Christmas was an especially busy and festive time in the Mount Vernon household. George and Martha Washington welcomed dozens of visitors into their home in December, serving elaborate dinners and a variety of cheerful libations to celebrate the season.
One staple of eighteenth-century social gatherings was punch, a drink commonly made from a mixture of spirits, lemon or lime juice, sugar, nutmeg, and other spices. Typical recipes used rum or arrack, a raw liquor imported from Batavia. Punch was not usually served at formal dinners, but rather in more casual settings between or after meals, enlivening conversations in the parlor and surely fueling many heated games of cards.
The preparation and drinking of punch had a specific set of equipment associated with it. The beverage was typically served in large decorated vessels such as the one pictured above, which is made of Chinese export porcelain and adorned with an eye-catching “tobacco-leaf” pattern, characterized by colorful oversized leaves, bouquets, and pink peonies. Probably dating from between 1750 and 1757, this punch bowl was likely brought to Mount Vernon by Martha Washington from her first marriage with Daniel Parke Custis. Lest anyone worry that a Mount Vernon guest went thirsty, fear not–this enormous vessel held five gallons of punch!
Making punch also required a strainer, which neatly removed remnants of spices and fruit pulp from the potent mixture. This delicate silver strainer was probably ordered from England by Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, when he married Eleanor Calvert in 1774.
A silver ladle and small glass cups with round handles completed the accoutrements associated with punch consumption. A scene with all of these items can be seen in Mount Vernon’s traveling exhibition, Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon, which is currently on view at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
So as you enjoy a festive cocktail over the holiday season, remember that you are carrying on a great Mount Vernon tradition!
Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator
Punch Bowl: Bequest of Ella Mackubin, 1956 [W-1452]
Strainer: Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee IV, 1981 [W-2527]
Ladle: Gift of Richard Hayward, 2002 [2002.008]
Punch Glasses: Gift of the Estate of Mary Hurt Irby, 1999 [M-4124, M-4125, M-4126]