A Thimble of My Love

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A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

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A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.

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“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.

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Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.

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It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

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Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm

When you enter a museum you’re surrounded by cool stuff.  Be it paintings, fossils, or ancient artifacts, they’re all special items that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.  But what if I told you that the cool objects you see on display in a museum are a mere fraction of what most museums actually have in their collections?  There is just never enough room, even for the biggest museums, to display everything.  Additionally, some items are just too delicate to make available to the public.  This is one of the reasons I love my job.  My fellow archaeologists and I get a daily backstage pass to all the incredibly cool things excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Here’s our list of “Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm.” Be sure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the artifacts.

Wine Bottle Seal
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Starting in the 17th century if you were a wealthy gentleman or tavern owner chances are you ordered at least a few custom wine bottles complete with your personal seal.  The seals were stamped in various ways, such as with names, initials, symbols, crests, and dates.  Archaeologists love them because they’re ‘talky,’ meaning the artifact yields lots of information.  A fragmentary bottle seal was found here in 2004 and bears the incomplete name of its owner. The letters visible are either a capital “I” or “J” (the English used the letter I for J), and below that are the letters “-bin”.   These few letters might refer to someone in the Corbin family, an extensive Virginia family with local ties. With a little investigation, perhaps we can flush out who was the mystery guest that brought his own bottle of wine for a visit to Ferry Farm!

Lead Whistle
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Instruments and toys tend to grab our imagination because they make us think about who used them and how the object got lost to time and archaeology.  In our collection we have a simple lead whistle, measuring 1 7/8” long and 3/8” in diameter, with “U.S.A.” stamped on the side.  It’s cheaply made out of lead, which was a very inexpensive material that has, for obvious reasons, been phased out of the toy industry.  In the “Good Ol’ Days”, no one thought twice about making an instrument you put in your mouth out of lead.  Maybe it’s a good thing that the person who owned the whistle lost it.

Chunkey Stone
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Fun to say.  Fun to play.  Basically a prehistoric rock doughnut, this hand-ground stone was used in a Mississippian Indian game called “Chunkey.”  Warriors rolled disc-shaped stones across the ground and threw spears as close to the stone as possible.  Similar to the Italian game of bocce, but unlike the Italians who threw wooden balls, Chunkey players threw spears, which is pretty awesome.  It’s a bit of a mystery as to how it got to Ferry Farm because there is no evidence that Chunkey was played in eastern Virginia, however some of these gaming stones have been excavated in Maryland and Northern Virginia.   It is also possible that one of Ferry Farm’s colonial inhabitants collected this exotic looking artifact for their cabinet of curiosities.

“Joseph” bottle fragment
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Normally broken bottle glass would have trouble finding its way onto any top ten list, but this fragment is one of a kind.  Its owner inscribed his name “Joseph” and the date “174?” into the body of the bottle. That’s not an easy or common thing to do.  The inscription is carved in an elegant and beautiful form indicating a gentry status for its owner.  While no occupant of Ferry Farm was named Joseph, Mary Ball Washington’s older brother bore that name.

Joseph Ball, though living in England, was heavily involved with Ferry Farm.  He absentee owned and operated a neighboring plantation.  Joseph was lavish in both his gifts and advice to the Washingtons.  He gave Betty, George’s sister, a beautiful silver tea set just before she married.  He offered Mary advice on how to keep George out of the Royal Navy when a plan was hatched to put the then 13-year-old onboard a ship. And maybe, just maybe, he sent over a special bottle of wine with his name engraved on it for the Washington family.

Lead Toy Hatchet
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More lead toys?  Yep.  This little beauty has special significance to Ferry Farm because of the cherry tree myth.  The 3-inch lead hatchet appears to be a souvenir made during the 20th century, possibly dropped during 1932’s anniversary celebration of George Washington’s birth.  Keepsakes associated with George and the cherry tree abound in Fredericksburg.  Previous private owners of Ferry Farm were known to capitalize on the history of the property, often selling fragments of the ‘original cherry tree’ and cherry seeds to visitors. This hatchet is an obvious symbol recalling the cherry tree story that is so closely associated with Washington’s childhood.

Milk Glass Darning Egg
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Recovered completely intact from an old burrow belonging to a groundhog, this artifact had multiple uses on a 19th and 20th century homestead.  The glass egg was a darning aid used to fill out a sock while it was repaired or could be placed in a henhouse to encourage the ladies to lay eggs in a particular spot. There is also a persistent myth that these eggs were used to kill snakes. The snake would eat the glass egg, it was believed, which would then shatter inside them.  This line of reasoning ignores the fact that snakes hunt by detecting chemical signatures of their prey and that snakes can’t really see the egg-like shape of our artifact because of their poor vision.  But it’s a story that highlights the mythology that surrounds some objects once they fade into obscurity.

Tambour Hook
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The tambour hook falls into the category of artifacts that are a little too fragile to display.  Made of carved bone and metal, this exceptional object was used by a gentlewoman, probably George’s sister Betty, to adorn fabric with elaborate embroidery.  Recovered from the bottom-most soil level of the Washingtons’ root cellar where it was deposited sometime between 1741 and 1760, the carved designs that cover the bone handle feature a parrot, leaves, flowing vines, and numerous flowers and represent some of the most popular embroidery themes of the time.  This hook helps demonstrates the fashionability of the Washington women, which contradicts the portrait painted by many modern biographers.

Pewter Teaspoon with Betty Washington’s Initials
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Betty had some of the coolest artifacts and this one literally has her name on it.  It was customary for tea to be dispensed by the wife or by the oldest daughter in the house and Betty, as the only daughter, was clearly groomed in this ceremony as is evidenced by her own teaspoons.  Pewter, an alloy containing a number of different metals including lead (yes, more lead), wasn’t as fancy as silver but the fact that it’s customized makes it special.  This tea set appears to be part of a “practice” set that Betty used before her uncle gave her a silver tea set  around her 16th birthday.

Bartmann or Bellarmine Jug/Bottle
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Who doesn’t want to drink out of a jug exhibiting the large face of a crazy bearded man?  I do, and if you were a colonist in the 1700s and early 1800s, you did as well.  Originating in Germany, these face jugs depicted a ‘wild man’ of the woods character popular in Eastern European folklore. By the time these vessels made it to the English market that aspect seems to have been forgotten.  Subsequently, the English created their own story behind the bearded man revolving around their dislike for a similarly-bearded and unpopular anti-protestant cardinal by the name of Robert Bellarmine.  For more about this artifact, read this blog post.

Repaired Creamware Cherry and Flower Punchbowl
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This artifact is cool for so many reasons.  A beautiful bowl adorned with graceful hand painted flowers and cherries (remember, we love those here), it also exhibits a complicated and tortured use-life while highlighting the importance of punch drinking in the eighteenth century.  Written about here, this bowl was owned by Mary Washington, George’s mother.  Punch bowls vary in size and this one would have been called a ‘sneaker’, which denotes a bowl small enough for guests to take turns sipping out of it before passing it to the next person.  Mary clearly loved the bowl so much that, when it broke sometime between 1765 and 1772, she had it repaired with glue.  Although the hide or cheese-based glue used would not have resulted in a vessel capable of holding punch again, she could display it on her mantle or in her china cabinet…Oh, and the glaze? It has lead in it.

Laura Galke, Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Judy Jobrack, Assistant Lab Supervisor
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Lab Supervisor
Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology

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.

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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
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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
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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
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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.

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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