Primary Sources: Interpreting the Past in the Present

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we focus on archaeology as one way to learn about both the Washingtons and the other people who lived and worked on this landscape.  We rely on archaeology because many of these residents did not leave behind documentary primary sources for us to study.  A primary source is a “letter, speech, diary, newspaper article, oral history interview, document, photograph, artifact, or anything else that provides firsthand accounts about a person or event.”  Primary sources are the historian’s most essential tool and serve as windows into the past that allow us all to decipher meanings and draw conclusions about history’s people and events.

Reproduction Washington family documents

Reproduction Washington documents in the house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Brice Hart

Even with our focus on archaeology, written primary sources have played a vital role in understanding Ferry Farm’s history and in helping us reconstruct and now interpret the Washington house.  For example, Augustine Washington’s probate inventory is helping us furnishing the recreated family home.  Basically, primary sources help The George Washington Foundation staff to understand the Washingtons and others so we can better inform the visitor. Most importantly, primary sources help us to remember that, while the past was certainly different from today, the people of the past were human just like us and, in a way, can bring them to life.  Let’s see how!

Lawrence Washington to Augustine Washington - May 30, 1741

The letter dated May 30, 1741 written by Lawrence Washington to his father Augustine Washington while fighting in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Credit: Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions.

The primary source we will use in this blog post is a letter written by Lawrence Washington (eldest son of the Washington family) to Augustine Washington (patriarch of the Washington family). The letter was written on May 30, 1741 from Jamaica where Lawrence was fighting as a loyal subject of English king against the Spanish, one of the other European powers competing for global dominance through colonization.

The letter provides the reader pertinent details in how the Colonial Era differed from the 21st Century; yet it also contains clues on how the two time periods are similar. Lawrence begins by addressing his father with “Honored Sir” and ends with “Your ever dutiful Son,” a stark contrast in how we might address our parents or relatives today. This suggests that families in the Gentry class of the original English colonies addressed their elders with an air of formality and respect. This would have been much the same in their mother country of England and a practice carried over by the colonists.

Lawrence also mentions that he had written many letters to his father, but “to [his] great concern, [he] [had] never yet received one from Virginia”. This gives us a closer look into the lives of military men of that time who were missing home and writing fervently to their families. A soldier’s timeless and ever-present homesickness can also be seen in Lawrence’s grumbling that “We are all tired of the heat & wish for a Cold season to refresh our blood.”

Lawrence also comments to his father, “I hope my Lotts are secured; which If I return shall make use of as my dwelling”. As the eldest son, he would have received inheritance in the form of land from his father. Unlike today, land was everything to the people of the Colonial Era, and it is not unusual for Lawrence to remind his father of his intentions with his land once returning to Virginia from war abroad. Like us today, he also worries about a debt he owes. Even men at war abroad today make similar statements to loved ones about worries and plans after their service is complete.

Lastly, another statement Lawrence makes to Augustine is that “War is horrid in fact.” He also relates how he and his compatriots have learned “to watch much & disregard the noise, or shot of a cannon”. This brief description of war could come from any century.

Many living in 2018 can fail to recognize the many similarities they have with persons from history. In doing so, we can forget to see the people of history as individuals living lives similar to our own. We can easily turn them into a historic figure, and forget they are a person. This often happens with George Washington and the rest of his family. However, the beauty of primary sources is that they can bring someone who has passed long ago, back to life in our imaginations.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

A Curator’s Culinary Secrets

Here at Kenmore, we spent much of this week putting away all of the Christmas and Twelfth Night decorations that adorned the house throughout the holiday season. As we were carefully wrapping it all in tissue and putting it in boxes until next year, it occurred to me that our readers might be interested in a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at a “trick of the curatorial trade”. Most historic house museums use props to show things realistically in their displays. One of the most fun is what we call “faux” food, and it is shown off best during the holiday season, as food was such a big part of 18th century Christmas celebrations. We always like to put as many historical details as possible in our rooms, and we often come across references in historical documents to what was served at a particular event, or the recipe for a family’s favorite meal. Obviously, we can’t put real food in restored rooms filled with period antiques and furnishings, so we use a variety of fakes to stand in for period-correct food. Some of it we make in-house, and some of it is produced by professionals who actually specialize in making faux food for museums.

There aren’t too many faux food-makers, and there is actually quite an art to it! Many of the dishes served in the 18th century are not common in the modern day, and even some of our fruits and vegetables look quite different than they did 200 years ago. The artists who produce faux food have to do the research to find out what a requested food was made out of, how it was prepared, and what it might have looked like in its final form. Then they have to make a fake version of it using materials that won’t harm historic objects that it might come in contact with.

For our holiday display this year, we decided to show our newly refurnished Dining Room as though a Twelfth Night feast had just concluded. It was the first time we would be showing an actual dinner on the dining table, and therefore we needed quite a bit of faux food. Our display included a boiled beef (with slices!), roasted beets, string beans, and broccoli (all professionally made, and loaned to us by our friends at Stratford Hall).  We added our own roasted acorn squash, collard greens with bacon, and roasted game birds on spits from our small but growing collection of professionally made faux food. These items are all made from molded clay that is fired in a kiln and then hand painted. Resin is added on some of them to give the appearance of liquid sauces.

The collard greens, however, are what is called a “lid” in the faux food world. From the top, it looks like a mound of food, but it’s actually just a round disk, that sets into a bowl. A similar trick is used for what looks like liquid in our punch bowl on display in the Drawing Room. From the top, it looks like a bowl of punch, with an orange slice and some cloves floating in it. It’s actually a thin disk made of resin that sits near the surface of the punch bowl. It’s pretty convincing from a couple steps away!

Faux Food - Punch Bowl

As you might imagine, professionally made faux food can get a little expensive, especially when trying to show large quantities, as we do on our 18th century dessert table display in the Passage. In those cases, we have to rely on our ingenuity. For instance, we made our syllabub glasses appear to be filled with a frothy concoction by filling balloons with sand and adding cream tops made from modeling clay that we fired in an oven ourselves. Many years ago, past museum employees tried a similar trick, using resin “caps” that sat on top of the syllabub glass, while a cone made out of the same resin was inserted into the glass to make it look full.

Faux Food - Balloons

Back in the Dining Room, you might notice that the salt cellars sitting next to each diner’s place are not filled with actual salt, but rather with tiny silicon beads. These beads actually came from a children’s bean bag. We also use red-colored Mylar from the craft store to make it look as though there is actually red wine in the wine glasses, and in some cases that the wine has spilled onto the tablecloth.

Faux Food - Salt & Wine Spill

So there you have it, a few culinary secrets from the curatorial world!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations