By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
As you probably noticed via Facebook, Mount Vernon Archaeology spent last week in Baltimore at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual professional conference. We encourage membership in the SHA for networking, exchanging research ideas and exploring new destinations (Leicester, England next year). You can read more about the SHA on their new blog.
Esther White, Dennis Pogue, Heidi Krofft and I took part in an organized session tackling the theme of George Washington and archaeology. The main theme: what can archaeology tell us about a historical individual so famous, beloved, and well documented. Topics included childhood, landscape, the Revolutionary War, the president’s house in Philadelphia, George Washington’s mother, and even the Civil War. Luke Pecoraro was also there and his paper explored Mount Vernon and the nearby towns of Alexandria and Colchester. Dessa Lightfoot analyzed the animal bones from the Midden and what they reveal about butchering practices.
I spoke about George Washington’s role as the embodiment of the 18th-century consumer. The public knows George Washington best as founding father and military hero, but historians and archaeologists have also focused on his participation in the growing tide of consumerism, often citing his prolific writings. For example, history books frequently include this statement written by Washington to his English agent in 1760 in regards to the types of goods he received, “And you may believe me when I tell you that instead of getting things good and fashionable in their several kinds we often have Articles sent Us that could only have been usd by our Forefathers in the days of yore.” Here, Washington is expressing his knowledge of what’s fashionable and his frustration with not receiving goods in the best and most current taste. In fact, his reputation for style and an understanding of what’s “cool” in colonial Virginia has even entered modern popular culture. Check out this blog on history’s best dressed or this Forbes magazine article on Washington as fashion plate!
I think we can learn more about George Washington and his social world by delving into the data behind these interesting quotes. If we use the extensive database of historical and archaeological information about George Washington the consumer, we might be able to understand how other folks in colonial Virginia accessed and used goods for their own purposes. For example, documents and finds from the midden tell us that Washington purchased large, matching sets of ceramic and pewter tablewares, imported directly from England to Mount Vernon, as early as 1757. Compare this to what was available to the average consumer at nearby stores. Local merchants did not stock their shelves with settings of tableware; therefore, average consumers did not have the ability to serve multiple guests different courses from matched plates, dishes, sauce boats, and tureens. I am interested in this idea of inequality of access to consumer goods for what it tells us about how material culture played a role in structuring the colonial social order.