“Dined at the City Tavern”

Christmas in the 18th century was celebrated quite differently than it is today. Unlike today, one of  the most important (and wildest) celebrations of the season took place on January 6th, or Epiphany. Also known as Twelfth Night, this holiday is more comparable to our present-day New Year’s celebrations in style and entertainment. Our stereotypical views of a supposedly refined time period perhaps conjure up images of classy champagne toasts and highly intellectual conversations. However, much like the Christmas season itself, 18th century parties and dinners any time of the year were actually quite different from that stereotype.

On September 14, 1787 George Washington wrote in his journal:

“Friday 14th.  Attended Convention. Dined at the City Tavern, at an entertainmt. given on my acct. by the City light Horse. Spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths.”

It appears he enjoyed a simple enough dinner at City Tavern in Philadelphia after a day of Constitutional planning, right? Washington was famous; certainly everywhere he went, people provided “an entertainment” in his honor. As you look more into this event, you find that Washington’s simple diary entries may not always reveal the whole story of what happened.

City Tavern as it appeared about 1800 from an engraving by William Birch. This print dates from 1850. Credit: New York Public Library.

In this entry, he notes the City Light Horse honoring him at the tavern. The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia was founded in 1774. They fought with General Washington throughout the war, including at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine.  They were part of the icy-cold crossing of the Delaware and the snow-covered winter at Valley Forge. In fact, although operating under a new name, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry remains intact today as a private military organization whose members all must serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Due to its close relationship with George Washington, the troop jumped at the chance to show him its appreciation at the tavern as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close. According to Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the bar tab sent to the City Light Horse remains in the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Archives. Here is the transcription of the bill:

Courtesy of Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

As you can see, the total comes to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence. According to the Bank of England, given inflation and changes over time, today this would be approximately £14,083 or around $18,471.

While that sticker price is shocking enough, as we inspect the bill a little more, we notice what all was purchased for the gathering. There are four separate categories on the bill. The bottom section is the fee for the musicians to play. The next section up lists 16 bottles of claret, 5 bottles of madeira, and 7 bowls of punch drunk by the 16 servants and musicians.  Next, comes a line for items broken at the gathering.

Finally, the top section of the bill deals with 55 guests, all men, who were the main party at City Tavern. The men ordered dinner and several different beverages. First, fifty-four bottles of madeira, probably Washington’s drink of choice. Throughout his life, Washington was said to favor this type of fortified wine from the Madeira islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and a frequent stop for merchant ships travelling between Europe and America in the 18th century. Many prominent families in America took a liking to the wine, as it was relatively easy to obtain. According to records at Mount Vernon, Washington ordered Madeira by the pipe, a large, elongated barrel that held about 126 gallons of wine. Often, he ordered multiple pipes at a time. Today, you can still purchase Madeira wine, but be cautious as it runs 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Similar to its brother, Port, Madeira is often used in cooking and is a staple of French cuisine today.

Next, the sixty bottles of Claret were a French-style wine also popular in America in the 18th century. While Madeira came in both sweet and dry varieties, Claret was typically a dry, dark red. Claret is not a fortified wine like Madeira, meaning it is lighter and only around 13-15 percent alcohol by volume.

The list notes that the gentlemen also consumed eight bottles of “Old Stock”, a term used for whiskey at the time. Perhaps throughout his time as General and President, nights like September 14, 1787 convinced Washington to create his own whiskey distillery later in life. By 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon was one of the most profitable in the country. During the colonial era, it was not customary to age whiskey. The spirits produced at Mount Vernon, as well as, that served at City Tavern were practically straight from the still.

Whiskey mash in the reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon. Credit: Elizabeth Hosier.

The porter, cider, and beer listed on the bill are all similar to the alcohols we call porter, cider, and beer today. Porter was a very popular style of beer in both England and America. In fact, the style was so popular, Washington had his own recipe for it to be produced at Mount Vernon.

Lastly, the list claims the gentlemen also went through seven large bowls of punch. Punch recipes varied from tavern to tavern and from house to house in colonial days, but they were typically rum or whiskey-based and often contained more than one type of alcohol. You can read much more about punch and how it was served here and about Mary Washington’s punch bowl here.

With all this drink flowing, we might conclude this was quite a raucous party, but these were rather typical evenings for the people of the 18th century. Keep in mind that water was not always drinkable due to bacteria, they didn’t always have access to fruit to make fresh juice, and certainly soda wasn’t around yet! They were left with few options: tea, coffee, or booze.

Washington returned to the Convention and by the end of the day after the party, the delegates had finished. Copies of the document were ordered, and just two days later, they signed the Constitution of the United States on Monday, September 17, 1787. Washington stated in his journal:

“The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

What happened that night at City Tavern? Unfortunately, no bill from this night survives to give us any clarification, but Washington provides a hint of just how much steam the delegates needed to blow off. The entry in his journal continued that he returned to his lodgings and:

“retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.”

Momentous work, indeed.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

“Twelfth Night at Historic Kenmore” 2019 [Photos]

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2019 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 11 and 12. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Coming Soon! “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” [Photos]

On Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, and Sunday, January 13, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in 1776.

This production depicts the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and Kenmore’s enslaved community.  Here are some photos from last year’s performance.

Performance dates: Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, Sunday, January 13
Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; under age 3 free.

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2018

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2018 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 5, 6, and 7. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2017

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2017 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place this past weekend. Here are a few photos from that performance.

Photos: Last Year’s “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

On Friday, January 6, Saturday, January 7, and Sunday, January 8, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in January 1776. It is the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual celebration, however. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.  Immerse yourself in the experience the candlelight, music, and decorations of an eighteenth-century Christmas!

Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 5:15 p.m., and 6:00 p.m.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.

Here is a collection of photos from the last performance way back in January.

Mistletoe: More Than Christmas Kisses

In the 17th and 18th centuries, colonial Virginians decorated their homes for Christmas with all manner of evergreens.  This greenery – holly, ivy, mistletoe, and more – were seen as symbols of everlasting life.  Each year at Historic Kenmore, we also decorate the house with greenery in this tradition.

Mistletoe actually adorns Kenmore year round. The elaborate plaster ceiling in the drawing room depicts the four seasons and mistletoe is used to represent winter.  The mistletoe depicted, however, is not American mistletoe; the craftsman based this part of the ceiling on European mistletoe instead. This makes sense given that the artist was probably European. Having never seen American mistletoe, he would not know how to sculpt it.

mistletoe-on-kenmores-drawing-room-ceiling

Mistletoe depicted in the ornate plaster ceiling of Kenmore’s drawing room.

Regardless of whether American or European, how did mistletoe come to symbolize winter and hang in homes during the holiday season? How did these green branches with white berries become associated with the hope of a little fun and (possible) future romances? What is it about mistletoe that brings so much joy to the seasons’ festivities?

Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) grows in the southern United States and is native to much of North America. It has more berries and shorter, broader leaves than English mistletoe (Viscum album). Like English mistletoe, the American plant is a semi-parasite; it digs its “roots” in the host tree and sucks sap and water from the tree, but it manufactures its own chlorophyll.  Mistletoe often grows in the tallest branches of the tree, making it very hard to harvest.

The word “mistletoe” likely came from one of two sources.  Its origins may be from the Anglo-Saxon “misteltan;” “mistl” meaning different and “tan” meaning twig. Mistletoe is a very “different twig” indeed because of how and where it grows – something that would not have escaped the notice of the Anglo-Saxons.  The word’s other possible origin also translates “tan” as twig, but renders “mistel” as dung; making “mistletoe”  “dung twig.” This may have been because bird droppings contained the seeds that helped spread the plants to other trees.

an-arch-druid-in-his-judicial-habit

Imaginative illustration of ‘An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit’ from The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith (1815) Credit: Wikipedia.

Druids, who served as priests and the learned class for the ancient Celts, valued mistletoe almost as much as they valued oak trees. These men (there is little evidence that there were women druids) climbed to the top of mistletoe-laden trees and harvested the sacred plant with a golden sickle. Those on the ground were careful to catch the plant as it fell because they believed the mistletoe would lose all of its power if it hit the ground.  Druids then used it to cure disease and promote fertility in humans and animals. It may be that the custom of hanging mistletoe stems from a Druidic tradition. Enemies who met under the mistletoe would lay down their arms and greet each other as if friends.

Mistletoe also played a role in Norse mythology and some think that our modern views on mistletoe came from one particular Norse myth. Balder, a god of peace, was the son of Odin, chief of the gods, and the goddess Frigg.  Balder began to dream of his own demise and his father traveled to the underworld to learn of his son’s fate.

baldr-dead-by-eckersberg

Baldr’s Death (1817) by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Credit: Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts/Wikipedia.

Odin returned and shared the bad news with Balder and the other gods and goddesses. Frigg went to everything in the cosmos and asked it to swear it would not hurt her son.  Everything swore loyalty but mistletoe.  Loki, the god of mischief, made some mistletoe into an arrow that killed Balder.  In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder was brought back to life and Frigg makes mistletoe a symbol of love and kisses to those who pass under it.

The English origins of kissing under the mistletoe aren’t well known. Historical records indicate that this merriment became popular in England sometime in the 16th century, but we don’t know if it was commonplace before that.  English mistletoe etiquette had some hard-and-fast rules: women under the mistletoe were not to refuse kisses; men could only kiss women (or girls) on the cheek; after the kissing transaction, the man removed a berry from the mistletoe ball; after the last berry was plucked, the kissing ended.

the-mistletoe-bough-by-francis-wheatley

The Mistletoe Bough (c. 1790) by Francis Wheatley. Credit: Yale Center for British Art/Wikipedia

 

Harvesting mistletoe is a challenge, but 18th century Virginians came up with an ingenious way to quickly and easily gather the plant.  Instead of climbing up into the tree’s canopy, Virginian men shot the mistletoe out of the tree.  They then took the good sprigs home, fashioned them into mistletoe balls, and enjoyed the merriment of the season.  This tradition harvesting mistletoe through gunfire still continues today all over the American south.

Ancient Druids. Mythical Norse gods. 18th century Virginians. Over the centuries, these people, whether real or imagined, contributed to the myths and traditions that have made mistletoe a symbol of winter, friendship, and love.  When you share a kiss with someone special under the mistletoe this season, you might want to take a moment to share mistletoe’s long history with that someone too.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2016

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2016 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place this past weekend. Here are photos from that performance.

Photos: Last Year’s “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

This coming weekend — Friday, January 8, Saturday, January 9, or Sunday, January 10 — Historic Kenmore again presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in January 1776. It is the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual celebration, however. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

Here is a collection of photos from last year’s performances.

Immerse yourself in the experience the candlelight, music, and decorations of an eighteenth-century Christmas!

Performance Times: 3:00, 3:45, 4:45 and 5:30 p.m.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.

Video: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore,” A Preview

On January 8, 9, and 10, Historic Kenmore presents “Twelfth Night at Kenmore,” a dramatic theater performance inside the 18th century home of Fielding and Betty Lewis. This short video previews the performance.

Immerse yourself in the experience the candlelight, music, and decorations of an eighteenth-century Christmas!

Performance Times: 3:00, 3:45, 4:45 and 5:30 p.m.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.

Learn more about the event at http://kenmore.org/events.html.