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Archive for November, 2012

November 30, 2012

A Camel for Christmas?


Based on diaries, letters and cash accounts we know that George and Martha Washington played host to numerous guests throughout the year. In addition to human guests, there is also an all too cryptic reference to the brief visit of a particularly interesting animal: “By the man who brot. a Camel from Alexa. for a show….0.18.0″[1] These few words are the only documentation of a visit to Mount Vernon by a very rare exotic animal for 18th century America.

From a variety of sources, we know that George Washington had quite an interest in animals, both domestic and rare, and often paid to see them. Over the years, Washington and various members of his household were able to learn something about the world outside Virginia from the itinerant entertainers who traveled along the eastern seaboard and would have been drawn to large gatherings of people at events such as fairs. Many of these individuals seem to have worked with exotic or specially-trained animals. For example, in some of the earliest references to this sort of thing, Washington recorded paying 10 shillings to see a “Lyoness” in June of 1766 and three years later spent 3 shillings and 1 1/2 pence to see a “Tyger.”

There is nothing in the surviving records to indicate how the camel ended up at Mount Vernon, but we know that in 1787 a camel was brought to the estate for the enjoyment of Washington’s Christmas guests.

In keeping with history, Mount Vernon still brings a camel to the estate during our special Christmas programming for the enjoyment of our guests. You can meet Aladdin on the field in front of the Mansion during Christmas at Mount Vernon, our daytime Christmas program running through January 6. Find out more information about daytime events and Candlelight tours at

Jennifer McCreery

Category: George Washington, Mount Vernon Animals

November 27, 2012

Object Spotlight: Holiday Scenarios in the Mansion


Although Christmas was primarily a religious holiday in eighteenth-century Virginia, like today it was also a festive occasion marked by visits of friends and relatives, parties, and public assemblies. The celebrations in the Washington household were based on English customs, which stressed sociability and entertaining. Other inhabitants of Mount Vernon’s five farms, both free and enslaved, celebrated the holiday as well, with a few days off from work and occasional gifts of food, alcohol, or money provided by General Washington.

In order to interpret this merry time at Mount Vernon, the curatorial staff has created several holiday “scenarios” in the Mansion, showing the house as it might have looked as the Washingtons welcomed visitors to toast the Christmas season.

In the Large Dining Room, the Washingtons and their guests prepare to sample the desserts artfully displayed on fine English creamware. The abundant spread includes plum pudding; macaroons; colored marzipan sheep, shells, and fruits; almond cakes; and mince pies arranged in geometric patterns. A crabapple pyramid–held together with sugar icing–towers over the table.

Next to the pyramid is a hedgehog cake, an almond paste confection that was molded into an animal shape and then topped with slivered blanched almonds for bristles and currants for eyes. A recipe for this curious dish appears in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, which Martha Washington owned.

Other spaces at Mount Vernon have also been transformed for these weeks of jollity. Boughs of juniper and evergreen adorn the doorways of rooms on the first floor. In the Little Parlor, the settee bedstead (essentially an eighteenth-century sleeper sofa) has been opened to accommodate one of the Washingtons’ many overnight guests.

The Small Dining Room reveals the “very substantial Repast” that was breakfast at Mount Vernon. Hoecakes–one of George Washington’s favorite dishes–along with cold meats such as ham and tongue filled the bellies of hungry guests. In the West Parlor, game-playing merrymakers quenched their thirst with rounds of punch. Throughout the house, bedrooms overflow with the belongings of visitors.

In the kitchen, where the Washingtons’ enslaved cooks Nathan and Lucy worked tirelessly to accommodate so many holiday visitors, a Christmas pie has just emerged from the bake oven. Christmas pies, which could reach gargantuan proportions (one recipe called for a bushel of flour and four pounds of butter), were a beloved tradition at Mount Vernon. On December 26, 1786, George Washington lamented that his friend David Humphreys was unable to “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes. We had one yesterday on which all the company (and pretty numerous it was) were hardly able to make an impression.”

Although Christmas celebrations have changed considerably in the last 200 years, many things have stayed the same: the holidays are primarily a time for family, friends, and (of course) food!

Visitors to Mount Vernon can see the holiday scenarios in the Mansion until the first week of January.

Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator

Photography by Robert C. Lautman and MVLA Collections Management

Category: George Washington, Object Spotlight

November 26, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1789


Happy Thanksgiving month! In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a national thanksgiving day to be held on November 26th so that Americans could be publically grateful for the new nation and conclusion of the war. No doubt Washington’s personal celebrations involved lots of food which brings us to the postcard above, a picture of the Mount Vernon kitchen.

While the food served at Mount Vernon was relatively plain, the abundance of guests at the estate made the kitchen quite the scene. In order to prepare for a full dinner like the one possibly served on November 26th, 1789, the two enslaved cooks, Nathan and Lucy, and the housekeeper Mrs. Forbes would begin the day at 4 a.m. Stoking the fire and hauling and heating water were the first order of business. Breakfast was served at 7 a.m. and after the table was cleared preparations for the big dinner would commence. Martha Washington was an important part of the dinner process, consulting with the cooks and inspecting the food. Lucy and Nathan might have a short break around noon but the duration of the morning and early afternoon was spent cutting vegetables, getting meat ready, and baking various confections. Dinner was served promptly at 3 p.m.; the general being a stickler for punctual meals and meal attendance. Guests at Mount Vernon recall eating pork, lamb, roasted fowl, mutton, cabbage, potatoes, hominy, peas, artichokes, boiled beef, fried tripe, pickles, puddings, tarts, mince pies, and cheese, among other things. While family and visitors ate in one of the dining rooms, Lucy, Nathan, and Mrs. Forbes supped in the kitchen before getting ready for the next meal: tea.

The Washingtons were known for their gracious hospitality and surely the Thanksgiving celebration was no exception. But none of their elegant yet simple dinners would be possible without the hard work of Lucy, Nathan, Mrs. Forbes and the other members of the kitchen. This November, as think about our stomachs and our blessings, let’s not forget the oftentimes hidden yet essential members of Mount Vernon life!

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.

Abby Cliff

Category: MV Mailbox

November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Proclamation


The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington is a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. Periodically, encyclopedia entries will be highlighted on this blog.

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, today’s featured encyclopedia entry looks at George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. As explained by Tammy K. Bryon, Assistant Professor of History at Dalton State College, “Since the settlement of the colonies, Americans were familiar with setting aside days of thanksgiving.” However, in 1789, “President George Washington issued a proclamation designating November 26 … as a national day of thanksgiving to recognize the role of providence in creating the new United States and the new federal Constitution.” Byron notes that the “1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, however, did not establish a permanent federal holiday.”

Find out more about Washington and Thanksgiving, by reading Dr. Byron’s entry in the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

Category: Digital Encyclopedia

November 15, 2012

What’s New at the Dig?


As our excavations in the laundry yard draw to a close, we’re in the final stages of mapping the features we’ve uncovered in the last four weeks. In the last blog post (10/9/12), we mentioned that our fence wasn’t found at the rear of the south lane outbuildings, so we expanded our test units to determine if the fence was placed along the front of the structures. We found several features, but not our fence!

Checking into our photo archives, we found two pictures taken of the laundry yard from 1900 and c. 1916. The photo from 1900 shows a privet hedge running between the outbuildings, while the c. 1916 image reveals a wooden fence. Our excavation uncovered the privet ditch, and at least two generations of fence postholes dating from c. 1916 to 1946, along with several modern utility lines. Finds from the privet ditch fill included a glass rye whiskey bottle, a Civil War era Federal infantry button, and a 1935 Buffalo nickel. The postholes were filled with modern nails, brick fragments, and oyster shell, but no 18th century artifacts.

The absence of an 18th century fenceline between the outbuildings is precisely what the Vaughan sketch illustrates; a fenceline at the south end of the laundry yard, with open space between the outbuildings. Restoration carpenters can now place a fence running uninterrupted between the lower garden wall and coach house, which will be completed later this year. Our work on the laundry yard fence has revealed more information about how space was controlled within the core of the estate, and raises questions about the placement of other fences and boundaries on the plantation.

Luke J. Pecoraro, Staff Archaeologist

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History


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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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