Toys for Mount Vernon’s Tots

Laura Tancredi / Archaeology Laboratory Manager

Pipe clay figurines of a man and a women


As children spend this week playing with gifts received during the holidays, here in the archaeology lab we are inspired to think about toys at Mount Vernon, and take a closer look at some examples excavated from the South Grove Midden.  These artifacts, including a set of pipe clay figurines and a miniature pewter bowl, remind us that Mount Vernon was not only home to George Washington, but also to his step-children, step-grandchildren, and lots of enslaved children.

When George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, he became guardian to the two surviving children from her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, both of whom were under the age of six.  George Washington placed several orders of toys for his step-children Jacky and Patsy Custis, during years in which the South Grove Midden was still in use by the Washington household.  In the first decade of his marriage to Martha, records of at least five toy purchases are noted in Washington’s cash accounts or by invoice from his London agent Robert Cary and Company.  These orders were often very vague, as in September 1759 when Washington orders: “10 [shillings] worth of Toys” for Jacky and “A Fash[ionably] Dres[sed] Baby…& other Toys” for Patsy.  In return, each child received various playthings from London toy maker Unwin & Wigglesworth, including an aviary, Prussian soldier and wax baby.  While there is no archaeological evidence of these toys in the South Grove Midden, our three excavated toys may have arrived at Mount Vernon through the same means.

Invoice from Robert Cary and Company showing purchases made for Patsy Custis from London toy store Unwin & Wigglesworth

Invoice from Robert Cary and Company showing purchases made for Jacky Custis from London toy store Unwin & Wigglesworth

Pipe clay figurines, like the two found at Mount Vernon, are interesting artifacts that have been attributed several different functions throughout the years.   Use as religious talismans, decorative curios and children’s toys have all been proposed.   The headless man and woman excavated from the midden have a pastoral quality to them, with a small dog seated next to the woman, while the man clutches his hat in one hand and a cane-like object in the other.  Traces of red and grey pigment are still visible on the surface.  Crude mold seams running along the lengths of the figurines and their small size (less than 4 inches) suggest they were not meant for use as display objects in the Washington household, supporting the idea that they were used as playthings.

Small pewter bowl, possibly from a child's tea or dish set

Like children today who have play-kitchens and host tea parties, the miniature pewter bowl excavated from the midden would have been a welcome addition to any child’s toy collection.  Pewter toys could be purchased in a variety of shapes, and this bowl was probably one of many dinnerware miniatures.  Excavated from a post-1776 context, it may have belonged to Martha’s granddaughter Nelly.

For more information, artifact biographies on these figurines and pewter bowl, as well as several other objects, were prepared by one of our Fall 2011 Interns, Heather Dalsing, and will appear on the new website after its launch at the end of 2012.

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One Response to Toys for Mount Vernon’s Tots

  1. Ethel McMullen says:

    A nice article to describe how toys came to Mt Vernon. I enjoyed reading this and learning about the artifacts found. When I visit Mt. Vernon there is so much to look at and so many descriptions to read, it is a good thing to be able to read about some artifacts at home. Thank you.

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