Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Visit to George Washington's Mount Vernon Archaeological and Decorative Arts Collections

     While setting up for the George Washington’s Mount Vernon Market Fair this year (14-15 September), I was approached by Lily Carhart, an Archaeological Field and Lab Technician, and Sierra Medellin, a Digital Preservation Speicalist, in the Archaeological Collections Department at Mount Vernon.  Lily and Sierra had a button that was found on the site, and when doing research about the type of button, my website came up.  When they realized I would be at the fair, they walked right over and introduced themselves. 

My tent at the Market Fair - you can see me, Kerry, and 
Robin Marchionni talking as we are waiting for the site to open.

     Many have seen some of the original items that I own in my product listings, when I talk about them here on my website/blog, or post on social media.  Yes, I actually study their construction, and wear them as a functional item.  I also sell some as well!

The original buckle that was used to recreate the "Eden" buckle - oxidized and rusted - only a buckle a mother can love at this point - and I only have one...

     The button they took out of the box was about 10-12mm round, and 1-2mm thick.  It was a beautiful purple swirl mother of pearl (MOP) shell button with a hole drilled through for the pin shank.  My immediate Spidey sense sent my mind to the mid to late 19th century as the shank itself is so perfect and recessed into the shell; however, Washington owned white conch shell buttons with a pin shank that date as early as the 1790’s (though not recessed), and I saw another pair of oval cuff links in the decorative arts collection (more on that below) made out of white MOP where one had a pin shank also not recessed.  Further research is needed on pin shank buttons in particular, and when they started to exist in this form and construction.  Cannot say that I am an authority on buttons; however, I know what works when offering sleeve buttons for my customers, and when researching buttons we know they were used in many forms as jewelry, ornamentation, for function, and made from a variety of materials - and in the seashell variety as early as the Bronze age (per Wikipedia).  We also see this type in the 18th century.

Actual button found in the Blue Room mantle

Shells with cut outs for buttons (Wikipedia)

     The button shown to me has a little story behind it,  The button was found during the 1982 renovation of the Blue Room.  It was found pressed in plaster in the top left corner of the fireplace opening, under the mantle.  They are uncertain if the plaster dated to the 18th or 19th centuries after it was removed as that information was not recorded.  Isn't that cool?  It would be awesome to know who pushed it into the plaster, and if they ever thought that someone in the future would find it.  I think they put a little piece of themselves there, and smiled as they did so.  

Side of button

     I was asked and given an invitation to see the collections in the archaeological department.  I did not have time that weekend so contacted them after the show.  

     For most people to see little bits and pieces of things that were once something and now are not - can be boring.  I mean, looking at a broken and oxidized shoe buckle or piece of what was once a buckle, button, comb, toothbrush, etc., isn't very exciting.  However, to see the things that have been found all over the Washington estate, and imagine what they were or how they looked when new - is kind of exciting - isn't it?

      The archaeology department obviously finds items on the grounds and in the buildings on the property that were thrown away, broken, or maybe lost at some point by those who owned them.  Who knows really?  There have been thousands of visitors, even in Washington’s lifetime, to the estate, so the sheer amount of things that have been discarded, and are still being found, is mind boggling.

     So, like a giddy school girl, I couldn’t wait to see what they had.  My scheduled meeting was on Monday (30 September).  My friend, Kerry McClure, was with me when the invitation took place, and of course she accompanied me to this momentous occasion!

     As a quick aside, we as living historians also have an amazing amount of knowledge of the period, and Lily and Sierra recognize that.  We're pretty passionate about the time, and we create the illusion of the people we portray in every aspect of their dress and manners - and that means a lot of research.  We all dress up in various time periods for different reasons and to certain extremes - so research isn't for everyone nor does it have to be - just like sewing isn't for everyone (including me).  Those people who love it and are willing to share what they have done is what helps everyone.  I am by no means in the museum, curatorial, or education line of work, but I do study original pieces, portraits, and prints of the items they wore in order to offer appropriate jewelry for those who need it for their impressions or just to wear everyday.  I also offer Martha Washington's style in my shop and for Mount Vernon.  Some of us also, like Kerry, extensively research the people she portrays to the point she knows their cousins cousins Aunt's best friend.  No joke.

     So Monday arrived, and Kerry and I met Lily and she took us to where all of the THINGS are!  The welcome that she and Sierra gave to us was really wonderful.  We were introduced to the curator of archaeological collections, Sean Devlin, and he took some time to talk with us, and explain where the excavations are or were, and where they found items on a map.

     They had already pulled out some amazing things just for us on the table and I felt like a VIP!  I was also pointed to the Middin project website that allows everyone to see what they have been doing, finding, cleaning-up, and preserving for the future.  Figuring out what some of it is can take time, while other objects are easier to identify.  I saw a lot of what is on this website, but oh there is so much more of it!  

     It is very similar to one done out there by the Archaeological Collections in Maryland.  One of my favorite pages is the "Small Finds" section that includes research by Sarah Rivers Cofield, who I like to think is the authority in our area on sleeve buttons found.

Trunk Plate

War of 1812 Artillery Button

Wine Bottle with Daniel Parke Custis seal

They had so many pins, some bent, some intact, some broken, some thin, some 
long, some small, but mostly with round heads on them

     Another treat for me was being able to see some of Martha’s jewelry.  Lily and Sierra took us into another part of the building that houses what they term the 'decorative arts area,' and we met with Ms. Amanda Isaac who is an associate curator at Mount Vernon.  She specializes in the study of textiles and women’s artistry in colonial America, and leads the ongoing research and development of the Mount Vernon Furnishing Plan, including the recent refurnishing of the Blue Room and the Chintz Room.  I have seen her on video blog posts that Mount Vernon has released.  It was nice to meet her in person, and she escorted us into a room...

The General watches as we look at Martha's jewelry, and some other 
pieces that have been donated to Mount Vernon

     As many may know, I reproduce some inspired pieces of Martha’s jewelry, and they are sold exclusively in my shop and by the Mount Vernon gift shop (in shop and on-line).  In fact, the Dove that I reproduce is currently shown on the inside cover of the Fall 2019 Mount Vernon Magazine that you can preview here.  Ms. Isaac was so gracious and accommodating with her time, and patient as we asked questions.  We knew most of what we were seeing, but there were other items recently acquired and/or not usually on display.  We talked about what she had before us.  I don’t think I really understood what I was really going to see - like slow motion – a dream – they were all in front of me.  I may be over exaggerating here, a bit melodramatic, but it was a bucket list moment.

This was refashioned at some point with the chain connectors, and am not sure the clasp is original - but still spectacular.  You can just see the little loop in the center round cluster in which to hang a pendant.  The design on my Duchessa necklaces are the same - to give the option of a day or evening look

     Seeing Martha’s jewelry up close, not behind glass, was beyond words.  I am having a hard time just expressing it here in this post - but you get the idea!  These pieces are not on display at the moment, which made them all the more special to see. Whenever I have time to actually go into the museum, I “bee line” it right to the jewelry and porcelain/dishes, etc., area just to look and see them again and again.  It helps me to see how the museum has them displayed as well as remind myself how spectacular they are.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see an exhibit just about Martha’s style?  Her clothing, jewelry, everyday items, and her life - what did she have to do everyday?  What decisions did she have to make?  What would she have worn during the day and then at an evening meal or party/ball?  Yes, yes, and yes!    

Garnet ring with graduated stones - ooohhhhhh - so subtle

Rosette Earrings with pendants - bottom earring had been a pendant for the earring above and refashioned into a screw back earring possibly in the early 20th century - my reproduction earrings are like the bottom ones.  I intend to make the rosette and bow pendant drop very soon.

The Garnets - Oh the Garnets

     So why would I think this is so awesome and cool?  I'm sure many are nodding their heads if they actually made it to this point in my post.  That you aren't asleep is great!  The items were once worn by the First Lady of our great country, and a woman loved and respected by General George Washington.  I'm not sure with so much time passing, and our not knowing them, that many realize they were people just like us.  Right?

     It makes her come alive for me even more than ever.  These were items once cherished and worn/owned by her.  While she lived a life of privilege in that time - born and married into wealth - she still had to deal with life and all that entailed for her.  We are all a product of our upbringing, things we encounter, experiences put before us, and decisions we make.  She had to conform to social dictates, abide by laws she may not have agreed with, and so many other things.  That included her having times of joy, happiness, stress, grief, illness, and being angry,  She bore children, then watched two of them die, and then her husband, Daniel Parke Custis.  She was left with a huge responsibility, just like many of us today, and many others under her care.  I would think is almost overwhelming.  She had to be gracious and hospitable to all of the visitors who showed up to stay (or overstay).  Did she want to throw something when frustrated?  Did she yell at the kids in the mansion to stop running inside, or to pick up their toys?  

     We must also take into consideration the fact that she watched her second husband (Washington of course) go into service, and was essentially put in charge of the colonies fate.  They became traitors to the Crown, and he left for a war that she wasn't guaranteed he would return from.  She put herself in harms way to travel to see him whenever she was able to during that war AND still came back and ran things at home as much as possible - yes I know she had help - but she would still have had to be the final decision maker in a lot of what she did.  She also endured illness herself.  She was described as being "a lovely and attractive woman with a lively personality.  She was generally strong-willed, though also charming, sincere, warm, and socially adept. These characteristics allowed her to overcome obstacles and forge her own path in the world."  See this link for more facts about her if you haven't read any of the books out there, but this just goes to show you the amount of responsibility she (and he) had, and why they are so very important to our country's history.

Gold and Diamond Ring owned by Martha

The BACK of the Gold and Diamond Ring owned by Martha

     One of the other items I saw was Martha’s “diamond ring” (above) supposedly given to her by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.  There is some controversy now on if it really was a wedding ring as family stories/legend place it.  It is not only a gold diamond ring, but the back has an opening and you can see hair inside.  In the time period, items with hair were given as mementos or as tokens of love as well as made up and given after someone dies to remember them by.  Often times someone would Will a ring like this to relatives and monies from the estate were used to pay for them (Washington's Will included just such direction to his executors).  I asked my friend who portrays Martha Washington in Colonial Williamsburg, Katherine McEnery Pittman, while writing this if such a ring had ever been ordered by Daniel Custis, and she reminded me that Martha had ordered a ring with his hair and a "stone" after he passed away.  Is this that ring?  Did she wear it after she married George?  Inquiring minds want to know.

     All in all the visit was phenomenal, and I have been invited back to see their tea items from cups to pots to everything in between that they want to show me.  I will definitely be scheduling that soon.

An amazing large button

     This visit has so inspired me to recreate a few more pieces after Martha’s garnet jewelry for the collection...
Necklace like the one I recreate - it has a repair that I never noticed before, and the clasp is not original to the piece - but still very very very awesome

Awesome pair of cuff links with a soldier/officer/man in a cocked hat holding what looks to be a sword  and standing in front of a cannon ?

Gorgeous button

Fairfax Family seal from a bottle