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Archive for the ‘Object Spotlight’ Category

May 17, 2013

I Spy… a Spyglass!

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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

April 11, 2013

Object SpotLIGHT: The Central Passage Lantern

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Try to imagine life without electric lighting. For George Washington and those who lived in the 18th century, indoor spaces were much darker than modern eyes are used to. The main sources of light for interiors were candles, oil lamps, fireplaces, and natural sunlight streaming through windows.

The Central Passage at Mount Vernon would have been an especially dark location because there is only one window to the outside. This hallway, with the staircase and four rooms leading off it, would have been a particularly bustling part of the house. Lighting in this space was clearly on Washington’s mind when, in 1760, he ordered “1 handsome glass Lanthorne for Passage,” as well as “Lamps” and “10 Gals Oyl” [10 Gallons Oil] from London.

The central passage at Mount Vernon with the lantern George Washington ordered from London in 1760.

The central passage at Mount Vernon with the lantern George Washington ordered from London in 1760.

Washington hung this lantern, which was based on the Gothic and Chinese-inspired patterns of English designer Thomas Chippendale, in the Central Passage by the staircase. A glass oil lamp placed inside the lantern illuminated this dim hallway. The oil in the lamp was most likely spermaceti oil — harvested from sperm whales — as this was the brightest, cleanest, and least foul-smelling oil available at the time. The glass sides of the lantern protected the flame from breezes in the drafty hallway.

From paint analysis, we know that this lantern, made of brass and tinned sheet iron, was painted each time Washington updated the finish and furnishings of the rooms at Mount Vernon. Originally a glossy black, it was painted Prussian blue in 1783 and then black again in the 1790s.

A close up of the "glass Lanthorne for Passage" that Washington purchased in 1760 through his agent in England. Gift of Mary Custis Lee, 1915

A close up of the “glass Lanthorne for Passage” that Washington purchased in 1760 through his agent in England. Gift of Mary Custis Lee, 1915

After Washington’s death, the lantern descended in the family of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s grandson. It hung at his residence at Arlington House throughout the 19th century and was donated to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1915 by his daughter, Mary Custis Lee. The lantern, which first graced the Central Passage in 1761, has been home at Mount Vernon ever since!

Category: Object Spotlight

March 14, 2013

Object Spotlight: How many times did George Washington sit for his portrait?

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George Washington may be the most recognizable figure in American history. You’ve probably seen many different portraits of him–in fact, there are hundreds! But what you may not know is Washington didn’t pose for each portrait himself. So, how many times did Washington sit for an artist to take his likeness?

Portrait sittings were not always recorded, so we can’t be certain, but after combing through diaries, letters, and other documentary evidence, historian David Meschutt found that Washington posed at least 32 times for 19 different artists between 1772 and 1798. As the numbers suggest, Washington sometimes sat for the same artist multiple times.

He was portrayed by these 19 artists in a variety of forms, including oil paintings, drawings, pastels, watercolor miniatures, and clay sculpture. Among the most recognizable artists Washington sat for were Jean-Antoine Houdon, Edward Savage, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart.

Artists often made copies of their own work, and of the works of others, which accounts for the numerous Washington portraits that exist. Gilbert Stuart alone made as many as 75 copies of his famous “Athenaeum” portrait (better known as the portrait featured on the $1 bill).

One of Stuart's many copies of his Athenaeum portrait, which Washington posed for in 1796.

One of Stuart’s many copies of his Athenaeum portrait, which Washington posed for in 1796.

Despite his prominent status as General of the Continental Army and First President of the United States, Washington did not enjoy having his portrait taken. On May 21, 1772, a day after he sat for Charles Willson Peale, Washington wrote to his friend Jonathan Boucher:

Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now, contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr Peale; but in so grave–so sullen a Mood–and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman’s Pencil, will be put to it, in describing to the World what manner of Man I am.

Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams–and it seems Washington was on the verge of falling asleep during his portrait sitting!

Jessie MacLeod
Assistant Curator
Department of Historic Preservation and Collections

For more details on Washington’s life portraits, see David Meschutt, “Life Portraits of George Washington,” in Barbara J. Mitnick, ed., George Washington: American Symbol (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999), pp. 25-37.

Continue reading Object Spotlight: How many times did George Washington sit for his portrait? »

Category: Classroom Connections, George Washington, Object Spotlight, Washington Portraits

March 12, 2013

Artifact Highlight: Buckle, Buckle, Who’s Got the Buckle?

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When was the last time you noticed the buckles on your clothing? Belts and shoes today typically come with buckles already attached; however, in the 18th century buckles were sold separately and were used as a means to express status and individuality.
Excavated from the South Grove Midden (the Washington family’s domestic trash pile), this cast iron clothing buckle is something of a mystery.

Decorated Buckle and Chape

Decorated Buckle and Chape

The buckle’s size and the fact that the decoration continues onto the chape, the part that secures the buckle in place, suggests it might be a women’s girdle buckle. Girdles in Martha Washington’s day were not what we think of today: Martha’s girdle was a belt of ribbon, a fashion accessory commonly worn around a lady’s waist and secured with a decorative buckle. What makes this buckle unique, however, is the type of material it is made from. Normally, highly decorated and specialized girdle buckles were made from materials like brass or even silver. This one is made from iron.

Iron corrodes in the ground, which makes it difficult to picture how it actually looked when it was worn. To get a better picture of the decorative detail we took an x-ray of it. X-raying an iron artifact hides the corrosion, making it invisible, and leaves behind an image of the surviving iron.

X-Ray taken by Emily Williams at Colonial Williamsburg showing the decorative details on our iron buckle.

X-Ray taken by Emily Williams at Colonial Williamsburg showing the decorative details on our iron buckle.

Emily Williams, Colonial Williamsburg’s Archaeological Conservator, generously donated her expertise and equipment. In the x-ray view, pears and cherries or apples jump out, as does the previously invisible, delicate scrollwork making up the frame of the buckle.

Karen Price
Lab Manager
Department of Historic Preservation and Collections

Continue reading Artifact Highlight: Buckle, Buckle, Who’s Got the Buckle? »

Category: Archaeology at Mount Vernon: Digging History, Classroom Connections, Object Spotlight

March 11, 2013

Behind-The-Scenes: The Acts of Congress Tour

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After being on exhibit at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s copy of the Acts of Congress has begun a 13 site tour at the National Archives’ Presidential Libraries. On a cold February morning the Acts of Congress left Mount Vernon and traveled 2,715 miles across the country to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, CA. From there it will crisscross the United States traveling over 12,000 miles before returning to Mount Vernon and its new home at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this fall. The Acts of Congress tour is an opportunity for people to view a piece of George Washington history who would be otherwise unable to visit Mount Vernon.

Many of the libraries will highlight pieces from their own collections in conjunction with the Acts of Congress. The Reagan Library is displaying:

  • An 1823 Stone Copy of the Declaration of Independence
  • A July 13, 1796 letter written by President George Washington to his Secretary of War, James McHenry, in which President Washington complains of pirate activity along the Barbary Coast
  • A memorandum from King George III, showing the King’s reluctance to acknowledge the independence of the 13 American Colonies from Great Britain (on loan from the Huntington Library)

If you look closely at the photo below you can see a small silver box in the back right corner of the exhibit case. This box contains silica gel which stabilizes the humidity and helps maintain the same environment the book is accustomed to at Mount Vernon.

Washington's Acts of Congress on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Washington’s Acts of Congress on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

At the Reagan Library, the Acts of Congress is open to pages 8 & 9 as seen in the images below. Visitors will be able to see where Washington marked a variety of responsibilities which he labeled “President,” “Powers,” and “Required.”

2012_MVLA_ActsOfCongress_SelectPages_198

The book was welcomed with an opening reception and a ribbon cutting to kick off the 13 site tour.

You can see Washington’s Acts of Congress at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum through March 19, 2013. For more information about the Acts of Congress at the Reagan Library, click here.

To find out when Washington’s Acts of Congress will be near you, see the National Archives Acts of Congress Tour Schedule.

Danie Schallom
Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programming

**A special thank you goes out to Michele Lee, Special Collections Librarian, for her help with this post**

Continue reading Behind-The-Scenes: The Acts of Congress Tour »

Category: Classroom Connections, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, Object Spotlight

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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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