Tuesday, January 3, 2023
Sunday, January 1, 2023
Wednesday, June 8, 2022
Compiled by Sydney Marenburg
In the Mount Vernon home of Martha & George Washington. the Laundry or Wash House, enslaved laundresses performed weekly washings for the Washington family, long-term guests, hired white servants, & overseers.
Laundry in the 18C was usually a 3-day, labor-intensive process reserved for household linens, like sheets & tablecloths, & clothing worn closest to the skin: shirts, shifts, & stockings. Many people contributed garments to each laundry load, so clothes & linens often were marked with the owner’s initials or name in ink or cross-stitch.
At Mount Vernon, as at many other elite 18C houses, the employment contracts of unmarried, white male servants often included the provision of laundry services. (See: Agreement with Burgis Mitchell, 1 May 1762,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0074.)
A married man’s laundry fell to his wife. (See: "George Washington to James Anderson (of Scotland), 7 April 1797,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0059.)
George & Martha Washington’s famous hospitality included providing laundry services for Mount Vernon guests staying longer than 1 week (the typical turn-around time of the Wash House.) A constant stream of guests surely created a heavy workload for the enslaved laundresses.
Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a visiting Polish Nobleman who stayed at the plantation for 2 weeks, noted that the enslaved workers “took care of me, of my linen, of my clothes,” treating him “not as a stranger but as a member of the family.” (See: Ursyn Niemcewicz, Julian, Early Description by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. June 5, 1978.)
The 1799 probate inventory taken after George Washington’s death recorded the contents of the Wash House. The building contained 9 tubs, 4 pails, 2 small buckets with handles (called piggins), 4 tables, & 2 copper tubs (called boilers) valued at $34.75. (See: P.C Nash, Fairfax County Will Book J, 1801-1806, Fairfax, Virginia: Fairfax County Court Archives, 1810, George Washington.)
In addition, 8 jars of soap, valued at $25, were stored in the Mansion cellar. When Washington inherited the property in 1761, the Wash House inventory records 9 hand irons.
Although there were no automated laundry appliances, Mount Vernon’s Wash House was equipped with a built-in brick stove that held a copper kettle over a fire. This was a feature of many elite homes in the 18C & was a relative luxury, as laundresses did not have to move the heavy pots of hot water.
Generally, laundry in the 18C was conducted exclusively by women. (See: Mohun, Arwen Palmer. “Laundrymen Construct Their World: Gender and the Transformation of a Domestic Task to an Industrial Process”The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1997): 97-120
Mima, 1787 –1788
Sall, 1786 –1791
Caroline, 1793 –1798
Dolshy, 1786 –1799
Vina, 1798 –1799
Home-care manuals of the 19C instructed that laundry should begin Monday & conclude on Wednesday, leaving Thursday to Saturday free for other work. (See: Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie's Lady's House-book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, Containing Approved Directions for Washing, Dress-making, Millinery, Dyeing, Cleaning, etc 1850. Note: although this source is from a much later period, it is conjectured that the laundry process remained very similar between eras until the widespread use of laundry machines.)
Many of the enslaved women assigned to Mount Vernon’s Wash House were not only doing laundry, but also acted as seamstresses, spinners, & knitters.
Laundresses also needed a wide knowledge of treatments for all sorts of stains on many different fine fabrics. Finer garments made out of wool, silk, & cotton were rarely, if ever, fully washed, but instead spot-treated for stains.
Laundry was an intense job requiring an incredible amount of physical strength. During the hot Virginia summers, the washhouse would be an almost unbearable temperature due to the constant fires & clouds of billowing steam. Laundresses had to move pounds of clothing, made even heavier with water, from pot to pot & agitate the laundry—all by hand.
The enslaved laundresses began each load by hauling the necessary water & firewood: thirty to fifty gallons of water from the kitchen well to fill copper kettles, & roughly 180 pounds of firewood to feed the boiler that heated water for the first phase of washing. Depending on the volume of laundry, a total of over 100 gallons of water could be necessary. This could entail more than 2 dozen trips back & forth to the well for each day of washing.
Copper kettles, not iron, were used for washing. The water, soap, bleaching agents, & heat would cause iron to leach into the water, potentially ruining delicate linen fabric.
Soap was rubbed over stains & soil, but not added to the water. Items of the highest quality were washed 1st; when the water was cleanest.
Washerwomen agitated the clothes by hand, stirring them in the water or scrubbing them with laundry bats, flat wooden paddles with ridges.
Usually, once cleaned, the clothes would be rinsed in separate water. To keep the fine white fabrics of shirts, shifts, & tablecloths white, sometimes a bluing powder would be added to the water. A bluing powder, made of indigo, would counteract the yellowing of the fabric & make it look whiter. (See: Dunbar, James. Smegmatalogia, or the art of making potashes and soap, and bleaching of linen. By which the industrious farmer is taught to bleach and wash his cloath with the produce of our own country. United Kingdom: the author, 1736.)
To dry, items could be hung over drying racks indoors or spread out on the grass outdoors on warm, dry days.
Once dry, the process of ironing would begin. Ironing required experience & skill: the laundress managed the temperature of at least 3 irons. When one grew too cool, another would be ready for use, hot but not hot enough to burn the fabric.
Finally, the laundry would be folded with the assistance of the housemaids & distributed to the closets of the house & outbuildings.
Much of this research & more are available from George Washington's (1732-1799) home Mount Vernon's website, MountVernon.org. You can donate to their excellent efforts directly from their website. Please do.
1736 Giacomo Ceruti (Italian painter, 1698-1767) The Laundress
1736-75 Richard Houston, after Philippe Mercier Domestik Employment
1740 Pietro Longhi (French-born Italian artist, 1701-1785) The Laundress
Silk was cleaned by scourers, who fully cleaned gowns, usually only once a year. Mainly they spot-cleaned them, using salt, chalk, or fuller’s earth & solvents like turpentine, lemon juice, warm milk, or urine. The whole gown was not immersed in water or scrubbed. As a result, silk garments tended to last. They were loosely stitched, because sooner or later they would be taken apart & remodeled. In 1763, one of Martha Washington’s old dresses was sent to London to be retailored in a more contemporary style.
1765 Henry Robert Morland (British artist, 1716-1797) A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen
1770 Illustration from Basedow's Elementary Work
1774 Henry Robert (British artist c 1716-1797) Laundry Maid (after Moreland)
Janet Schaw, an Englishwoman, liked little or nothing about the washing methods in early America. She observed laundry being done in Wilmington, NC in 1776. She wrote that “all the cloaths coarse and fine, bed and table linen, lawns, cambricks and muslins, chints, checks, all are promiscuously thrown into a copper with a quantity of water and a large piece of soap. This is set a boiling, while a Negro wench turns them over with a stick.”..."This operation [boiling] over, they are taken out, squeezed, & thrown over the Pales to dry. They use no calendar; they are however much better smoothed when washed. Mrs Miller showed them [how to wash linen] by bleaching those of Miss Rutherfurd, my brother & mine, how different a little labour made them appear, & indeed the power of the sun was extremely apparent in the immediate recovery of some bed & table-linen, that has been so ruined by sea-water that I thought them irrecoverably lost."
Schaw also noted that North Carolinians were the “worst washers of linen I ever saw, and tho’ it be the country of indigo, they never use blue, nor allow the sun to look at them.” See: Janet Schaw, Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the Years 1774 to 1776, eds, Evangeline Walker Andrews and Charles McLean Andrews, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921)
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Henry Benbridge (1744–1812), early American portrait painter, was born in Philadelphia, the only child of James & Mary (Clark) Benbridge. When he was 7 years old, his widowed mother married Thomas Gordon, a wealthy Scot. The boy's artistic talent was encouraged, as he made decorative designs for his stepfather's drawing-room.
Henry Benbridge (1743-1812) Gordon Family (his stepfather & mother Mary Clark Benbridge Gordon) 1763-65
When he was 21, Benbridge was sent to Italy, where he studied with Pompeo Batoni & Anton Raphael Mengs. From there he journeyed to London before returning to Philadelphia. Like other young Americans he was encouraged by Benjamin West. He wrote, on December 7, 1769, to his stepfather: "Upon my arrival I waited upon Mr. West who received me with a sort of brotherly affection, as did my cousin, Mrs. West."
Henry Benbridge (1743-1812) Archibald Bulloch Family 1775
Benbridge, who had certainly seen the lastest opulent fashion trends, as he studied in Italy with Pompeo Batoni & in England with expatriate Benjamin West, had a distrust of the trendy fashionable. In 1770, when his sisters were nearing marrying age, Benbridge wrote his mother from London, that his sisters "should not refuse a good plain honest Country farmer if such a one should offer himself with tolerable good estate, for one of the town who perhaps may have a better taste for dress, but not more merit, if perhaps as much."
1784 Henry Benbridge (1743-1812). Rachel Moore (Mrs. William Allston II).
When Benbridge had returned from Europe settling in Charlestown, South Carolina, to make a living painting portraits, he wrote to his sister Betsy in 1773, "Every kind of news here is very dull, the only thing attended to is dress and dissipation, & if I come in for a share of their superfluous Cash, I have no right to find fault with them, as it turns out to my advantage."
1790 Henry Benbridge (743-1812). Mary Boyer (Mrs. Robert Shewell).
In 1785, Benbridge, who loved the simple pleasures of gardening, was still worried about the too fancy dress of his son, Harry, whom Benbridge lovingly called "my little fellow." He wrote to his sister that he felt that his wife was dressing him in "too good things for a boy like him to wair, & likewise too many of them at once; he can't take care of them when he is at play & more common & Strong stuff in my Opinion would answer much better, & not fill his head with foolish notions of dress, which perhaps may be his bane."
1780s Henry Benbridge (1743-1812). Elizabeth Allston (Mrs. William H. Gibbes).
It is not surprising that Benbridge painted many of his female clients in dignified classical gowns looking serious, thoughtful, & restrained.
Henry Benbridge (1743-1812). Lady of the Middleton Family. 1780s
1770s Henry Benbridge (1743-1812). Charlotte Pepper (Mrs. James Gignilliat).
Saturday, July 17, 2021
"Most New Englanders had a simple diet, their soil and climates allowing limited varieties of fruits and vegetables. In 1728 the Boston News Letter estimates the food needs of a middle-class 'genteel' family. Breakfast was bread an milk. Dinner consisted of pudding, followed by bread, meat, roots, pickles, vinegar, salt and cheese. Supper was the same as breakfast. Each famly also needed raisins, currants, suet, flour, eggs, cranberries, apples, and, where there were children, food for 'intermeal eatings.' Small beer was the beverage, and molasses for brewing and flavoring was needed. Butter, spices, sugar, and sweetmeats were luxuries, as were coffee, tea, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages other than beer."---A History of Food and Drink in America, Richard J. Hooker [Bobbs-Merrill Company:Indianapolis IN] 1981(p. 67)
"English settlers in teh seventeenth century ate three meals a day, as they had in England...For most people, breakfast consisted of bread, cornmeal mush and milk, or bread and milk together, and tea. Even the gentry might eat modestly in the morning, although they could afford meat or fish...Dinner, as elsewhere in the colonies, was a midday, through the wealthy were like to do as their peers in England did, and have it midafternoon...new England's gentry had a great variety of food on te table...An everyday meal might feature only one or two meats with a pudding, tarts, and vegetables...The different betweeen the more prosperous households and more modest ones might be in the quality and quantity of the meat served...Supper was a smaller meal, often similar to breakfast: bread, cheese, mush or hasty pudding, or warmed-over meat from the noon meal. Supper among the gentry was also a sociable meal, and might have warm food, meat or shellfish, such as oysters, in season."---Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra L. Oliver [Greenwood Press:Westport CT] 2005(p. 157)
"Breakfast. The Colonial American breakfast was far from the juice, eggs and bacon of today. The stoic early settlers rose early and went straight to the chores that demanded their attention. In frontier outposts and on farms, families drank cider or beer and gulped down a bowl of porridge that had been cooking slowly all night over the embers...In the towns, the usual mug of alcoholic beverage consumed upon rising was followed by cornmeal mush and molasses with more cider or beer. By the nineteenth century, breakfast was served as late a 9 or 10 o'clock. Here might be found coffee, tea or chocolate, wafers, muffins, toasts, and a butter dish and knife...The southern poor ate cold turkey washed down with ever-present cider. The size of breakfasts grew in direct proportion to growth of wealth. Breads, cold meats and, especially in the Northeast, fruit pies and pasties joined the breakfast menus. Families in the Middle Colonies added special items such as scrapple (cornmeal and headcheese) and dutch sweetcakes wich were fried in deep fat. It was among the Southern planters that breakfast became a leisurely and delightful meal, though it was not served until early chores were attended to and orders for the day given...Breads were eaten at all times of the day but particularly at breakfast."---A Cooking Legacy, Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan [Walker & Company:New York] 1975 (p. 14)
"Dinner. Early afternoon was the appointed hour for dinner in Colonial America. Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century it was served in the "hall" or "common room." ..While dinner among the affluent merchants in the North took place shortly after noon, the Southern planters enjoyed their dinner as late as bubbling stews were carried into the fields to feed the slaves and laborers...In the early settlements, poor families ate from trenchers filled from a common stew pot, with a bowl of coars salt the only table adornment. The earliest trenchers in America, as in the Middle Ages, were probably made from slabs of stale bread which were either eaten with the meal or thrown after use to the domestic animals. The stews often included pork, sweet corn and cabbage, or other vegetables and roots which were available...A typical comfortably fixed family in the late 1700s probably served two courses for dinner. The first course included several meats plus meat puddings and/or deep meat pies containing fruits and spices, pancakes and fritters, and the ever-present side dishes of sauces, pickles and catsups...Soups seem to have been served before of in conjunction with the first course. Desserts appeared with the second course. An assortment of fresh, cooked, or dried fruits, custards, tarts and sweetmeats was usually available. "Sallats," (salads) though more popular at supper, sometimes were served at dinner and occasionally provided decoration in the center of the table...Cakes were of many varieties: pound, gingerbread, spice and cheese."---A Cooking Legacy (p. 24-28)
"Supper. What is there to say about a meal that probably did not even exist for many settlers during the eary days of the Colonies and later seemed more like a bedtime snack made up of leftovers?...In the eighteenth century supper was a brief meal and, especially in the South, light and late. It generally consisted of leftovers from dinner, or of gruel (a mixture made from boiling water with oats, "Indian," (corn meal) or some other meal). One Massachusetts diary of 1797 describes roast potatoes, prepared with salt but no butter. Ale, cider, or some variety of beer was always served. In the richer merchant society and in Southern plantation life, eggs and egg dishes were special delicacies and were prepared as side dishes at either dinner or supper...Supper took on added importance as the nineteeth century wore on. This heretofore casual meal became more important as dinner was served earlier in the day."---A Cooking Legacy (p. 79-81)
Colonial Era Cookbooks
1615, New Booke of Cookerie, John Murrell (London)
1798, American Cookery, Amelia Simmons (Hartford, CT)
1803, Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter (New York, NY)
1807, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Rundell (Boston, MA)
1808, New England Cookery, Lucy Emerson (Montpelier, VT)
Helpful Secondary Sources
America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking/Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Colonial Kitchens, Their Furnishings, and Their Gardens/Frances Phipps Hawthorn; 1972
Early American Beverages/John Hull Brown Rutland, Vt., C. E. Tuttle Co 1996
Early American Herb Recipes/Alice Cooke Brown ABC-CLIO Westport, United States
Food in Colonial and Federal America/Sandra L. Oliver
Home Life in Colonial Days/Alice Morse Earle (Chapter VII: Meat and Drink) New York : Macmillan Co., ©1926.
A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America/James E. McWilliams New York : Columbia University Press, 2005.