Washington House Blues

Furnishings posts logo finalThe summer of 2019 was an especially hot one here in Virginia, but we managed to add some cool crispness to the Washington house interior.  It came in the form of some new textiles for the “best bed” in the Hall Back Room, in a refreshing blue and white color scheme.  As we’ve previously discussed here, blue and white bedroom textiles seemed to be a favorite of Mary Washington’s, throughout her life.  Both her will, written in 1788 many years after she had moved away from Ferry Farm and taken up residence in a cottage in downtown Fredericksburg, and the list of her belongings sold at vendu following her death in 1789 contain references to blue and white quilts, coverlets, counterpanes and curtains.

Best Bed

The “Best Bed” in the Hall Back Room of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

After the “best bed” arrived in 2018, we decked it out in blue wool bedcurtains and a white matelesse summer counterpane.  But for winter use, we really wanted to show the bed with the blue and white quilt that is mentioned several times in Mary’s documents, including a reference to it being willed to George Washington himself following Mary’s death.  Finding such a quilt turned out to be much more of a challenge than we anticipated, though.  The challenge was due to the increasing difficulty in finding ready-made period-appropriate fabric in our modern world.  And to understand that difficulty, we need to understand what Mary’s blue and white quilt (probably) looked like.

The description of the quilt as being “blue and white” was not overly specific, but it was actually more descriptive detail than we have for most items in Mary’s household.  What could “blue and white” mean? First, it’s important to understand that a “quilt” in the 18th century is almost certainly NOT a patchwork quilt, or an appliqued quilt, both of which came into fashion much later.  Instead, an 18th century quilt was usually comprised of a solid piece of decorative fabric, on a layer of filler and a backing fabric, all of which was then quilted, or stitched with decorative patterns.  Sometimes the decorative fabric was a solid color, and the intricate stitching patterns were the real decoration, and sometimes the fabric itself had a pattern which was enhanced by the quilting.  The ‘blue and white” reference obviously indicates that the quilt was multi-colored, which indicates that the decorative fabric was patterned.  So what kind of blue and white patterns were available to Mary Washington in the mid-18th century?

By the mid-1700s, printed cotton textiles had become all the rage in England, and were being heavily imported into the American colonies.[1]  The technology for producing printed textiles at that point included resist dying, block printing with mordants and dyes, and copperplate printing (and combinations of all three).[2]  Resist dying (in which wax or some kind of dye-resistant substance was applied to sections of fabric meant to stay white, and then the entire fabric was submerged in dye) could produce bold colors and sharp contrast between dyed and undyed sections of fabric, but detail was hard to achieve.  Block printing improved the level of detail in patterns, but was still slow and tedious.  Copperplate printing allowed for great detail and eventually sped up the process of producing repeated patterns on yardage considerably.  Incorporating more than 1 color in the process was still hard to achieve, and so patterns are often monochromatic, with multiple layers of printing being used to create shades of color.  Most patterns, no matter the method of printing, involved floral and natural themes, sometimes including birds and other animals, and eventually entire landscape scenes.

Quilt fabric resist

Resist

Quilt fabric resist block

Block printed

Quilt fabric copperplate

Copperplate

So, Mary’s blue and white quilt was most likely similar to one of these styles.  Our challenge was to find a modern fabric that accurately depicted one of these processes.  Unfortunately, not many modern fabrics are made using the same 18th century technologies, and are more likely to be machine printed using digital images.  As a result, these modern patterns usually look too perfect, without the minor imperfections of handmade textiles which actually reveal to us what type of historic process was used to make them.  The imperfections are a part of the overall look and feel of the pattern, and make the final product more authentic.  It’s a hard thing to achieve these days!

The American textile industry is greatly reduced from what it once was in the early 20th century, and even in Europe, many of the textile factories that once created the patterns that Mary and her contemporaries used in their homes, are gone.  Most printed fabrics produced using historic methods these days are produced in small runs and come from small artisan shops – finding both the makers, and enough yardage (and at a price that isn’t prohibitive) of period-correct patterns, can be difficult.

Quilt 1

Quilt on the “best bed” in the Washington house.

Quilt 2

Close-up view of “best bed” quilt.

After months of searching, we were lucky enough to locate a blue and white printed cotton, reproduced from a mid-18th century French pattern by Chelsea Textiles in New York.  The original version was block printed, but also used wax or paste in the resist method.  The result was a detailed repeated floral pattern that also had the rounded edges of resist dying.  It was perfect for our uses.  The fabric was quilted onto filler and backing, and the entire quilt was cut in a T-shape, to fit around the bedposts of the Washington “best bed”, creating a fitted look which was also typical of the time.  Visitors to the Washington house can now see Mary’s favorite blues on display in her bedchamber.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Eaton, Linda.  Printed Textiles, British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700 – 1850. The Monacelli Press, New York. Pg. 65.

[2] Ibid, Pgs. 17 – 41.

The Seven Easy Pieces of Furniture – Episode 2: Blanket Chest [Video]

Furnishings posts logo finalIn this video, Fredericksburg, Virginia-based furniture maker Steve Dietrich discusses two of the techniques he used to create a blanket chest for the reconstructed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

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

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