Our Best Guess about Mary Washington’s Best Bed

Furnishings posts logo finalIn July, we were very excited to see the culmination of at least a year’s worth of research and work when the “best bed” was installed in the Hall Back Room (the master bedchamber) of the Washington House. Between its imposing size (it nearly touches the ceiling) and it’s bright blue bed curtains in a house where there was very little color, the best bed is one of the most memorable pieces in the house, both today and when the Washington family resided at Ferry Farm.

Best Bed

The “best bed” in the Hall Back Room of the replica Washington house at Ferry Farm.

The “best bed” in a colonial gentry home like the Washington’s was intended to be a showstopper, and a visual statement to visitors about the prosperity of the family that owned it.  It was one of the reasons that the bedchamber in which the best bed stood was usually considered a public entertaining room – all the better to have people see the bed.

But how do we know what the Washington best bed looked like? In this case, we had several clues from historic documents and archaeological finds that we pieced together with what we know about life in early 18th century Virginia households.

The first question we had to answer was what type of bed was it? Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory describes the bed simply as “1 Bed & Furniture…..£8.” At first glance, this scant information doesn’t seem to tell us much (other than this bed is indeed the most valuable single item in the entire Washington household at £8).  But, the mention of “furniture” along with the bed is actually quite useful.

Best Bed on Probate Inventory

“1 Bed & Furniture” valued at £8 listed on the probate inventory of Augustine Washington’s personal property done after his death in 1743.

In this context, “furniture” refers to all the textile accessories associated with the bed, including bed curtains.  In order for a bed to have bed curtains, it must be an expensive tall-post bed, rather than low-post.  While we refer to the Washingtons as being among the gentry class, meaning they were able to furnish their home with higher end furnishings, this was actually a question for some time.  At this early point in the 18th century, being gentry might not actually mean living in the luxury that we associate with homes like Kenmore or Mount Vernon of the century’s later decades.  Simply owning a bedstead – of any variety – put you well ahead of the vast majority of colonial Virginians.  The traditional view of George Washington’s childhood is one of a very simple, primitive lifestyle.  Our archaeological findings at Ferry Farm have begun to change that view.  In actuality, the Washington family owned and used a wide variety of imported luxury goods in their home.

Bed bolts are one artifact changing the old view and pertain directly to the level of bed in the house.  Bed bolts were long, heavy screws inserted through the lower ends of the tall bed posts to hold them to the side rails of the bed.  Their presence at Ferry Farm proves the existence of tall-post beds.  So, this line item in the probate inventory actually serves to bolster the idea that the Washingtons were living a relatively high lifestyle – they had a tall-post bed with curtains in the Hall Back Room.

FF-Bedbolt

Bed bolt excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Once we determined the style of bed, we had to decide what the bed curtains and bed covering would look like.  The probate inventory was not overly helpful on this front – almost no descriptive information of any textile in the house is given.  However, there are several other documents related to Mary Washington’s estate that we could consult.

The first was her will, which was recorded in 1788, the year before her death.  This document details a number of her household goods, and which of her family members they were to go to.  While the list of items is not nearly as complete as a probate inventory, it does provide more descriptive information.  Among other textiles, a blue and white quilt, a white counterpane, purple bed curtains and “Virginia cloth” bed curtains are mentioned.

In another document, a list of household items sold at vendu (a public sale of personal property, sort of like a yard sale today) after Mary’s death in 1789, reference is made to blue and white coverlets, a blue and white counterpane, and several blue or white bed coverings, one of which is called “ye best.” Several sets of bed curtains are mentioned, but they are not described.

Best Bed with White Counterpane

The best bed with its summertime white coverlet.

Although both of these documents date to more than 40 years after the time period that we are interpreting at Ferry Farm, we can surmise that much of Mary’s bed textiles were blue and white and that this color combination was a particular favorite of hers.  As bed curtains and bedding such as quilts and counterpanes represented major financial investments in an 18th century household, it’s not unlikely that many of the finer textiles in the Washington house at Ferry Farm were still in use at the time of Mary’s death many years later, when she was living across the river in downtown Fredericksburg.  Because of these documents, we decided to depict the best bed at Ferry Farm with blue and white bedcoverings (a quilt for winter, and a matelessé counterpane for summer) and blue bedcurtains.

As with all the furnishings in the Washington house, we hope that Mary would recognize her bed if she were set foot inside the room today.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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The Furniture Makers: Harrison Higgins [Video]

Furnishings posts logo finalThe replica Washington house is open at George Washington’s Ferry Farm but furnishing is still ongoing. We traveled to Richmond to visit furniture maker Harrison Higgins and he told us about the furniture that he and his crew have made for the Washington house.

Watch other videos and read more about rebuilding the Washington house here.

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 3 – Imari & Famille Rose Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we revisit the Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) reproduction ceramics now displayed or to be displayed in the future in the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  This is the final post in this three week series and in it we’ll take a look at two special styles of CEP known as imari and famille rose.

These sherds are CEP like the blue and white porcelains we wrote about in part 1 but they are in different colorways, namely “imari” (blue, red, orange and occasionally some gilt accents) and “famille rose” (pink, orange and some green).  Sometimes, the exterior of teacups, bowls and saucers were painted an opaque brown, which is a style known as “Batavian.”  Our fragments suggest some Batavian pieces were in use in the Washington house, as well as some that show gilding. 

Buildings, people and fish were all popular motifs in imari and famille rose palettes.  Famille rose was one of the earliest of the CEP decorative styles, dating as early as the 1720s.  If a colonial American family managed to obtain a piece of famille rose CEP, it would be a treasured possession for generations.

Again, we have located individual pieces in period-correct shapes, that are decorated in colors and motifs that belong to the imari and famille rose palettes.  While interest in all things Asian may have reached its height in 18th century Europe, the style had several resurgences over the ensuing years, including in the early 20th century, which helped us greatly in our hunt for suitable reproductions of CEP.  During that time, Japanese potters began to churn out massive quantities of porcelain decorated in what became known as the “geisha girl” style, using green, orange and pink enamels.  The decorations depicted geishas in gardens near buildings.  While geishas may be a Japanese cultural theme, the colors, the delicate ceramic, and the inclusion of buildings and flowers all reference Chinese famille rose.

These pieces were intended for the Western market, and were often found in American dime stores, or given away as premiums in packages of tea.  They were produced from the 1890s, through World War II and even during the Allied occupation of Japan.  As a result, they’ve become highly collectable and we were able to find several different forms to add to our collection of stand-ins for famille rose tea wares.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 2 – White Salt-Glaze and Westerwald Stonewares

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we continue our look at the different ceramics displayed or soon to be displayed in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  Last week, we learned about the blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproductions gracing the house.  This week, in the second post of this series, will investigate the white salt-glaze stoneware and the Westerwald stoneware.

These fragments are from white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware dinner plate rims, and show two different styles of molded decoration.  The pattern in the above photo on the left was known as “dot/diaper/basket” and the pattern in the above photo on the right was known as “royal rim.”

 

Molded WSG came into existence in the 1740s, so the Washington family was right on trend.  A few decades later, creamware would replace it as popular dinnerware, but the rim patterns found on WSG were often very similar to those used on later creamware.

During the height of the Colonial Revival decorating style in mid-20th century America, the patterns used on WSG and creamware back in the 18th century had a major resurgence.  Several American potteries started producing white stoneware table wares, similar to WSG, with glossy surfaces similar to creamware, using molded rim decorations that were almost exactly like their 18th century predecessors.  The Canonsburg Pottery outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced dot/diaper/basket plates under the pattern name of American Traditional from the early 20th century through the company’s closure in 1978.  The Red Cliff Company pottery in Chicago produced plates with a rim pattern taken from the “royal” rim style on 18th century creamware (which was similar to an earlier WSG rim) under the pattern name Heirloom from the 1950s until their closure in 1977.  Similarly, Sears sold an almost identical plate under the pattern name American Federalist until the mid-1980s.  Luckily for us, all of these 20th century patterns are collectible and we found many of them in stores and on-line.

C1 - Westerwald Artifact

The above fragment came from either a mug or a jug made from grey stoneware decorated with cobalt blue glaze, known as Westerwald.  The Washington family owned quite a bit of Westerwald ceramic, as did the Lewis family at Kenmore.

C2 - Westerwald Mug

Westerwald pottery originated in 17th century Germany, and it is still produced there today.  It was a popular style for traditional German steins, often with pewter lids attached.  In the 18th century, it was often made for export to England and was therefore decorated with the “GR” emblem, referencing Georgius Rex (King George).

C2 - Westerwald Repro

During one of our treks through a thrift store, we came across this lidded Westerwald mug, and we were amazed at how similar to our 18th century fragments it was.  So amazed, in fact, that we questioned whether or not it might actually be an antique piece (that somehow remained in pristine condition)! A look at the bottom revealed a very 20th century maker’s mark, however, but it also spurred a desire to find out more about the company that was producing such excellent Westerwald. The mark indicated that the Markpiece was “Original Gerzit,” and some internet research revealed that the Gerzit Company in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany, was originally the pottery founded by Simon Peter Gerz in 1857.  The family owned and continued to operate the pottery through World War II, at which time they changed the name to Gerzit.  By German law established in 1887, Westerwald produced for export has to be marked Made in Germany.  Westerwald produced for sale in Germany doesn’t have to carry a mark at all.  Any Westerwald produced after World War II for export has to specify whether it was made in East or West Germany.  Putting all of that together, and comparing it to the mark on our newly acquired mug, shows us that it was produced sometime between 1949 (when the company name changed) and 1997 (when the company closed) and was originally intended for sale within Germany.  How it ended up in a thrift store in Virginia is anyone’s guess, but it was a very lucky find for us!

In part 3, we’ll revisit Chinese Export Porcelains to see imari and famille rose artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 1 – Blue & White Chinese Export Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalAs you may recall from past posts (here and here) about our hunt for reproduction ceramics and glassware to use in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and taking a page from the Colonial Revival playbook, our sources have been varied and surprising – junk shops, flea markets, TV show props liquidation sales, attics of friends and relatives.  You name it, we’ve probably been there! Now it’s time to take a look at what we’ve found, and show you how we decided what passed muster to be placed in the Washington house.  In this series of posts, we’ll examine different ceramics and take a look at the artifact recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century object those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by the artifacts and originals.  This first post will examine blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP).

Blue and White Artifact

Blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain artifact excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

The above tiny archaeological fragment was found on the Washington house site and identified by our archaeologists as being from fine, white porcelain tea wares, decorated in applied blue motifs.  Such tea wares are known as blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) and were produced throughout the 18th century.

This 18th century blue and white teapot in the collection at Historic Kenmore is an excellent example of an English attempt to create porcelain like CEP.

Original porcelain made in China, where the technique was created and perfected, was highly coveted during the 1700s, but it wasn’t easy to come by and was often quite expensive.  Eventually, makers in England and other European countries tried producing this porcelain.  They were never quite able to simulate the very thin, nearly translucent white body, but they came close in replicating the decoration.  Colonists in Virginia, like the Washingtons, had an even tougher time coming across true CEP, so their collections of “porcelain” tea wares were often a mix of true porcelain and the thicker European variety.  The above teapot from the Kenmore collection is an example of an 18th century English attempt at creating porcelain like CEP.  While the ceramic body is sturdier than true Chinese porcelain, the blue decoration is very similar to CEP.

Blue and White Repro

20th century blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproduction teapot displayed inside the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.

Blue and White Repro teawares

20th century blue and white CEP teaware reproductions in the Washington house.

Above are some of the blue and white ceramics that we found to represent the Washington’s original blue and white CEP tea wares.  The difficulty in finding true porcelain continues even today! These pieces were selected because they all have blue decoration that is very similar to the typical motifs used in the Washington period, and their shapes and sizes correspond to what was available in the time period too.  In other words, from 5 steps away, they look just like period examples.  They were all produced in the 20th century, however, and represent manufactories in Germany and England.  Piecing together a tea service from multiple sources allowed us to accomplish another hallmark of 18th century tea wares: Nothing matches! Discerning buyers in the Washington’s time might choose a particular colorway that they liked and find individual pieces exhibiting those colors, but the idea of buying a complete tea set in one pattern was not a possibility until much later in the 19th century.

In the part 2, we’ll examine white salt-glazed stoneware artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Washington House at Ferry Farm [Photos]

Washington House replica at Ferry Farm (2)

The Washington house at Ferry Farm is now open for tours! Using information from the probate inventory and archaeological evidence, the interpretive replica of George Washington’s boyhood home is currently being furnished with replica furniture and ceramics. You can read an in-depth post about the house here and below you will find photos that provide a glimpse of the house’s exterior and interior as well as the surrounding landscape.

Learn more about this comprehensive project here and here.

Please visit www.ferryfarm.org and www.kenmore.org for more information on two National Historic Landmark sites, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Washington House at Ferry Farm Now Open for Tours

Exterior of Washington house front

The completed reconstruction of the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

The Washington house at Ferry Farm is now open for tours. The interpretive replica of George Washington’s boyhood home is an interactive and hands-on experience for all ages, where visitors can experience what life was like in the eighteenth century. Using information from the probate inventory and archaeological evidence, the Washington house is currently being furnished with replica furniture and ceramics of what was originally in the home. This allows guests the opportunity to sit on the furniture and handle the objects.

Corner Cupboard in Parlor

Corner Cupboard

Following a plan conceived by The George Washington Foundation’s Collections Committee and curators, noted cabinetmakers are crafting reproduction furniture using pieces from the time period of the Washington house as examples. Craftsmen from Colonial Williamsburg produced a corner cabinet in the joiners’ shop and a tea table in the cabinetmakers’ shop using examples from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collection. Additionally, two dining tables, a set of twelve leather upholstered chairs, a “scrutore” – or desk with bookcase, a low-post bed, and a gaming table are currently on view in the Washington house.

Tea Table in Hall Back Room

Tea Table

The construction of the Washington house on its archaeological footprint is part of the first phase of The George Washington Foundation’s multi-year venture to physically develop George Washington’s Ferry Farm into an outdoor living museum. The first phase of the project will also include reconstructing the kitchen and outbuildings, and recreating the period landscape. Moreover, the Foundation is establishing a new entrance to the museum property, has erected a maintenance facility, and is completing necessary infrastructure.

Hall

Dining table, chairs, and “scrutore” in the Hall of the Washington house.

Employing building methods of the period, artisan masons laid the foundation for the Washington house using hand-cut Aquia sandstone in an oyster-shell mortar. Next, timber framers joined massive wood beams to create the frame of the home. Carpenters covered the roof with traditional, hand-prepared wood shingles and installed skillfully-crafted exterior doors and window sashes, as well as beaded weatherboard siding painted a traditional, deep red “Spanish brown” color.

Masons completed the brickwork for the three chimneys, each set in an English bond interspersed with glazed headers, while the carpenters fitted paneled doors with hand-wrought iron hardware and fabricating interior features such as an elaborate staircase in the center passage. Accomplished plasterers installed a traditional lime plaster, strengthened with animal hair, on wood lath across the walls of the Washington house.

Work Yards Behind the House

The work yards behind the Washington house.

Constructing the Washington house and the first phase of improvements at Ferry Farm is a funding priority for the Foundation as part of The Future of Our Past Campaign—a $40 million dollar comprehensive fundraising initiative in support of efforts across its two National Historic Landmark sites: Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

George Washington moved to Ferry Farm in 1738 with his parents, Mary and Augustine, his sister Betty, and their siblings, purchasing the site from William Strother III, a prominent colonial Virginian. Young George lived at the farm from age 6 to 22. Referred to as the Washington home house in George’s day, the property was later known as Ferry Farm—a historic ferry adjacent to the Washingtons’ house once linked it to the city of Fredericksburg via the Rappahannock River. The site was the setting of some of the best-known stories related to his youth, including tales of the cherry tree and throwing a stone across the Rappahannock River.

George was eleven when his father died in 1743. Augustine left Ferry Farm to George, for him to inherit when he reached majority. Mary Washington continued to live at Ferry Farm until 1772, when she moved to Fredericksburg to live closer to Kenmore and Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis.

View of Fredericksburg across the River

View from the Washington house of Fredericksburg across the Rappahannock River.

In 1996, Ferry Farm was saved from commercial development through the hard work and determination of the Regents and Trustees of The George Washington Foundation (known then as the Kenmore Association), a long list of individuals, and several organizations.

The Foundation announced on July 2, 2008 that its archaeologists had located and excavated the remains of the long-sought house where Washington was raised. To date, over 750,000 artifacts have been unearthed at Ferry Farm. Ongoing research suggests that George’s experiences at Ferry Farm were influential in shaping the man that he would become.

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, the Foundation broke ground on the Washington house and the first phase of construction at Ferry Farm, forever preserving this remarkable landscape and providing a powerful stage to tell the story of young George and his family. Doris Kearns Goodwin, renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was the keynote speaker for the Groundbreaking Ceremony.

Learn more about this comprehensive project here and here.

Please visit www.ferryfarm.org and www.kenmore.org for more information on two National Historic Landmark sites, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

David Muraca
Vice President of Museum Operations
Director of Archaeology