George Washington Invoices and Orders Project
What do orders and invoices represent?
These documents are our paper trail leading us back in time to a better understanding of the consignment system. In this system, planters grew tobacco and shipped it to English agents who would sell it on the European market. In return, the planters received credit that they used to order goods that we see today in museums and in the archaeological record. Agents responded by shipping these items with an accompanying invoice.
What is an order?
Think of an order like an eighteenth-century shopping list written by George Washington and mailed to his agent to fulfill. These lists sometimes included hundreds of items with specific details as to unit price, color, size, quantity, quality, style, or origin of manufacture. An order for goods made by George Washington was usually attached as an enclosure to a letter sent to the agent. The structure of the orders themselves did not change much over time, with long lists loosely grouped by item type. Washington often used the word “do” or “ditto” to reference the previous item in short hand. We have indexed 43 different orders. For the most part, Washington received the goods that he asked for (when something is missing from an invoice, this was recorded in the database), though sometimes he commented upon the low quality or high cost of certain products. Additionally, there is not always an exact match between what Washington desired and how that desire was interpreted by the agent. For example, Washington might ask for a half dozen of something and receive a dozen.
What is an invoice?
Invoices, or lists of goods and their price collected by the agent and shipped to Washington, usually contain slightly more structure and detail than the orders. Think of these documents like an eighteenth-century itemized bill or receipt. Most begin by recording the agent, the boat, and the captain. Within the invoice, goods are typically grouped by vendor with the item on the left of the page and the price of the good on the right. Sub-tallies and tallies are often given – these are not included in the database, however. Just as Washington sometimes provided additional commentary on certain items, the agents too might reply that an item could not be found or that insufficient information in the order prevented it from being filled. Most invoices concluded with a list of additional shipping charges, insurance, and commission before the final total is given. We have indexed 30 different invoices.
Why match the two types of documents?
Mount Vernon’s Archaeology Department embarked on this project with the goal of turning documents into data. Currently, in the Papers of George Washington, one can research, for example, Washington’s purchases of teapots. However, the results usually give you double the number of actual teapots that arrived at Mount Vernon – returning both the order for the teapot and the invoice for the same item. Because the orders and invoices are such a treasure trove of information, it made sense to invest the time individually matching the ordered item with the invoiced item.
Where do these data come from?
Most of the order and invoice documents have been transcribed and are published online at the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition or in printed form in the Papers of George Washington Colonial Series Volumes 1-10. Three are not transcribed but available online through the Library of Congress.
What type of information can I find in the Invoices and Orders Database?
The information contained in the database falls generally into two overlapping realms: economic and cultural. Each entry contains detailed information on prices of goods, quantities, and volumes of purchase, enabling researchers to understand Washington’s material investments over time. Economic questions might include: how many nails did a plantation need to operate each year; how expensive were Washington’s purchases of Chinese porcelain versus his purchases of creamware; what category of material culture did Washington invest most heavily? These patterns of material investments also speak to the choices and decisions made by this wealthy household informed by their cultural surroundings. Just as we buy articles of clothing influence by modern fashions (think the change in jeans styles over time from bell bottoms to boot cut to skinny jeans), so too did George Washington. We might wonder how changing colonial fashions are represented in the items listed in this database. The items ordered range from those considered luxuries to everyday items that allowed the plantation to function and prosper.
Are there goods that came to Mount Vernon that are not documented in this database?
Yes, for the fullest documented picture of plantation material culture, one would have to consult other sources such as estate inventories and financial documents such as Washington’s plantation ledger and cash accounts. Of course, the archaeological record informs us about artifacts for which we have no documentation, but were integral components of a functioning plantation. Therefore, understanding colonial plantation material culture requires an interdisciplinary approach that utilizes multiple sources of documentary evidence in conjunction with the archaeological record.
What should I do if I have a question about the search results?
First, consult the original reference. If you still have a question, contact us.