Mickey Owen Was Found in the Plaster!: A Look at Some Curious Inclusions Found in Plaster from Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for the unique decorative plasterwork seen on many of its ceilings. However, some of its most unusual pieces of plaster were discovered during repair work being done in 1989. These were pieces of plaster that contained large clumps of animal hair and newspaper. An inspection of this plaster, considering an architectural artifact, in the Archaeology Lab has led to several theories about the reasons for these unconventional inclusions. But before we discuss these, it is important to first understand how historic plaster was made and used.

chamber-ceiling

Decorative plasterwork ceiling in the bed chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Plaster was one of the main finishes for interior walls in the United States until the introduction of drywall in the mid-20th century. The two main types produced were lime plaster and gypsum plaster. Lime plaster was made of water, lime, sand, and a fibrous material. The lime could be derived from limestone or oyster shells. The plaster found in Kenmore was probably made from oyster shells from the Rappahannock River, instead of limestone which is not native to this region. The fibrous material was some sort of animal hair such as horsehair, cow hair, hog hair, or even yak hair.[1] Gypsum plaster was introduced in the early 19th century and was often used in conjunction with lime plaster. Gypsum plaster did not require a fibrous binder and would eventually replace lime plaster as a finish coat.

Plaster was applied in a three-coat process. First was the scratch coat, which had the highest hair content of the three coats. This coat was applied to lathe board causing the plaster to ‘key’ (adhere) into the spaces between the lathes. Next, was the brown coat, which was dark in color due to its high content of sand. The last coat to be applied was the finish coat. This coat contained no hair, little sand, and a slightly higher lime content to create a smooth white finish.[2]

Now that we have a better understanding of how plaster is produced, let’s take a closer look at the unique pieces found at Kenmore. As discussed earlier, it is not unusual to find animal hair in plaster; however, the pieces pulled from Kenmore have exceptionally large clumps of hair not normally seen. Hair was added to plaster to act as a binder. It helped to hold the plaster together, reduce shrinkage, and improve strength.[3] Contrary to what one may believe, the process for obtaining hair for plaster was very selective. The hair had to be long, freshly cut, clean, non-greasy, and dry in order to be used in plaster. It also does not appear that people used hair from their own animals; instead, they bought hair from a tanner’s yard or a merchant. When choosing a hair type, horsehair was favored for its length and strength compared to cow or hog hair. [4]  However, horsehair was probably the most expensive and difficult to obtain out of the three.

Plaster 01

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains a large clump of animal hair.

Once the hair was acquired, it was mixed with the plaster. During this process, it was important to evenly distribute the hair throughout the plaster.[5] This was where the tradesmen making the plaster pieces found at Kenmore made a mistake. They did not distribute the hair properly causing the large clumps that we see. This caused problems when applying the plaster as well as limited the plaster’s strength.[6] Therefore, it can be concluded that the person making this plaster may not have been trained in plasterwork or was a worker under a tradesman who did not follow directions properly. Perhaps this is some experimental plaster made by William Key Howard, Jr. before he started his restoration of the decorative plasterwork on the ceilings of Kenmore in the post-Civil War period.

The next interesting inclusion found in the Kenmore plaster was pieces of newspaper. Newspaper was not used historically for the manufacture of plaster; however, a dozen or so pieces of plaster pulled from Kenmore included newspaper fragments. The newspaper appears to have been torn or balled up and then covered in plaster. A skilled tradesman would not have made or applied plaster in this way. From this, we can conclude that whoever applied this plaster was not trained.

Plaster 02

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains both animal hair and newspaper.

From inspection of the newspaper, perhaps we can learn a little more about who may have done this. Unfortunately, no dates can be found on the newspaper pieces to give a specific time frame. However, from careful inspection of the incomplete newspaper pieces, it appears that many of the pieces are from the comics or the sports section. On one of the small pieces the words Dodgers, shortstop, and Mickey Owen can be identified. From this, it can be assumed that the paper dates between 1941-1945, the years in which Mickey Owen played for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers experienced winning seasons in both 1941 and 1942, due to the skill of Mickey Owen and his teammates.[7] Therefore, it is likely that the newspaper article came from one of these two years. The time frame can also be limited to the months encompassing baseball season (April to October).

Plaster 03

Kenmore plaster bit containing newspaper that mentions Mickey Owen playing for the Dodgers.

With a probable date range for the plaster pieces, we can begin to look at who occupied Kenmore at the time and why they might have made plaster in this way. In 1922, Kenmore was purchased by the Kenmore Association and was operating as a museum by the 1940s. In the early ‘40s, the Kenmore Association was concluding one of its restorations. A possible theory for the inclusion of newspaper in the plaster is that this plaster was used to patch a hole during the restoration. The small amount of plaster found with newspaper inclusions and the way the newspaper is distributed throughout the plaster, with most of the newspaper layered on the bottom and consecutive layers of plaster seen on top, does point to a possible patch job,.

From the Kenmore 1941 correspondence records, a few references to repair work inside the house were found. In June of 1941, there is a reference to rewiring being done in the house. There is also mention of fire alarms being installed so that they do not show. Finally, the interior walls and ceilings were painted. On the receipt, the painter lists that some of the walls had to be mended. This is the most probable repair in which the newspaper would have been used as a patch. The hired painter was likely not trained in making/repairing historic plaster. This tradesman probably wanted a quick fix and layered newspaper over the spot and plastered over that in order to finish the paint job.

While plaster may not be the most exciting building material to study, it can give a lot of useful insight into the construction and repair of a house. Conclusions about the people commissioning and conducting the work can be derived from the composition and application of plaster. With a little investigation, even unusual inclusions in the plaster can lead to some surprising discoveries about the people who lived and worked at Kenmore and about the life story of Kenmore itself.

Tessa Honeycutt, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

[1] Henry, Allison, and John Stewart. Practical Building Conservation: Mortars, Plasters and Renders. Ashgate, 2009.

[2] Practical Building Conservation

[3] Practical Building Conservation

[4] Hodgson, Frederick Thomas. Plaster and Plastering: Mortars and Cements, How to Make and How to Use. New York: The Industrial Publication Company, 1901

[5] Ibid.

[6] Practical Building Conservation

[7] Ibid.

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Video: William Key Howard, Jr. – Saving Kenmore’s Ceilings

In this video, learn about William Key Howard, Jr., who lived in Kenmore with his family in the years following the Civil War and repaired damage to the house’s plaster ceilings in the first restoration of Kenmore.

You can learn more about William Key Howard, Jr. and why his boat is still in the attic while visiting rarely seen rooms and spaces during a special behind-the-scenes tour at Historic Kenmore on October 22-23. Reservations required. Details at http://kenmore.org/events.html.