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Archive for the ‘Mount Vernon’ Category

September 4, 2013

Caring for the Washington Family


Washington Family Statues

George and Martha Washington stand alongside their grandchildren Nelly and Washy in the Ford Orientation Center at Mount Vernon.

Since 2006, over 6 million guests have been greeted on their visit to Mount Vernon with bronze statues of the Washington family in the Ford Orientation Center. These life-sized statues, produced by Studio EIS, of George and Martha Washington standing alongside their grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis (Washy) circa 1785 are irresistible to visitors of all ages; many guests take the opportunity to pose for photographs and shake the hand of our nation’s first President.

Cleaning Statues

Cleaning StatuesChip Schwartz, an artist from Polich Tallix, makes a routine trip to Mount Vernon to reapply the patina to our bronze statues using chemicals and heat from a blow torch.

Mount Vernon hosts over a million visitors each year, and all those handshakes cause the protective patina (thin films of color created by the application of heat and chemicals to the surface of the bronze) on the bronze Washington family to wear off.

To keep the figures of the Washington family maintained, the statues are cleaned and polished on a regular basis by Polich Tallix, a fine art foundry from upstate New York that cleans and waxes statues such as ours. This routine maintenance ensures that the Washington family will be in perfect form to greet each visitor to the estate for years to come.

Diana Cordray
Education Center Manager
Division of Interpretation and Events

Category: Mount Vernon

August 1, 2013

Night at Mount Vernon: After Hours Collections Care


Dusting objects removed to central passage

Last February we posted about the daily cleaning of the mansion in our Keeping House post. Today we go behind the scenes of the “deep clean” that our Collections Management staff undertakes bi-monthly in the mansion.

Surprisingly, two hours of daily cleaning is not enough to keep Mount Vernon in tip-top shape. Two rooms in particular, the Small Dining Room and the New Room, are more challenging to clean due to the number of objects on display, the intricate table settings, and the artwork that hangs high on the walls. In order to ensure both rooms and objects receive the care they need, three collections management assistants and a museum technician stay late one night, every other week, for a deep clean.

What exactly happens during a deep clean? On average it takes anywhere from 2-3 hours to clean the New Room, and about 1.5 hours to clean the Small Dining Room. During the restoration of the New Room, however, only the Small Dining Room requires the special attention of a deep clean. After removing the 9 chairs in the room to create more work space, each chair is meticulously dusted and vacuumed. While one member of the deep clean team vacuums the frames around the artwork, using a Nilfisk backpack vacuum and ladder, the rest begin moving objects from the table setting to a folding table in the Central Passage. Once the objects are safely removed and dusted, the linens, floor, and fireplace are vacuumed. Rather than use a vacuum to dust the delicate checkered floor cloth, the deep clean team uses a Swiffer, which is a less abrasive cleaning implement. To finish off the job, each object in the room, as well as the architectural features are dusted before the room is returned to its everyday appearance.

Diana Welsh
Collections Management Assistant
Historic Preservation and Collections

Category: Collections, Historic Preservation, Mount Vernon

July 4, 2013

Collections Uncovered


Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.

As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.

Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.

One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.

The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

Category: Mount Vernon, MV Historian Series, Research/Lectures, Slavery

June 13, 2013

Master George’s People: An Interview with Author Marfé Ferguson Delano


Danie Schallom, Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs, recently sat down to discuss a new children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon with author Marfé Ferguson Delano. Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and his Revolutionary Transformation highlights the lives of individual members of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime and how the decision to free his slaves in his will came about.


What sparked your interest in writing a children’s book about slavery?

I live down the road from Mount Vernon. One of my friends told me she was thinking about writing a historical fiction about Charlotte, a slave owned by the Washingtons. I thought that was really interesting and I didn’t know we had details [of slaves] available to us. This set off my nonfiction radar; I thought there would be interesting stories to explore. Once I started doing the research I became engrossed by the enslaved people and by Washington as a slave owner.

How long did it take you to write the book?

6-7 years, other things intervened [during the project]. I drew up a proposal to send to my editor; she really liked the idea, but National Geographic needed a book about global warming, so that project came in between. Then I went back to Master George’s People and spent a lot of time researching while working on a couple of other projects. It’s the kind of project I am really glad I had a number of years in which to steep myself in the subject matter. Mary Thompson (Research Historian at Mount Vernon) was a wonderful resource. She helped point me toward a number of resources. My original idea was that it would be more about what it was like as a slave of Washington, but I realized I also had to weave in Washington’s attitude towards slavery.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching Washington, slavery, and the enslaved community at Mount Vernon?

Several things surprised me, I was surprised to learn when Martha married George her children brought their own personal slaves, at ages 3-4; the thought that young children were being plucked from their own families to take care of another family. I was surprised by the relative freedom of movement [of slaves]; they could go to Alexandria to sell produce they had in their garden and could sell what they grew to their master.

I was also surprised by Washington’s attitude as a young man towards slavery, especially when he participated in the raffle. (A raffle was held in Williamsburg, VA to raise money to pay the debts of Bernard Moore; gamblers participated to win valuable prizes, such as slaves). [This] was a real low point — it shows how much his attitude and conscience developed over time.

What do you want children to take away from the book after reading it?

A few things. I’d like them to see that the story of the founding of America, in terms of George Washington and other Founding Fathers, is more complicated than depicted in text books. I’d like them to take away the sense that people that we honor as heroes are human and have imperfections. We can honor them for their accomplishments and still look at them with a clear eye about their failings. I’d like the readers also to take away a sense of how much the enslaved people at Mount Vernon contributed to Washington’s success as a leader. Without them doing the work, it wouldn’t have been possible for Washington to become a leader. Kids are smart, they can understand stories on multiple levels, I wanted to add layers to the story.

Danie Schallom
Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs
Education Department

Classroom Connections

Read Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and his Revolutionary Transformation with your class.

Learn about the enslaved community at Mount Vernon through the eyes of Slammin’ Joe, one of Washington’s slaves

George Washington and Slavery: The 1799 Census of Slaves
This lesson plan uses George Washington

Category: Classroom Connections, Mount Vernon, Slavery

May 17, 2013

I Spy… a Spyglass!


When George Washington died in 1799, the inventory of Mount Vernon listed twelve spyglasses in the house: eleven in Washington’s study and one in the Central Passage. Why did Washington accumulate so many spyglasses?

Washington had numerous occasions to use a spyglass (or handheld telescope) over the course of his life. As Commander-in-Chief during the Revolution, he depended on the devices to monitor troop movements and the landscape. Military portraits of Washington during the American Revolution, such as John Trumball’s 1790 painting, often depict him holding or carrying a spyglass.

George Washington before the Battle of Trenton, by John Trumbull, ca. 1792-94. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

George Washington before the Battle of Trenton, by John Trumbull, ca. 1792-94. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At Mount Vernon, Washington used a telescope to observe ships sailing by on the busy Potomac River. Benjamin Latrobe’s 1796 watercolor of the Washingtons and guests enjoying coffee on the piazza depicts an unidentified man (possibly Latrobe himself) peering through a spyglass at the vessels dotting the Potomac below.

Detail of man with spyglass.

Detail of man with spyglass.

View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza, July 16, 1796, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza, July 16, 1796, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Most handheld telescopes in the eighteenth century were imported from England. They consisted of glass lenses mounted in a cylindrical case of wood, brass, or a combination of the two. The Mount Vernon collection includes several spyglasses with a Washington history, some of which surely helped George gain a new perspective on his surroundings.

Stay tuned for a post from our Collections Management staff on a creating a custom box for one of these spyglasses!

Jessie MacLeod
Assistant Curator
Historic Preservation & Collections

Continue reading I Spy… a Spyglass! »

Category: Classroom Connections, Mount Vernon, Object Spotlight, Washington Portraits


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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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