplomacy.  To be honest, though, many historians, material culture specialists, and decorative arts enthusiasts (among others) can get a little ‘judgy’ when it comes to Colonial Revival.

Copies of copies rarely turn out as nice as the original and, as Meghan discussed, Colonial Revival items conform more to our notion of how things looked in the 18th century than how they actually looked in the 18th century.

When dealing with ceramics, Colonial Revival copies are almost always ‘clunky’ compared to the beauties they seek to emulate.  This is because the reproductions are machine made, while the colonial originals were handmade and hand-decorated. It’s very hard to imitate that kind of craftsmanship with a machine.  Experts call it being ‘debased’.  The copy is simply of a lower quality and slightly distorted.

Take for example this, um, interesting platter made between 1935 and 1941 by The Homer Laughlin China Company. It is a hideous imitation of the beautiful shell edge decoration popular in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century.  Of course, not all Colonial Revival is quite this debased as this extreme example.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 3

This 20th century Colonial Revival reproduction made by The Homer Laughlin China Company is a ‘debased’ version of a shell edge platter from the 18th century pictured below.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 4

Some are actually pretty accurate, like this tasteful white granite pitcher or this stoneware mustard pot, which dates from 1993.  I’m pretty sure it came from The Cracker Barrel.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 2

Colonial Revival white granite pitcher.

Colonial Revival Ceramics 1

Colonial Revival stoneware mustard pot dating from 1993 and perhaps sold by The Cracker Barrel.

It just so happens that our awesome team of specialists (curators and archaeologists – a fun bunch) are currently furnishing the Washington house at Ferry Farm with reproductions the public may handle as we create an interactive house. Original 18th century objects are not an option.  Good colonial reproductions can sometimes cost as much as originals and can also be surprisingly hard to find.  Thus, despite our prejudices, we’re finding ourselves extremely grateful for the glut of Colonial Revival tea and tablewares currently on the market.

Colonial Revival pieces are often quite sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and no member of our staff will dissolve into tears if a stoneware crock with cobalt blue hand-painted decoration originally purchased at The Cracker Barrel in 1997 broke.  We might actually celebrate it.  And so we hunt for modern items that straddle the line between historically accurate and, if need be, expendable.  We are diligently scouring auction sites, thrift and junk shops, antique markets, and sometimes our own cupboards in our never ending quest for Colonial Revival.  We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress and hope you can visit the Washington House to see how we did!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Advertisements

Just What is Colonial Revival?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

The Surveyor’s Shed at Ferry Farm

Surveyor's Shed in Spring

The “Surveyor’s Shed” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

It isn’t known when the myths about the small white building called the Surveyor’s Shed at George Washington’s Ferry Farm began, or why it was believed by so many that the structure existed during George Washington’s childhood. It was long-held myth was that Augustine Washington taught his son, George, how to survey in this building but, in truth, the structure was built after the Civil War. As with many historic structures, the years have not been kind to the little frame building. Repairs and renovations over the years have periodically exposed its architectural secrets, revealing the true story of Ferry Farm’s oldest standing building. The collection of myths about this structure, referred to as the “Surveyor’s Shed” or “Surveyor’s Office” are of equal importance to its documented architectural history. Valuable oral histories from the people who once lived, worked, or visited at Ferry Farm include their own interpretations of the land on which George Washington spent his boyhood. Collected by Ferry Farm staff, these oral histories offer insights into the myth of the Surveyor’s Shed and give us clues as to why the story has remained so entrenched, regardless of the fact that the structure was built a century after George’s mother, Mary, left the property.

The Myth

For decades, the Surveyor’s Shed was believed to be and indeed was introduced to visitors as George Washington’s first surveying office, where his father, Augustine, taught George how to survey. Having purchased the property years earlier, James B. Colbert built a large Victorian-style farm house at Ferry Farm in 1914. This farmhouse changed hands multiple times and was occupied for most of its existence. The house burned down on the morning of September 26, 1994.

James B. Colbert

James B. Colbert

It is believed that Mr. Colbert began the Surveyor’s Office myth, since the building was not referred to by that name before Colbert owned the property. In Where the Cherry Tree Grew, Philip Levy, describes the relationship between J.B. Colbert and the Ferry Farm myths:

“Was it Colbert’s idea to serve up these stories in aid of his own ends, or were visitors bringing their beloved Washington tales with them? There is no way to know for sure,  but J.B. was orchestrating these stories- adding to them, accommodating them, making the most he could of them, and seeking ways to profit from them. He may not have set this Ferry Farm Weemsian renaissance in motion, but he certainly kept it rolling along and was its principal beneficiary.”[1]

In an oral history interview, Charles Linton, a later resident of the home, remembered that Belle Colbert — J.B.’s daughter — came to pay her respects once a year at the Surveyor’s Office.

The Linton family continued to share Ferry Farm’s most famous myths with visitors to the property during the 1940 and 50s. While the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm, tourists were welcomed. Charles Linton recalled two or three guests showed up unexpectedly in a single day. The family kept a guestbook inside the Surveyor’s Office and greeted anyone who showed up to visit. When guests arrived, they were offered a tour that included the Surveyor’s Office and a cherry tree stump purported to be descended from the tree George cut down with his little hatchet. This stump was revered by visitors and treated as a shrine.  The Lintons never questioned the authenticity of the shrines.

Boy with Cherry Tree Shrine

A young boy stands proudly by the cherry tree stump. The rear of the Surveyor’s Shed is visible in the background.

Additionally, a trunk of a cherry tree was housed inside the Surveyor’s Office, and the Linton children cut off pieces of its bark to sell as souvenirs. Charles Linton remembered in his interview, that when one trunk was used up, he and his brother, Tayloe, crossed Kings Highway to cut down another cherry tree and sell parts of that trunk, as pieces were in such high demand.

Paul Millikan moved into the Colbert house with his wife and children in 1962. He recalled during an oral history interview that upon moving in, most of the downstairs of the home was used as a museum and the upstairs was the family’s living area. He also noted that the Surveyor’s Office had surveying equipment on display, although the equipment was not of the Washington’s era. Like the Lintons, Millikan did not immediately question the authenticity of the Surveyor’s Office at first. Over time, he began to question the possibility that the building was not of Washington’s time, but remained inspired by those who revered this land and its shrines as authentic Washington era relics.

The Truth

The Surveyor’s Shed was officially listed as “George Washington’s First Surveying Office” in the Historic American Building Survey of 1935 but this listing was accompanied by a note stating that the claim was not supported with written proof.  In 1972, the Surveyor’s Shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form (PDF) described the building as a 13’ x 12’ frame house sitting on loose stones, 20 feet to the south of where “George’s mother’s house stood”.  While the structure was referred to as “George Washington’s surveying shed” on the NHRP application, this document clearly stated the building was not of colonial origin.

In reality, the construction of the shed likely began when the Carson family owned Ferry Farm in the late 19th century; a full 100 years after Mary Washington left the property.  To build the structure, the Carsons used materials from other structures owned by the family on the property. Machine-cut lath in the original plaster walls and ceiling, the cut nails holding the structure together, and the platform framing are all evidence the building was constructed after 1870. The onslaught of the Civil War and the occupation of Ferry Farm by Union soldiers would have almost definitely caused major damage, if not complete destruction, of a small building like the shed if it had been standing pre-war. The war’s destruction was immense as evidenced by letters and photographs of Ferry Farm from the Civil War show a land denuded of trees or wood of any kind. Soldiers used every scrap of wood they could find to fuel fires for cooking keeping warm.

Surveyor's Shed in Winter

The Surveyor’s Shed in winter.

Nevertheless, the Surveyor’s Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was again carefully recorded and repaired by historic preservationists after suffering damages from weathering, aging, and even wildlife.  Ferry Farm’s oldest building, while not from George Washington’s times, is still an important part of George’s boyhood home, and is considered an important American shrine by Fredericksburg locals. The myth of the structure being from the Washington era has been dispelled, but the little building is close to its sesquicentennial year as a symbol of the importance of the property it sits on. The myth behind the Surveyor’s Shed has become valuable in its own right, similar to the Cherry Tree Story. Both myths have affected the way we look at George Washington’s formative years. Had it not been for this little white building, and J.B. Colbert propagating these myths as facts, the narrative of the Surveyor’s Shed might not be as well-known, and Ferry Farm itself might not have been saved and protected as it is today.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

[1] Levy, Philip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2013: 148.

 

Photos: Washington Memorabilia

 

washingtons-birthday-sign

A poster from the late 1800s announcing that no business will be conducted on Washington’s Birthday, which was then celebrated on his actual birth date of February 22. Credit: Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, George!! Two-hundred and eighty five years ago today on February 22, 1732, George Washington was born.  Americans have commemorating his birth and his life for centuries, since he rose to prominence as the commanding general of the Continental Army and the nation’s very first president. For centuries, his likeness has been added to plates, glasses, and bottles, carved in stone, etched on coins, used in advertisements, and printed on clothing to create unique memorabilia celebrating the man who was eulogized as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The 1932 celebration of Washington’s 200th birthday especially led to increased demand for Washington memorabilia.  The George Washington Foundation has a small collection of both this bicentennial and a few commemorative objects from even earlier. To mark George’s birthday in 2017, Lives & Legacies shares photographs of this memorabilia!

 

Five Notable Americans Named George Washington

Parents, perhaps hoping to spur their offspring to similar greatness, have named their children George Washington ever since the most famous George Washington rose to prominence as commander of the Continental Army and the nation’s first president.  Few other George Washingtons ultimately achieved the original’s stature, although a few perhaps came close.  As we mark George Washington’s birth this month (Come to our Washington’s Birthday celebration at Ferry Farm this Saturday!), we share the compelling stories of five notable Americans named George Washington.

georgevanderbiltii

George Washington Vanderbilt II Credit: Wikipedia/Biltmore Co.

George Washington Vanderbilt II was born in 1862 into New York’s wealthy Vanderbilt family. At the age of 27, he began buying vast tracts of land near Asheville, North Carolina. He loved the mountains and wanted to build a grand home among the Blue Ridge.  Working with architect Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt planned the house and oversaw construction of the $3,000,000 mansion.  He named the home and estate “Biltmore.”  Vanderbilt used his vast acreage to help to pioneer scientific forestry and began a forestry school on his estate.  His first superintendent of forests was Gifford Pinchot, who became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Vanderbilt died in 1914 in Washington, DC.[1]

biltmoreestate

The Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Credit: Wikipedia

 

gwferris

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Credit: Wikipedia

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. was born in Galesberg, Illinois in 1859.  He studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.  He worked for a series of railroad and mining companies in West Virginia before focusing on bridge-building and structural steel construction. He started G.W.G. Ferris & Company in Pittsburgh and helped build bridges across the Ohio River in that city as well as in Wheeling and Cincinnati. For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he designed the Ferris Wheel.  “Rising 250 feet above the Midway, carrying thirty-six cars, each with a capacity of some forty passengers, revolving under perfect control, and stable against the strongest winds from Lake Michigan, it excited general attention.”  He died in Pittsburgh in 1896.[2]

ferriswheel

The Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Credit: Wikipedia/New York Times

georgewashingtondelong

Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong, USN Credit: US Naval History and Heritage Command

George Washington De Long was born in New York City in 1844. An American naval officer, he organized and commanded an attempt to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait.  His expedition left San Francisco aboard the Jeanette, a coal-burning steamer also equipped with sails, on July 8, 1879.  The Jeanette became trapped in the ice for 22 months before being crushed and forcing the crew to abandon ship.  The crew took to three lifeboats. One was lost, one made it to shore but all of its crew died of starvation and exhaustion, and one made it to shore where its crew was rescued.  De Long did not survive, dying in Siberia on October 30, 1881. Three years later, debris from the Jeanette was found nearly 3,000 miles away off Greenland’s coast, proving the polar ice was in motion.[3]

ussjeannette

The U.S.S. Jeanette in 1878. Credit: US Naval History and Heritage Command

georgewashingtoncrile

Dr. George Washington Crile in The World’s Work, 1914. Credit: Wikipedia

George Washington Crile was born in Ohio in 1864. He received his M.D. from what is known today as Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.  He was a leading pioneer in surgical medicine during the first half of the 20th century.  He dedicated much of his wide-ranging and groundbreaking career to studying the impact of shock on patients undergoing surgery and to developing pioneering ways to treat and combat that shock. He advocated for monitoring blood pressure during surgery and, most importantly, recognized the most effective way to stave off shock was through blood transfusions during operations.  He is credited with performing the first direct blood transfusion.  Surgical shock’s worst outcome was death so Crile developed resuscitation methods and, in the process, discovered the brain could be deprived of oxygen for only a very few minutes before resuscitation become impossible.  In 1921, he and several colleagues founded the Cleveland Clinic, considered one of the world’s foremost medical centers. Furthermore, a pressure suit he developed to prevent surgical shock was adapted to prevent blackout in pilots during World War II.  He died in Cleveland in January 1943.[4]

georgewashingtoncarver

George Washington Carver Credit: Wikipedia/Tuskegee University Archives

George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri in the early 1860s.  He attended a series of schools in Kansas and Missouri and graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.  He was rejected from one college because of his race but became the first black student at Iowa State Agricultural College, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  In 1896, Booker T. Washington hired Carver to chair the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute, where he remained for half-a-century.  As a agricultural scientist, Carver created methods to revive soil exhausted from planting only cotton year after year. These methods centered on rotating cotton with sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and cowpeas, which restored nitrogen in the soil and provided income for farmers as well.  He trained farmers to grow these alternative crops and distributed recipes using these crops to the public to spur demand.  His efforts to promote the peanut especially sparked the public’s imagination.  He died on January 5, 1942 in Tuskegee, Alabama.[5]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “George Washington Vanderbilt.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310001556/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3822e021. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[2] “George Washington Gale Ferris.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310013691/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3144ffeb. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[3] “George Washington De Long.” Explorers & Discoverers of the World, Gale, 1993. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1614000095/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=e0125245. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[4] “George Washington Crile.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310015367/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=8dcc7fd9. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

[5] “George Washington Carver.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 4, Gale, 1993. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606000443/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3bdf1f8b. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

The Truth As We Know It

I love stories.  I mostly love true stories but I also love those stories that may not actually be true but are perceived by many to be true.  It is in those perceived truths that one can make discoveries about how people and societies see history. Likewise, studying a collection of one’s own oral stories that have come down through generations in a family can help bring into focus how we view our own personal histories.

Have you ever played the game “Telephone”?  A group sits in a circle and each participant takes turns whispering the same sentence into the ear of the person next to them.  When the sentence has gone around to everyone, the person who started the game announces what the original sentence was and then, giggling, the last person reveals what the sentence morphed into as it passed along from person to person.  Oral histories can be like “Telephone” as they pass through the generations.  Nevertheless, they are important stories from which we glean cultural information.  We should be keepers of them for future generations.

Stories about historical figures and historical places can be like that, too, as they pass through people, time, cultures, and ideologies. In my professional life, I am privileged to explore the narratives of a life well lived by the Virginian, George Washington.  Most of these narratives are well known to the world and have inspired Americans for centuries.  They are big, important stories that resonate with countless people young and old.

The two functions I serve in my work for The George Washington Foundation are as Archaeology Lab Supervisor and Oral History Project Coordinator.  These two positions offer me the unique opportunity to “read” stories in excavated trash (archaeological artifacts) and to listen to and record oral stories collected from people associated with our sites like former residents, visitors, and employees.  At first glance, one might seem more scientific and the other merely anecdotal.  But these two jobs, even though they appear at odds, are not necessarily so opposing.

Both activities illuminate what we know about the history of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore and both can serve as interpretive tools for museum exhibit content.  I often tell groups of school children who visit us in the Archaeology Lab that I would be able to tell a lot about them if I could look in their trash cans at home. This helps them to understand that looking at George Washington’s excavated trash is informative in the same way.

As an employee of an organization that relies on careful archaeological data, I feel very strongly about doing my part to provide the public with information that is as accurately interpreted as possible given the scientific techniques, processes, and experts used to gain the truths we seek.  These truths reach far beyond the Washington years.  The artifacts deposited at our active dig site at Ferry Farm also inform us about Native Americans who lived here, early settlers of this property when it was the frontier of Virginia, Civil War soldiers who were encamped here, and several families that lived here throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our archive of oral histories works hand in hand with scientific archaeology to fill in the details of what we know to be true “from the dirt.”  For example, one interviewee who had lived at Ferry Farm in the mid-20th century asked if any of the archaeologists had ever found metal army men on the site.  He explained that he and his brother had a mold from which they would make lead soldiers.  They had melted down Civil War minie balls they found in the yard around their house and used the liquefied lead to make their toy soldiers.  They were simply recycling, as it were.  So, if our archaeological team were to excavate such a soldier, it would speak to both the Civil War and World War II era histories of Ferry Farm.

Oral histories collected from people associated with Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the 20th and 21st centuries have made significant contributions to our understanding of the inhabitants and activities at both properties. These histories have also helped document important preservation initiatives aimed at protecting George’s boyhood home and the home of Betty Washington Lewis and her husband, Fielding.  The GWF Oral History Project overall has created a community, however disparate, of citizens supportive of Ferry Farm and Kenmore and the stories they tell.  If you have a story to share, please contact me!

Melanie Marquis
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Oral History Project Coordinator

OralHistoryFlier

 

 

History in the Night Sky

Night at Kenmore

A lantern shines brightly in front of Historic Kenmore

The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends.  This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way.  The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.

Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.

Imagine a clear, crisp early November night.  George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern.  George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg.  During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window.  Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today.  Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.

As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light.  On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”

Great Bear Big Dipper

This map of the constellation Ursa Major. the “Great Bear,” highlights the asterism known as the Big Dipper. An asterism is a star pattern that can be found within an officially-recognized constellation. So, technically, the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation but is simply part of the Ursa Major constellation. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially designates which star patterns are constellations. Map by Rursus, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plough_big_dipper.svg.

They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations.  For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear.  Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail.  Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars.  Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.

In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Literally brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw.  Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.”  Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water.  In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for slaves to follow when running north to freedom.  The Dipper pattern can assist someone navigating by stars to find the North Star.

Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River.  Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear.  Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky.  This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.

It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky.  The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view.  Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes.  In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles.  Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky.  They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Light pollution

Milky Way from Mount Saint Helens with light pollution from Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ray Terrill, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayterrill/9230199139

If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories.  More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern.  The same sparkling stars are still there.  We just can’t see for the light.

On Friday, November 13, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Families and visitors of all ages can experience Kenmore lit only by methods available in the 1700s and witness a theater scene showing how enslaved people used their night hours to catch up on personal chores. Glenn Holliday from the Rappahannock Astronomy Club will share tales of great discoveries from astronomy’s past. Children may make a paper-bag ‘tin punch’ luminary and cookies and cider will be served to all! Please bring a flashlight to use in select activities.

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 4-17, free ages 3 and under.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs