Appearance is Everything: Mary Washington and Her Specialized Ceramics of Gentility – Some Seriously Fancy Dishes!

The story of Mary Ball Washington is one of overcoming a lifetime of adversity.  Often overshadowed by her larger than life son George, Mary’s place in history fluctuated from saint to shrew with many historians ignoring the obstacles she faced and overcame.  The archaeological record sheds light on some of the strategies Mary used to navigate her way through mid-18th century life as a widow while trying to maintain her own social status and that of her children.  Fragments of highly-specialized ceramics excavated at Ferry Farm, the plantation Mary called home for much of her life, speaks to her efforts.

Specialized dishes are those designed for a very specific job unlike, say, a bowl which is multi-purpose.  We have uncovered evidence of many dishes Mary owned that fulfilled single tasks.  These type of ceramics are a sign of gentility. Most households could not afford these items and likely did not possess the resources to make the food and drink that they were designed to hold. 

As the 18th century progressed, so did dining habits. Increasingly, people of means gravitated toward dinners with multiple courses of entrees, appetizers, beverages, and deserts. Previously, most meals consisted of large one-pot creations with multiple ingredients.  In order to pull course cooking off, one required the specialized dishes designed for serving multiple courses. 

One prime example of such specialized dishes from Ferry Farm is Mary’s elaborately decorated creamware sauce boats.  The sauce boats are a luxury in and of themselves. They’re highly decorated and were very fashionable at the time.  Not only were they expensive, but they showed that Mary had the refinement to serve her guests the fancy sauces being introduced into colonial cooking.  They also indicated that she had a trained kitchen staff of enslaved workers capable of executing these new and intricate recipes. You never thought a sauce boat could hold so much meaning, did you?

Portion of a highly-decorated creamware sauce boat that belonged to Mary Washington.

Fragments of an extremely fancy white salt glazed fruit dish are further examples of Mary’s calculated purchasing of dishes.  Previously written about here and here, this dish was meant to display fruit, another luxury in the 18th century. Being able to afford non-local or out-of-season fruit was a status symbol and necessitated the proper dish to proudly display the fruit.  To put the rarity of fruit in perspective, in colonial America, pineapples were so expensive you could rent one for display at parties in the holiday season because most people couldn’t afford to buy one outright.  While renting a fruit may seem ridiculous to modern readers, the action highlights just how important being seen to own certain items was during the colonial era. Of course, we still engage in this same behavior today, but just not with pineapples.

Fragments of a white salt-glazed fruit dish excavated at Ferry Farm and a complete example from the collection at Kenmore (above).

Ferry Farm archaeologists also excavated fragments of two creamware condiment dishes.  Once again, the ability to serve various condiments to dinner guests conveyed status.  Condiments could include relishes, dips, mustards, ketchups (mushroom ketchup being the preferred type), and pickled vegetables such as capers.  Castor sets were also a way to serve other condiments such as olive oil, vinegar, pepper, etc. Generally, these castor sets were only owned by well-to-do households in the colonial period. The base of a creamware castor was recovered at Ferry Farm.

Creamware castor base excavated at Ferry Farm.

The fact that so many of Mary’s specialized ceramics are made of creamware should also be noted.  Creamware was invented in 1762 and wasn’t the most expensive type of ceramic (that was porcelain) but it was highly fashionable.  Mary, as a widow with five children and a diminished income following her husband’s death, likely couldn’t afford much porcelain. She opted for the less expensive but still highly-desirable creamware, instead.

The Washington family went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to visiting friends, neighbors, and relatives.  At Ferry Farm, this burden fell solely on Mary after the death of her husband.  Her specialized ceramics served to illustrate her place within the gentry class despite her diminished income and refusal to remarry after being widowed.  Her goal was to remain independent while raising five children to be successful adults and members of the Virginia gentry class.  In doing so, she likely realized that the socioeconomic security of her children would ensure her own into the future as well. Consequently, it was important that Mary cultivate a refined household with appropriate table and teawares. Ceramic artifacts from Ferry Farm reveal a woman who carefully selected choice ceramics to perform very specific tasks, while at the same time not overextending her budget.  These ceramics contributed to her goal of remaining a part of the gentry class and teaching her children genteel habits so they could do the same. It was a task in which she overwhelmingly succeeded.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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.