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Archive for August, 2012

August 30, 2012

Object Spotlight: Fan Chair


Anyone who has visited Virginia recently knows that summer brings brutal heat and humidity. How did Mount Vernon’s eighteenth-century residents keep cool on those sweltering August days–without air conditioning? Opening windows, doors, and the cupola on top of the Mansion helped keep air circulating throughout the house. But when this wasn’t enough, an ingenious fan chair allowed George Washington and his secretaries to create their own breeze without missing a beat.

Washington purchased a fan chair in 1787 while in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. This multitasking furniture form had been invented in 1786 by John Cram, a Philadelphia instrument maker, for the artist Charles Willson Peale. Cram developed a mechanism in which the sitter pressed a foot treadle that moved a fan suspended above the Windsor-style chair.

Peale was thrilled with the invention, hoping it would be “useful to the studious and others that are obliged to sit at their employments…to keep them cool.” The fan provided relief from the heat, as well as the flies and other insects that could easily enter the house through open screen-less windows.

Washington sent his fan chair back to Mount Vernon and installed it in his study, probably for the convenience of the private secretaries he hired to organize his military and private papers. The current whereabouts of Washington’s chair are unknown, but this version likely resembles the one he purchased. Take a tour of the Mansion to see this fan chair in Washington’s study, along with many of his other favorite gadgets.

Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator

Purchase, 1982 [M-2902]


Category: Object Spotlight

August 28, 2012

What’s New at the Dig: The Dynamic Landscape of the Laundry Yard


Our summer excavation in search of the 18th century fence surrounding the Laundry Yard has revealed a great deal about the changing uses of the space over time. The six test units that are currently underway are cut by many modern utilities, but also include more recent features and a few potential 18th century postholes.

To give you an idea of what we’ve encountered in the Laundry Yard, have a look at the photo of excavation unit 156, a 10′ x 10′ just to the west of the Coach House. At least 5 modern (c. 1930-Present) utility features are present, in addition to 6 postholes, a cobble drain, and the remains of a planting trench for a privet hedge. With all of that going on, how can we tell “archaeological time” based on these features? Artifacts provide one way, but when features are cut by utilities, can be tricky. For example, we found a quartz Clagett-type projectile point (see photo) which dates to between 4000 – 3000 BCE next to an old flash bulb and piece of tinfoil – artifacts which were all clearly not in use at the same time! In situations like this, it’s necessary to turn to our powerful arsenal of documents to help flesh out a chronological sequence for our features.

Records and photographs from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association indicate that between 1858 and 1944, at least 9 structures were within the Laundry Yard, ranging from a dog kennel to a Paint/Machine Shop. A privet hedge once enclosed the space, running from the Lower Garden wall to the Coach House, and in between the outbuildings along the South Lane (see photograph, c. 1916). Maintenance and restoration work in the 1940s removed most of the buildings from the Laundry Yard which would not have been present during George Washington’s occupation, and some of the postholes found in our excavations are probably related to these buildings.

Keep checking back to as we continue or work in the Laundry Yard, and updates on our interpretations. We are in the field Tuesday-Thursday in the coming Fall months.

Luke J. Pecoraro, Staff Archaeologist

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History

August 24, 2012

What’s Blooming in the Garden This Week?


Unseasonably warm temperatures and dry conditions at Mount Vernon this summer have been difficult for some plants, but there are many varieties that Washington is known to have cultivated that thrive in the summer months. The three flowers featured in this blog were all introduced to North America in the 18th century from abroad, and cultivated in his greenhouse or ornamental gardens.

One of the annuals, Celosia spilata, in addition to being a pleasant flowering plant, was used in the past to treat a variety of medical ailments. Seeds of the plant were used to rid the body of tapeworm, and the leaves were used in dressings for flesh wounds. Celosia does well in humid weather, and requires little soil moisture for survival. A perennial, Platycodon grandiflora also known as “Balloon Flower”, possesses roots which can be used as an anti-inflammatory and also to treat coughs.

Washington may have acquired these two plants the same way he got cuttings of Hibiscus, which are currently blooming in the Upper Garden and moved inside during the winter months. Pennsylvania botanist William Bartram gave Washington Hibiscus cuttings in 1785 and in 1792. Subsequently, Washington constructed his two-story, brick greenhouse adjacent to the Upper Garden between 1784 and 1787. Washington’s journal entry from 3 March 1785:

Morning calm, warm, and very pleasant–wind afterwards from the Southward & pretty fresh. Sun set in a bank.

Planted the remainder of the Locusts–Sassafras–small berried thorn & yellow Willow in the Shrubberies, as also the red buds–a honey locust and service tree by the South Garden House. Likewise took up the clump of Lilacs that stood at the Corner of the South Grass plat & transplanted them to the clusters in the Shrubberies & standards at the south Garden gate. The Althea (hibiscus) trees were also planted. Employed myself the greatest part of the day in pruning and shaping the young plantation of Trees & Shrubs.

The interest on behalf of Washington to collect new and exotic plants provide the Estate’s gardens with a unique array of flowers in the summer months, all of which are solidly documented and known to have been grown on the grounds of Mount Vernon during his occupation!

Luke J. Pecoraro

Category: What's Blooming at Mount Vernon?

August 23, 2012

Welcome To Our Newest Addition


This Milking Devon calf was born this past Saturday, August 18 on the Mount Vernon estate. She is our newest addition to the livestock family and is currently being bottle fed 4 times a day. Our livestock managers even come back in at 10 p.m. to give her the last bottle of the night.

Milking Devons, despite their name, are also suited for meat production and to work as draft animals (i.e. oxen). Here at Mount Vernon this breeds does a lot of the farm work on the Pioneer Farm and aids with hauling wheat straw and harrowing the fields.

Cattle were a valuable source of beef and veal and cow’s milk was used to make butter, cream, and cheese. Even the manure was composted and later used to fertilize fields and gardens. So it is not surprising that Washington worked diligently to improve his herd. He experimented with a variety of breeds and imported breeding stock from England. One of his favorite breeds was the Milking Devon, the type of cattle pictured above and is still raised at Mount Vernon today. Washington’s 1799 inventory (the year he died) lists 171 head of cattle.

Jennifer McCreery

Category: George Washington, Mount Vernon Animals

August 21, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1910


In 1910, an unknown visitor to Mount Vernon sent this postcard to Miss Catherine Reed of Natchez, Mississippi. The note reads:

Saw this hall Aug. 16, 1910

Washington was a wealthy man and was President of the U.S. It was necessary for hime[sic] to entertain a good deal, hence this handsome[sic] banquet hall.

The banquet hall to which this visitor refers was added to Mount Vernon during the expansion of 1775-1788. George Washington directed the construction and design of the large dining room, often referred to as the “new room,” from the battlefield, writing to his plantation manager Lund Washington in 1776, “I would have the whole executed in a masterly manner.” George and Martha Washington used the room as our visitor describes, for entertaining the many guests that frequented the estate in the years after the American Revolution. Guests often described their awe at the grandeur of the dining room; one said in 1798 that it was the “most magnificent room in the house.” Amariah Frost, Esq, in 1797, describes a dinner at Mount Vernon where the company dined on “a small roasted pigg [sic], boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowles [sic], beef, peas, lettice [sic], cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts.” Click here to read more about food culture at Mount Vernon. After dinner, Washington often stayed and chatted with guests in the dining room and on the piazza, household improvements and agriculture were two favored topics.

The large dining room as seen today is restored to Washington’s original vision, unlike that portrayed in our postcard, and it is not hard to imagine the gracious general and his wife presiding over a menagerie of interesting eighteenth-century characters in this room.

The postcards featured in the MV Mailbox series and hundreds others are part of Mount Vernon

Category: MV Mailbox


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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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