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Archive for September, 2012

September 27, 2012

What’s New in the Archaeology Lab?

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At first glance, the archaeologically recovered figurines pictured above appear very…well, unimpressive. They look plain, eroded, broken–they don’t even have heads to add at least some visual interest! And yet, they are both objects rife with historic significance. How, you may ask, can objects so seemingly dull possess so much importance? The answer is simple: you must spare more than a passing glance at these headless individuals and put them in their proper context.

Let us first zoom in–so to speak–and conduct an in-depth physical examination of these figurines. If you ignore their headlessness, the statuettes have a rather picturesque or pastoral quality to them. The male figure clutches a hat in his right hand, while his left encases a cane-like object. His clothing is quite embellished, and you can still see remnants of the cufflinks and buttons that once adorned his coat. The woman is clothed in an elegant gown, complete with graceful pleats and ruffles. Her ensemble is further decorated by a long necklace, and a small dog–located on her left side by her feet–keeps watch over his or her mistress.

As for their historic context, these figures date from approximately 1750 to 1770, found in the South Grove Midden just 80 feet from the Mount Vernon Mansion. Although this timeframe tells us that the figurines were present in Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime, it does not shed light on their intended purpose. For this, we must look to their compositional material. Both are made from pipe clay, so-termed because this type of clay was typically used to make tobacco pipes. Pipe clay figurines were common during the 18th century, and usually served as religious totems, decorative curios, or toys for children.

Two features of our figurines indicate that they served the latter purpose. First, both statues are very small, each measuring less than 4 inches. In addition, excess clay appears to encompass the edges of both the man and the woman. One potential explanation for this excess is that it was intentionally left on the statues after they were removed from their molds to make them sturdier and less breakable. Thus, the figurines are both small and resilient, making them portable and able to withstand most playtime activities.

We often think of Mount Vernon as synonymous with George Washington and therefore forget the other occupants of his estate. However, the two figurines call attention to these occasionally overlooked residents. When Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, he became guardian to Martha’s two 6 year-old children–Jacky and Patsy–who were the result of her previous marriage. It is therefore possible that our now headless man and woman were once the playthings of George Washington’s step-children! So the next time you see something seemingly uninteresting, be sure to look deeper. Who knows what fascinating things you can discover in the world all around you!

Part of the current research in the Preservation Department is the re-analysis of the archaeological collection form the South Grove Midden, a mid-18th century trash deposit near the mansion. Artifacts from the midden provide valuable information about George Washington and his family and friends, supporting the historical documents that detail how the South Grove was transformed from an area where trash was deposited into a pleasure grove during Washington’s life. To find out more about the South Grove Midden, visit: http://mountvernonmidden.org/wordpress/

Brittany Higgs

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History

September 20, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1919

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One M.H. Taylor wrote to Miss Eleanor Pendleton on September, 16, 1919 from Mount Vernon with an interesting question; “How would you like to have to climb in your bed every night-with steps.” The mysterious author is referring to Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis’ bed which, according to the description on the back of the card, could only be reached by “carpeted steps.” Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, lived with her grandparents from childhood into the early part of her marriage to George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. In this bedroom, she gave birth to her first child, Francis Parke Lewis. She was confined to her bedroom for a few weeks following her daughter’s birth during which time George Washington unexpectedly took ill and died. First referred to as the Nelly Custis room in an 1876 guidebook, this room was completed in 1759 by George Washington. In the 1919 postcard, the room appears quite ornate but at the time of Nelly Custis’ residency the furnishings of the room remained simple. The 1799 inventory notes that the room held a “bedstead with curtains, curtains for two windows, a carpet and a close chair” as well as a “large looking glass and five prints.” The room that visitors see today also includes the crib given to Nelly by her grandmother.

It is unclear how Nelly felt about having to climb into bed using steps as the postcard author mentions, but we do know that she dearly loved Mount Vernon and imagine she spent many a happy moment on its grounds.

The postcards featured in the MV Mailbox series and hundreds others are part of Mount Vernon’s postcard collection. They range vastly in age and subject matter, but have one underlying commonality: George Washington’s estate.

By Abby Cliff

Category: MV Mailbox

September 20, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1919

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One M.H. Taylor wrote to Miss Eleanor Pendleton on September, 16, 1919 from Mount Vernon with an interesting question; “How would you like to have to climb in your bed every night-with steps.” The mysterious author is referring to Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis’ bed which, according to the description on the back of the card, could only be reached by “carpeted steps.” Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, lived with her grandparents from childhood into the early part of her marriage to George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. In this bedroom, she gave birth to her first child, Francis Parke Lewis. She was confined to her bedroom for a few weeks following her daughter’s birth during which time George Washington unexpectedly took ill and died. First referred to as the Nelly Custis room in an 1876 guidebook, this room was completed in 1759 by George Washington. In the 1919 postcard, the room appears quite ornate but at the time of Nelly Custis’ residency the furnishings of the room remained simple. The 1799 inventory notes that the room held a “bedstead with curtains, curtains for two windows, a carpet and a close chair” as well as a “large looking glass and five prints.” The room that visitors see today also includes the crib given to Nelly by her grandmother.

It is unclear how Nelly felt about having to climb into bed using steps as the postcard author mentions, but we do know that she dearly loved Mount Vernon and imagine she spent many a happy moment on its grounds.

The postcards featured in the MV Mailbox series and hundreds others are part of Mount Vernon’s postcard collection. They range vastly in age and subject matter, but have one underlying commonality: George Washington’s estate.

By Abby Cliff

Category: MV Mailbox

September 12, 2012

A Historic Announcement

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This is truly a historic day, as the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association announces the selection of Curtis G. Viebranz as the next President and Chief Executive Officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Chosen from a wide array of candidates, Curt is only the tenth person to head Mount Vernon since 1858.

In the spirit of America’s first president, Curt is a proven businessman and entrepreneur with a passion for history and public service. His tenure begins on September 17, at a pivotal time. Although we are excited to mark the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution next week by showcasing our latest acquisition, Washington’s own annotated copy of the Acts of Congress, we are troubled by growing evidence that too many Americans have lost touch with our national heritage.

As we prepare to open The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we have reaffirmed our commitment to maintaining Washington’s importance in a fast-changing world. We are confident that Curt will help us to build upon our success in education, preservation, and collections as we work in new ways and with new audiences to keep Washington “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Category: Uncategorized

September 11, 2012

What’s Blooming in the Garden This Week?

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Rather than highlighting the fantastic flora present in the popular Upper and Lower Gardens, this week’s blog concerns a lesser-known cultivation area on George Washington’s estate: the Fruit Garden and Nursery. Washington referred to this area as the “Vineyard Inclosure,” and its original purpose–as can be extrapolated from this title–was as an experimental vineyard. Unfortunately, Washington’s foray into grape growing proved unsuccessful, and by the 1780s, this area was transformed into an experimental nursery.

This transformation can be elucidated from a letter Washington wrote to his farm manager, Anthony Whitting, in October of 1792. In this letter, Washington specifically requests for “the Vineyard Inclosure” to be “cleansed of all the trash that is in it” and put “in perfect order for fruit trees–Kitchen vegitables [sic] of various kinds–experimental grasses– for other purposes.” This list of produce and foliage provides insight into what George Washington might have grown in this very special garden.

Of the 4-acres dedicated to the Fruit Garden and Nursery, approximately two-thirds of this area was reserved for an orchard, where Washington cultivated apples, cherries, peaches, and plums. The first image above is a close up of one of the many plum trees present in the Fruit Garden and Nursery.

One of the “Kitchen vegitables” Washington mentions could have been artichokes, as French or Globe artichokes were commonly grown at Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime. In fact, this particular type of artichoke was one of Martha Washington’s personal favorites, and she even included a recipe for “Hartichoak Pie” in her Booke of Cookery.

The weeping willows pictured are an example of one of the “other purposes” Washington reserved this cultivation area for. In a separate letter to Whitting, Washington states that his Vineyard Inclosure was also a space for “seed which required still greater Space before they were adopted upon a large scale.” As the image above shows, weeping willows require a decent amount of space in order to grow. Washington reserved an area of his experimental garden specifically for willow cuttings, so would have a reserve of the trees to plant wherever he wished once they matured.

Certain winter annuals are also blooming in the Fruit Garden and Nursery this week. The Boston Marrow squash and Green Hubbard are both heirloom plants Washington specifically wrote about in his many diary entries and letters.

So be sure to tear yourself away from the splendor of the Upper and Lower Gardens on your next visit to George Washington’s estate. Otherwise, you’ll miss a very special garden where Washington really allowed his creativity and initiative to shine!

Brittany Higgs

Category: What's Blooming at Mount Vernon?

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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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