Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box

Furnishings posts logo finalAfter lengthy research and an occasional head-scratcher, the furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is finished!  Reproduction furnishings are now being made. The probate inventory made after Augustine Washington’s death in 1743 guided us in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written over 270 years ago before standardized spelling, certain objects named on the inventory were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some detective work to determine what exactly they were.

The first unusual item was a scrutoire in the Hall, which we wrote about in part 1.  The second unusual item in the inventory was listed in the Parlor. At first glance, it didn’t seem so mysterious.  It is a “sugar box”, which was not an unknown term in 18th century probate inventories, especially those from the southern American colonies.  Obviously, we can assume the item was intended for the storage of sugar, but beyond that it gets a little murky.

Augustine Washington's Probate Inventory

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Sugar Box” highlighted in pink.

The descriptor “sugar” is often found in front of a variety of furniture forms in probate inventories – chests, cupboards, cases, boxes, etc.  The two most common combinations are “sugar box” and “sugar chest,” with the boxes more common to coastal Virginia and North Carolina inventories and the chests being more likely to show up on inventories further inland.

Only a few 18th century identified sugar chests still exist.  They are all finely made boxes on stands of turned or carved legs, equipped with drawers and compartments, and adorned with fine hardware.  In short, sugar chests were considered fine pieces of furniture, not simply storage devices.  They were status symbols, probably placed on prominent display in the best rooms of a house, signifying to visitors that this household, even though far inland, could afford the rare and expensive commodity of sugar.

So, what were the sugar boxes of coastal Virginia like? Until recently, no known sugar boxes were thought to have survived, but new scholarship may indicate that they were hidden in plain sight all along.  Bottle cases, or cellarettes, are known forms found in all sorts of households in colonial Virginia.  They were simply crates, or sometimes something more elaborate, intended to store bottles of alcohol.  The interiors were divided into standard size compartments (4”x4”) to fit the standardized gin bottles being produced in England.

Occasionally, a bottle case would surface that had abnormally large compartments inside, perhaps only two or three.  The assumption was made that these bottle cases were simply intended for larger sized alcohol containers.  The prevailing theory now, though, is that these particular cases, which almost always look like miniature blanket chests, were actually the mysterious sugar boxes.  The two or three large compartments were intended to hold loaves of sugar, or perhaps cones of sugar.

Sugar boxes were not nearly as elaborate and finely made as their inland sugar chest counterparts for one basic reason – it was much easier for coastal Virginians to access imported sugar than it was for inland colonists. Sugar wasn’t nearly the status symbol on the coast that it was inland.  Coastal Virginians didn’t need to show off their sugar – they simply needed to store it.[1]

As a result of this current scholarship on 18th century sugar boxes, a piece from the Foundation’s own collection has been selected for reproduction. It was originally cataloged as a Virginia-made cellarette, as its interior is divided into compartments.  However, its exterior can be described as a diminutive blanket chest.  In reproducing the piece, the interior will be divided into only two compartments instead of the current arrangement for multiple bottles. Thus, we will have a sugar chest in the Washington house.

Cellarette (1)

Cellarette at Historic Kenmore that has been selected for reproduction as a Sugar Box for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Cellarette (2)

An interior view of the cellarette at Kenmore shows the large compartment on the upper right that may have been used for sugar storage.

As you seen with both the scrutoire and sugar box listed on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory, even when we have 270 year-old written documentation, there can still be mysteries to solve!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Collie, P.E. Are Cellarets from the East Coast and Sugar Chests from Kentucky? Edenton Historical Commission, 2016.  http://ehcnc.org/decorative-arts/furniture/cellarets-and-sugar-chests/

 

Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire

Furnishings posts logo finalThe furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is done, and the reproduction furnishings are being made.  Whew! It was a long process, filled with lengthy research and sometimes a few head-scratchers.  Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory was our guiding document in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written more than 270 years ago (and long before spelling was standardized) the names on it for certain objects were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some digging to determine what exactly they were.

Right off, we have the enigmatic entry on the first line of the inventory for the Hall.  The handwritten words seemed to be “Scren Fore” or perhaps “Scren Tore”, with a valuation of 13 shillings.  There is no colonial-era furnishing known by that name, and extensive research turned up very little evidence as to what the inventory-takers could have meant by a “scren fore” or “scren tore.” At present, our best educated guess is that “scren tore” was an attempt at phonetically spelling the word “scrutoire”, a furniture form unique to the Rappahannock river valley and eastern Virginia during the first half of the 18th century.  Several variations of the word “scrutoire” show up in advertisements and probate inventories from those early years, suggesting there was a wide interpretation of how to spell and pronounce the word.  In fact, it is believed that “scrutoire” itself is a corruption of the French word “escritoire,” which describes a diminutive ladies’ desk.

Scren Tore

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” highlighted in pink.

A scrutoire in colonial Virginia was also a desk, topped with a bookcase or shelving, and enclosed with two pairs of doors.  The main difference between a scrutoire and a bookcase-on-desk of the variety we are most accustomed to seeing is that there is no slant-top, or fall-front writing surface in a scrutoire.  Rather, the writing surface is a pull-put board, which is also hidden by the doors when closed.  When not in use, a scrutoire resembles a cabinet or cupboard.

The scrutoire is usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, as the desks almost always feature slots for oversized ledgers, and a variety of cubbyholes and small drawers for accounting purposes.  It appears that the scrutoire was a form brought to the Virginia colony by Scottish furniture makers, who settled near the Rappahannock and along the eastern shore, in places like Fredericksburg and Williamsburg.  In Scotland, the scrutoire had existed as far back as the 17th century.

Escrutoire1

The reproduction scrutoire that will be displayed inside the completed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

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The valuation given to the supposed scrutoire in the probate inventory was also a somewhat problematic clue. At just 13 shillings, it seems rather low for a significant case piece.  However, this oddity may be explained by Sumpter Priddy in his 2012 article on scrutoires in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ journal.  As they were a form popular in Scotland as early as the 17th century, they arrived in colonial Virginia rather early in its history, and by the mid-18th century had fallen out of favor to the more common slant-front bookcase-on-desk.  While their valuations in early probate inventories show them to be highly valued household furnishings, by mid-century, they are almost universally given low values, indicating their old, worn-out, unfashionable status in the household.

A scrutoire currently in the collections of Mount Vernon served as the basis for our reproduction. This example dates to slightly after Augustine Washington’s death. It is attributed to Robert Walker, a Scottish craftsman who counted Augustine and Mary Washington among his clients in the 1740s and 1750s.  Later, he would produce pieces for the next generation of the Washington family as well as for Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law at Kenmore.  It seems likely that if the Washingtons of Ferry Farm did indeed own a scrutoire, it would have been produced by their favorite local Scottish craftsman.  The Mount Vernon piece does have a tradition of ownership on Virginia’s Northern Neck, where it descended in the Jett family, who lived in close proximity to the Washingtons at Pope’s Creek, and were not far from Fredericksburg and the later Washington home at Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty confident we’ve solved the mystery of the “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” but that left at least one other  strange item on Augustine Washington’s 270-year-old probate inventory to investigate.  We’ll turn to that mystery in part 2 of this post in early August!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Photos: Building George’s House – North Chimney

Brickmasons Ray Cannetti, Robert Hall, and Kevin Nieto recently finished building the second of three chimneys for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Located on the house’s north side and made from hand molded brick by the Old Carolina Brick Company, this chimney includes two fireplaces. One fireplace each on the first and second floors.  These images show Kevin working on the second story’s fireplace as well as the entire chimney after it was completed and the scaffolding around it was removed last week. To see photos of the east chimney being built click here.

Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are continuing to identify items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  Our latest mending project towards this goal involves glass tablewares.  Piecing together thousands of fragments of clear tableglass is a special kind of agony but a wonderful amount of data has been collected from this painstaking exercise. And we’re not even close to being done yet!  In this post, I’ve written about three of the glasswares we have identified in our study thus far.

LEAD GLASS BOTTLE

Lead Glass Bottle Neck

Fragment of the neck of a lead glass bottle excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This particular fragment likely belonged to a small decanter or carafe.  It could also possibly be part of a scent bottle, meant to hold perfumes.  It was created using a pattern mold.  The craftsman would have blown the glass into a simple mold with a ribbed pattern and then twisted it to get this diagonal line effect.  He would finish the bottle by adding a separate piece of glass to create the delightful ‘ruffle’ on the neck.  Below is an example of what the whole vessel may have looked like.  Hopefully, we’ll find more fragments and know precisely what this piece is soon!

Lead Glass Bottle

Lead glass bottle showing the ruffled neck on the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.

FLIP CUP

Flip Cup (1)

Portions of a flip cup dug up by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

If you google ‘flip cup’, the first image result is a large red plastic cup commonly associated with college parties.  The original flip cups were far more aesthetically pleasing. However, they too were used to enjoy recreational beverages.  The drink called flip was the original cocktail and needed its own fancy glassware.  Colonists loved flip and made it by combining a  bizarre (by our modern standards) mixture of beer, hard liquor, spices such as nutmeg, a raw egg (a not uncommon ingredient in eighteenth century drinks), and then immersing a hot iron poker into the concoction.  This resulted in a delightfully lukewarm eggy, boozy beverage that was then decanted into a decorative tumbler – the flip cup.  While these cups were not only used for flip, the name has stuck. They are delicate and were often engraved with elaborate designs or scenes using a copper wheel.  At Ferry Farm, we have a number of archaeological fragments of flip cups.  Our examples are made of soda lime glass, not leaded glass, which is common.

Flip Cup (2)

Flip cup in the collection at Historic Kenmore. It features the same design as the fragments discovered at Ferry Farm.

VENETIAN GLASS

Venetian Glass

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.

This fragment represents what may be the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family during their time at Ferry Farm.  It is a piece of a pincered and buttressed handle that belonged on a vessel such as the beautiful goblet pictured below.  Although the sherd may appear unassuming, it is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  This would certainly have been a show piece and displayed prominently within the house.

91.1.1442

The portion of the handle circled in red on this 16th century Venetian glass goblet is similar to the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist