“Ya Basic”: Washington and “The Bread and Butter Ball”

It was in February 1760 that George and Martha attended a ball that fell short of his expectations. As he somewhat whimsically recorded in his diary, the tables lacked linen, beverages were watered down, and the food offered compared to basic prison fare. In today’s slang, George might characterize the uninspiring party as, “Ya Basic,” an insult meaning unadorned and simple. This blog post considers the origins of George’s refined taste, and the lofty heights to which his social expectations had risen by his late twenties. By this point in Washington’s life, he expected certain amenities and refreshments at such festivities, groomed as he was from childhood in graceful civility and elegant dress

In 1758, George’s careful attention to attire, good looks, and courtesy contributed significantly to winning the widow Martha Dandridge Custis’s attention. George was trained in etiquette from a young age. Under his mother Mary’s training at Ferry Farm, George read The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior and committed these winning guidelines for manners to memory.

Now, imagine it is mid-February 1760. George and Martha are beginning their second year of marriage. As a wealthy widow, Martha brought property and wealth to the union that propelled George to the upper tiers of Virginia colonial society overnight. Together, they had the resources to shape their Mount Vernon home and landscape to their liking. The mansion house at Mount Vernon was enlarged from its original footprint, but at this point in time was not yet expanded to its final (just over 11,000 square foot) size. The young couple set about purchasing household goods, food, and clothing that celebrated their prosperous position and growing influence in Virginia colonial society and that anticipated their continued social assent. George is about to turn 29 years old. The world is his oyster.

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An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph by Lemercier from a painting by Julius Brutus Steans, c. 1853, in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At a time when such items were luxuries, George’s parents furnished their Ferry Farm home with table linens and napkins (collectively known as napery) in abundance. We know this thanks to the survival of the 1743 probate inventory conducted at the death of Washington’s father, Augustine. Augustine’s inventory carefully enumerated that thirteen tablecloths protected their dining surfaces and over 30 napkins kept Washington family faces spotless. Many of the napkins were made from white linen, a high maintenance color choice. The family’s profuse employment of such fussy napkins was possible through the efforts of their enslaved workers: Lucy, Sue, Judy, Nan, Betty, Jenny, Phillis, and Hannah. At least some of these enslaved females frequently toiled at cleaning these indulgent white luxuries.

Linens on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

Section listing the family’s linens on the probate inventory done in 1743 following the death of Augustine Washington, George’s father.

Knowing how to use napkins and tablecloths was the focus of a number of guidelines included in The Rules of Civility, which were foundational lessons that George and his siblings practiced under their parents’ guidance. This childhood training allowed each of the Washingtons to wield their napkins and utensils with well-honed grace as adults. Polite behavior not only made a good impression, it dramatically increased social opportunities, and distinguished the Washingtons from ‘less polished’ colonists, most of whom lacked napery, forks, or the opportunity to practice refined etiquette.

Similarly, bedclothes were a luxury that George took for granted prior to his travels to the mountains in the western portion of the Virginia colony during the spring of 1748. In an early example of his reaction upon encountering unexpected rusticity, Washington’s diary indicates that he and his companions stayed at Isaac Pennington’s, in present-day Berryville, Virginia. It was clearly the first time that George had encountered a mattress made from straw and which, furthermore, lacked sheets but did have “…only one thread bear blanket with double its weight of vermin such as Lice Fleas etc.”  The pragmatic Washington vowed to sleep outdoors by a campfire during his travels from that time forward.

The following night he stayed in (present-day) Winchester, Virginia, and was relieved to discover the inn featured “…a good feather bed with clean sheets….” However, just ten days later, George was appalled by the lack of a tablecloth and of utensils during supper at the home of a Justice of the Peace in Frederick County. He compensated, using his own utensils which he had thoughtfully brought along for the trip. Washington’s personal table utensils were originally intended for his backcountry, deep woods, prepared-around-the-campfire meals. That these basic utensils had to be employed at the home of a Justice of the Peace took young Washington by surprise.

These brief encounters with startling rusticity – a lack of table linen and utensils, primitive straw mattresses, a shortage of bedclothes, or flea-infested beds — were so unusual to this young Virginian that George noted them as part of his otherwise concise diary entries. Table linen, bedclothes, clean laundry, and table utensils were part of his take-for-granted world of this gentleman. For most Virginia colonists of the time, these items represented extravagant treats, not basic necessities.

As he grew, Washington traveled in elevated social circles, allowing him to refine his manners and to adapt new forms of sophisticated behavior. Expectations for comfort and refreshments continued to grow in the colony overall as improved shipping, extended credit, and cheaper goods increased. George had a long association with the aristocratic Fairfax family, who lived next door to his older, half-brother Lawrence whom he frequently visited. Furthermore, Washington was the product of two propertied, multigenerational Virginia families, each of whom had immigrated to the colony during the 1650s. Sustained by a host of enslaved washers, ironers, and cleaners, propertied families surrounded themselves by amenities and practiced manners that quickly became fundamental behaviors among the well-heeled.

Through these experiences, Washington developed an urbane taste and refined style to which many Virginians aspired, but few attained. His marriage to Martha, a wealthy widow, cemented his membership amongst the top families. Their home at Mount Vernon was elegantly furnished and its landscape was groomed to be productive and impressive to visitors. The young couple enjoyed financial security and an extensive social network.

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

A fanciful early 20th century painting titled “The Victory Ball, 1781” and painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown. Credit: Wikipedia.

This is why, on a chilly mid-February day in 1760, party hosts Carlyle Laurie and Robert Wilson must have eagerly anticipated this elegant pair of ascendant young Virginians attendance to their ball. George and Martha journeyed to Alexandria for the festivities, where they socialized, dined, and danced. George even indulged in a game of cards (that evening he noted in his account book the loss of seven shillings, about $74.00 in modern currency). While the activities in which guests participated were festive, the refreshments served fell far short of expectations. While Washington’s criticism might seem a trifle petty, his evaluation seems to have been largely limited to his personal diary:

Went to a Ball at Alexandria – where musick and dancing was the chief entertainment. However in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuets with tea and coffee which the drinkers of coud not distinguish from hot water sweetened. Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table Cloths and Napkins and that no Apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the bread and butter ball.

We can only imagine the shared glances that more discriminating guests may have exchanged, as they employed their own handkerchiefs in the absence of anticipated napery. Just envision the puckered faces and furrowed brows that guests made as they sipped the weak, tepid tea they were presented upon tables that lacked tablecloths! Were the offerings truly so pitiable, or is it possible that George’s expectations exceeded that which the typical Alexandria social affair could provide?

Dive into George’s diaries to learn more about his fascinating life, humble beginnings, and social ascent. Dorothy Twohig edited Washington’s diary entries, George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment, which is as entertaining to read as it is an invaluable insight into Washington’s lifePlease visit us at his boyhood home in Stafford, Virginia for George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 18. Unlike Alexandria of old, Fredericksburg table linens abound and refreshments shall be more than bread and butter.  In fact, there shall be birthday cake!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Galke, Laura J. 2009.
“The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits.” Northeast Historical Archaeology 38: 29-48.

Garrett, Nicholas D.
2018 Shipwrecked in the Land of King Tobacco: The First Washington Family Immigrant to America. Independently published.

Levy, Philip
2015 George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape. West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.

Saxton, Martha
2019 The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, the Mother of our Nation’s Father. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

Twohig, Dorothy
1998 The Making of George Washington. In George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, edited by Warren R. Hofstra, pp 3-34. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

George’s Hometown: St. George’s Church

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

George Washington’s education as a boy at Ferry Farm included copying The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation to learn the correct etiquette and moral code of Virginia’s gentry class. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.  Unable to attend school in England after his father’s death, George possibly studied with the Rev. James Marye, rector of St. George’s Parish across the river in Fredericksburg.

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St. George’s Church built their first church building in the 1730s. The current church building (pictured) dates from 1849.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

 

Ten Pivotal Moments in George Washington’s Boyhood

George Washington did not experience what we would now consider a normal childhood.  Life at Ferry Farm was filled with excitement, sadness, intrigue, and tragedy for young George. Here we present a list of “Ten Pivotal Moments of George Washington’s Boyhood.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each of these events definitely helped shape Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

Moving to Ferry Farm

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“View from the Old Mansion House of the Washington Family Near Fredericksburg, Virginia” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman modified to depict the location and approximate appearance of the Washington family home, which was actually a complete ruin when visited and painted by Chapman in the early 1830s.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his family to Ferry Farm.   He appears to have chosen this plantation situated across from Fredericksburg to be nearer to his iron ore interests located about seven miles away.  Ferry Farm was very different than the other Washington properties.  The proximity of Fredericksburg made it more urban.  Ferry Farm was also surrounded by transportation routes including the Rappahannock River, and two roads that crossed the plantation.  The bustling nature of Ferry Farm and its surroundings played a critical role in George’s development.

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Announcement in the Virginia Gazette in April 1738 advertising “100 acres, lying about 2 miles below the Falls of Rappahannock . . . with a very handsome Dwelling house.” The property was being sold by  William Strother’s estate, would be purchased by Augustine Washington, and eventually come to be know as Ferry Farm.

The Death of Mildred and Augustine
George’s youngest sister Mildred was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm.  She lived only 18 months, and her death when George was just seven years old was the first significant death of his youth, but not his last.

Augustine Washington, George’s father, followed Mildred in death on April 11, 1743. George inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves from Augustine. His mother, Mary, managed this inheritance until George turned 21 years old. Augustine’s death began a period of financial hardship for the family and probably prevented George from being educated in England, a lost opportunity he remained self-conscious about for the rest of his life. It also meant George had to scramble to find a mentor to introduce him to the complex requirements associated with gentry life.

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George Washington’s handwritten copy of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
Young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a guide to gentlemanly behavior in polite society, probably as a school assignment. This combination etiquette manual and moral code taught young George how to interact with his powerful and influential neighbors. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.

His Gentry Education
Washington’s diaries and accounts reveal how he mastered the pastimes of the gentry as a young man. He played for stakes at popular card games, took fencing lessons, and paid for his own dancing lessons. He frequented the theater in both Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. In a society obsessed with horse racing, equine bloodlines, and fox hunting, Mary Washington was well versed in horses and riding and appears to have been responsible for teaching George about riding.  By the time George was an adult, he was renowned as a “superb horseman.”  All of these skills, which remained with George for a lifetime, were acquired while he grew up at Ferry Farm.

The Royal Navy Episode
Following Augustine’s death, George’s eldest half-brother, Lawrence, took an interest in his future.  Lawrence conspired with Colonel William Fairfax, some of Augustine’s business associates, and George himself to convince Mary to allow 13-year-old George to join the Royal Navy. Mary eventually rejected the plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George turned to a career as a surveyor instead.  Imagine the future commander of the Continental Army serving on a King’s ship!

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Portrait of Frederick Herman  von Schomberg attributed to Adrian van der Werff. Public domain. Credit: Hampel Auctions / Wikipedia.

Introduction to Military Adventurers
On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to the 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures which would have been of great interest and fascination to a young man of fourteen.  That George was willing to spend his hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was by this subject.

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“A Plan of Major Law. Washington’s Turnip Field as surveyed by me this 27 Day of February 1747 GW” Credit: Library of Congress

Surveying: His First Job
George Washington began surveying at about age 15. His father’s probate inventory included a set of surveyor’s instruments. In 1748, at age 16, George went with Lord Fairfax’s surveying party on his first expedition into the wilds of western Virginia.  At age 17, George Washington was appointed to his first public office as surveyor of nearby Culpeper County. Surveying, like his skills in mathematics and keeping accounts, helped him manage his properties profitably throughout his life.

1749 – More Hard Times
The financial safety net set up for Augustine’s wife and minor children had almost completely collapsed by 1749.  Before the monetary struggles were over, half of Ferry Farm would have been sold, and Mary’s land near the Accokeek Iron Furnace had been lost for failing to pay taxes.  George Washington in a letter to his brother wrote “…my Horse is in very poor order to undertake such a journey, and is in no likelihood of mending for want of Corn sufficient to support him…” He remembered these hard times well into adulthood writing in 1788, during another period of financial stress, that “I never felt the want of money so sensibly since I was a boy of 15 years old as I have done for the last 12 Months.”

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“George Washington” (1997) by Walter Kerr Cooper

Trip to Barbados
In 1751, George Washington made his only trip abroad, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, hoped the warm climate would prove beneficial to his health. He died from the illness, however, just a few months after his return to Virginia. Lawrence’s death set up the eventual inheritance of Mount Vernon by George.  The tropical island did little good for George’s health either.  He contracted a severe case of smallpox that left his skin scarred for life.

 

 GWs Request to be Appointed as the Virginia Militia Adjutant

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Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

In 1752, George Washington wrote a letter from Ferry Farm requesting that the Governor of Virginia appoint him as the militia adjutant position vacancy created by his half-brother Lawrence’s death.  The governor declined at this time, but one year later he did appoint George.  The 21-year-old Washington had no military experience at the time of his appointment.  This appointment eventually resulted in Washington igniting the Seven Years War between Britain and her colonies and France.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs