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Object Spotlight: Family Dinner Bell

Daylight-saving time wasn’t a part of American life until the late 19th century, but that didn’t mean it was easy for people in the 18th century to guestimate whether it was dinnertime or not. Growling stomachs are notorious culprits for fast-forwarding internal clocks.

How did the many guests who joined the Washingtons for a meal know that it was time to eat? Luckily the family was in possession of a dinner bell. This 17th-century bell that (according to tradition) had belonged to George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, was used to call people across the estate to the table. Most large plantations had a similar bell that gave a resounding clang and likely elicited not just a little Pavlovian salivating. At Mount Vernon the blaring sound of a large dinner bell meant the meal would be served in 15 minutes.

Mary Ball Washington’s dinner bell can be seen in our Donald W. Reynolds Museum at our new Hoecakes & Hospitality exhibit, which is on display through August 11, 2013.

Assistant Curator Alison Bliss contributed to this report.

Object Spotlight is a regular feature that highlights household belongings used by the Washingtons. Check out Mount Vernon’s eMuseum to explore more Washington-related objects.

Gift of Frank Waters, 1912 [W-822A-C]

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2 Responses to “Object Spotlight: Family Dinner Bell”

  1. Wayne Selover Says:

    How could this bell have been used by George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, if she never came to Mount Vernon? Except for a few hurried runs from approaching Red Coat patrols, she never left her Fredricksburg home, much to George’s relief, who felt she would not have been comfortable at Mount Vernon.

  2. Derpina Says:

    This has answered some questions I have had about when they knew that it was dinner time. I still have some questions whether people in different towns had done the same thing. Maybe you can clarify on that? But thanks for this useful post.

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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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