May 17, 2013
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.
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.
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!
Historic Preservation & Collections