The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009

 

 

Fine and Fashionable Fruit Dishes

Fruit!  It’s good for you, delicious, and often beautiful – but have you ever thought of fruit as a status symbol?  In today’s world of relatively quick, inexpensive long-distance transportation, we enjoy fresh fruit from all over the world year-round.  We generally take this ability for granted.  In the eighteenth century, however, if you or your neighbors didn’t grow a particular fruit at home, then it had to be shipped to you at great cost.  In this age before refrigerated shipping, fruit’s extremely short shelf life was magnified.  As a result, a simple pineapple or lime represented a household’s wealth and the display of expensive fruits was a way to impress dinner guests. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?

Fruit proved such a rare luxury in the 1700s that people purchased special dishes in which to serve the fruit.  These dishes also emphasized the social status of the owner because they signaled to people that this person could afford fresh fruit even if none might be available at the moment.  Like the fruit, the dishes themselves came to the owner’s table from all the way across an ocean, further emphasizing their wealth.   Archaeologically, we’ve recovered one such special fruit dish from George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Made of white salt-glazed stoneware around 1755, this favorite ceramic of Mary Washington, George’s mother, is heavily decorated.  The entire surface of the object has some visually interesting thing to catch the eye.  With a geometric design in the center surrounded by a variation of the basket-dot-diaper motif common to the time period and an intricately pierced rim flanked by scroll-work, this dish would certainly have been highly valued in the Washington household.

Fruit Dish 1

The fruit dish sherds excavated at Ferry Farm.

In the eighteenth century, one of the most important ways a person could display their standing and refinement was by hosting elaborate dinners.  This meant having extravagant and highly decorated centerpieces, preferably of silver.  However, if you couldn’t afford silver, then a ceramic equivalent was the next best thing.  Ceramic fruit dishes, like our white salt-glazed one, even borrowed some forms and stylistic elements common on silver dishes of the time.

What makes our particular fruit dish found at Ferry Farm even more special is that sherds from an almost identical one were excavated at Mount Vernon.[1]  In 1757, not long after George Washington moved to Mount Vernon, he sent to England for a large amount of ceramics, including 100 “white stone” dishes.[2]  There were numerous other vessels ordered in white salt-glaze as well, including patty pans, mustard pots, butter dishes, mugs, teapots, slop basins, and more.  Having special tablewares just for specific types of foods and condiments impressed your dinner guests with both your financial wealth and your knowledge of the “proper” way to serve things.  Having the appropriate tableware was so important that when Washington didn’t receive certain items ordered from England, he complained to his supplier, Thomas Knox, writing that “The Crate of Stone ware don’t [sic] contain a third of the Pieces I am charg’d with, and only two things broke, and everything very high Charg’d.”  Though showing disappointment about the broken pieces, Washington’s concern that he did not receive all he ordered hints at how fashionable the stoneware was considered.  Also, given the large number of items ordered, it is impressive only two pieces broke.  White salt-glazed stoneware was sturdy enough for the Washington family to use every day.

If finding similar ceramic dishes at Ferry Farm and Mount Vernon were not enough, we have also excavated very similar sherds at Historic Kenmore, the home of George’s sister Betty.  Apparently, the taste for lovely and heavily molded white salt-glazed dishes must have run in the family!  The icing on the cake is that we also have a complete example of a fruit dish in Kenmore’s collection of ceramics that matches the sherds recovered in digs at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm.  What are the odds?

Fruit Dish 2

The complete fruit dish in Kenmore’s ceramics collection.

The archaeologists at Ferry Farm are working diligently to mend together as much of Mary Washington’s fruit dish fragments as possible.  We’re a third of the way there.  We hope to display these excavated pieces next to the complete dish so visitors can enjoy these lovely examples of eighteenth century artwork as much as we do.

The Washingtons – Mary, George, and Betty – all went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to friends and neighbors.  They did so, in part, by serving exotic fresh fruit shipped to the colonies from around the Atlantic World.  To serve that fruit, they used fine and fashionable ceramic fruit dishes that were also shipped great distances.  Think about that the next time you enjoy a fruit cup!

Lauren Jones, Archaeology Lab Technician
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor

[1] Email between Eleanor Breen, Director of Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor at The George Washington Foundation, November 12, 2010.

[2] Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, University Press of New England, 2009.

George Toasts George?

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm we’ve just wrapped up a ceramic mending project.  We explain how and why we undertake these mending projects in this post.  Our most recent effort focused on Westerwald stonewares owned by the Washington family.  Stoneware is a high-fired, non-porous ceramic that is excellent for producing storage containers and drinking vessels.  But what is a Westerwald, you may ask?  Well, Westerwald stonewares were a ceramic produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s.  Destined for the British Isles and British colonial markets, this particular ceramic is common to archaeological sites in the Chesapeake region.

Westerwalds were salt-glazed, meaning that during the firing process large quantities of salt were introduced into the kiln.  The salt vitrified (converted into a glass-like substance) upon contact with the vessels, producing a shiny glaze and a characteristic ‘orange peel’ texture on the surface of the pots.  Decorated predominantly with molded and incised designs that are filled with bright cobalt blue and deep purple, Westerwalds are strikingly beautiful.

Jug with a bird motif.

We’ve learned a great deal from analyzing the Westerwalds used by the Washingtons.  Many of the vessels identified in the Ferry Farm assemblage were tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels from which beverages such as ale and cider, a large part of the colonial diet, were consumed.  Some tankard handles we’ve excavated have small holes at the top, where a pewter lid — a distinguishing characteristic of German-made steins — was attached.  These lids often do not survive in the archaeological record because the metal had value.  Rather than being discarded, the pewter was often recycled.

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, Westerwald drinking vessels often served a political purpose.  An excellent example of this is to be found within our assemblage of Westerwalds in the form of multiple mugs emblazoned with the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George.  During the time Westerwalds were produced in Germany, three British kings were named George.  Interestingly, however, all three came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714.  For Americans, of course, the most famous of these Hanover kings was George III.

Sprig decorated G.R. medallion on a jug fragment.

Thus, a gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale.  A night of drinking involved numerous toasts “To the King’s Health!”  It was not unheard of for dozens of toasts to be recited for the king, his family, and anyone else of political interest the imbibers saw fit to honor.  Toasts and drinking vessels were also utilized to express disagreement with political powers.  Politics and drinking definitely went hand-in-hand in the colonies.  Once George Washington became a public figure, there were toasts such as “To General Washington, and victory to the American arms!” to honor him.

The presence of these initialed Westerwalds at Ferry Farm show that until the Revolution the Washington family, like most Americans, viewed themselves as loyal subjects of the British Crown.  Indeed, many families in Fredericksburg would have owned such mugs and toasted their monarch prior to the war.  In fact, several ‘G.R.’ vessels have also been excavated at Historic Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister, Betty.  The people of Ferry Farm, Kenmore, and Fredericksburg found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Colonial men – whether gentry, tradesman, or servants – pursued homes, professions, pleasures, and possessions that conveyed their status, wealth, and English identities.  One such possession that emphasized this identity was Westerwald drinking vessels.

Hollowware fragments with an unknown motif.

One has to wonder what became of these mugs once the Revolution began.  Did Loyalists quietly stash away some of their ‘G.R.’ mugs once the tide of war went against them?  Perhaps some tankards and jugs were smashed publically by Patriots in a ritual different from their intended purpose of toasting but no less a political act than those toasts had been.  Nevertheless, it is intriguing to picture a young George Washington drinking heartily from a ‘G.R.’ mug and toasting a king against whom he would lead a revolution.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics & Glass Specialist