By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
On August 6th, 1768, George Washington recorded the weather of that day: “Exceeding hot – & still till the Evening.” Sound familiar? Whether you visited Mount Vernon today or in the 18th century, you would have experienced the three “h’s” of a typical Virginia August: hazy, hot, and humid. How did the Washingtons and their visitors stay cool in the days before air conditioning? Certain architectural features of the mansion directed the breezes and channeled hot air up and out, which helped. Another simple way that Martha Washington kept air moving on a hot day was to use a fan. Women, as opposed to men, almost exclusively waved hand-held fans to stir up a slight breeze.
While fans served the utilitarian purpose as a cooling aid, they also allowed their owners to express their personal style through their choice of material, decoration, and embellishment. The 18th-century world of fans varied from cheap to expensive, from everyday to specialized use, and from plain to fancy.
Evidence of the fans used at Mount Vernon comes from three sources: the museum collection, archaeological sites, and historical documents. Our recently launched database of George Washington’s orders and invoices lets you explore the nearly 4,000 items that came to Mount Vernon before the Revolutionary War. Of these, a handful (pun intended) were fans. Among those requested and received were two fashionable fans made of ivory, two cheap (but also fashionable) fans, one handsome fan, one neat fan, three India fans, and a fan appropriate for mourning. Though archaeologists excavated individual blades of fans made of bone from the Washington’s trash pile, the more treasured and perhaps more expensive of Martha’s fans were mended and fixed on four different occasions in the 1760s and early 1770s.
Are you curious about other goods that George Washington ordered for Mount Vernon? Learn more and explore the database in a cool, air-conditioned space!