George Washington ran Mount Vernon in the same manner he managed the Continental Army and new American government: through careful time management, close attention to detail, and a taskmaster’s sense of duty.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Washington placed a large brass horizontal sundial at the heart of his plantation. Mounted atop a white painted wood post in the center of the lawn in front of his mansion, the sundial was a visual reminder of the importance of time to all who passed it.
Though almost impossible to believe today – an age when accurate timekeeping devices surround us and can dictate our lives down to fractions of a second – sundials in the 18th century could be more reliable and were more widely available than clocks and watches when it came to translating the movements of the earth through the heavens.
How sundials work is very simple: the sun casts a shadow of the gnomon (the vertical part) onto the dial plate, which is marked with hour and minute lines. Washington’s sundial records the hours in Roman numerals from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. (it only works during the day), plus the half hours, every twenty minutes, and even the individual minutes.
But sundials are not as rudimentary as they might appear. Because they rely on the sun’s rays, their accuracy depends on calibrating the hour and minute marks and the angle of the gnomon to their location on the earth (expressed in degrees of latitude and longitude). The most accurate sundials, in fact, are designed to be used in just one spot. Sundials must also be aligned to the true or celestial north to work properly. Although a local American craftsman could have made Washington’s sundial, it has no visible maker’s marks and could have been an English export adjusted to accommodate Mount Vernon’s location.
George Washington’s original sundial was removed by the Mansion’s last owner, John Augustine Washington III, sometime after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate in 1858. His son, Lawrence Washington, inherited it but gave it away as a gift. Eighty years later, the Ladies’ Association purchased it back. Today visitors can tell time the 18th-century way using the reproduction sundial in front of the Mansion and can find the original on permanent display in the Scott Gallery in the Reynolds Museum.
The above blog post was written by Laura Simo and Becca Milfeld.
Object Spotlight is a regular feature on George Washington Wired that highlights some of the household belongings that Washington came into contact with. Check out Mount Vernon’s eMuseum to find more of Washington’s belongings.
Gift of Annie Burr Jennings, Vice Regent for Connecticut, 1938 [W-715]
[l1]You can see it in Edward Savage