Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Hallow's Eve

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager
Halloween approaches. This evening millions of children across America will be donning costumes, grabbing bags and buckets, and ringing doorbells to the sound of “Trick or Treat.” Thoughts niggle in some parents’, or even kids’, brains: What was Halloween like in the past? Some of the participants in the recent Halloween at Gunston event may have been wondering what it was like for the children that lived in that home.

Halloween as we imagine it today is a product of the middle and the end of the 19th century with increasing numbers of Irish immigrants. To really understand that phenomenon, however, one must step much farther back in history. The essence of Halloween can be traced back to ancient pagan religions, particularly the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This festival heralded the new year for the Celtic peoples, and a time when the skin between the worlds of the living and the dead were at their thinnest. Parts of the festivities included celebrating the end of the harvest, costumes, bonfires and honoring the dead. 

With the advent of Christianity, these celebrations changed. Pope Greogry III altered the existing All Martyrs Day, on November 1st, to include all Saints as well. This day was sometimes referred to as All Hallow’s Day, and the preceding day was given the moniker All Hallow’s Evening. The name was eventually shortened to the modern Halloween. The celebration was a fairly solemn affair.

By the 18th century, and in the American colonies, the appearance of Halloween was scattered. It was much more common in the Southern colonies and Maryland, than in the northern, Puritan colonies. Fortune Telling, ghost stories and harvest festivals were also prevalent throughout 18th century history, and not purely limited to one day.

It is hard to say whether or not the Masons of Gunston Hall celebrated Halloween in some way, if at all. They left no written records of the practice. No doubt they would celebrate a good harvest. And Mason clearly commemorated the dead with the moving eulogy he inscribed in the family bible for his wife Ann Eilbeck.  Mason, himself, died in October 1792, so no doubt there were funereal practices honoring his death at the end of the month that year.

Gunston Hall Gazette, October 2008. 
"Ancient Origins of Halloween,", accessed October 30, 2013.
Theobald, Mary Miley, "Some Pumpkins! Halloween and Pumpkins in Colonial America," Colonial Williamsburg,, accessed, October 30, 2013.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Immigrate?

In the case of George Mason I [1629-1686] if you were on the losing side during the English Civil War and the new government’s policy was to confiscate the lands of supporters of the Crown, the Americas probably looked like a great opportunity to start again.

The defeat of the Royalist forces in the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 ended the Third English Civil War between the supporters of Charles II and the forces of Oliver Cromwell. Family legend held that George Mason was a colonel but his name was not found among the military rolls. He may have just been a young adventurer caught up in a cause.

George at 22 left Pershore, Hereford, Worcestershire, England and sailed from Bristol on the ship Assurance, and after landing in Norfolk in late December 1651/ January 1652 he settled on the Potomac River. He did not arrive as a stranger but settled in an area held by Capt. Giles Brent, a Catholic recusant; those who refused to attend Anglican services.  Brent had connections with the Mason family in England. George also was able to take up a number of headrights in a land patent, having a claim of land for paying the passage, averaging about £6 per passage per person in the 17th century, for other settlers. The headright earned per settler equaled about 50 acres. 

After paying for the passage of an individual to make it to the colonies, one had to obtain a patent for the land. First, the governor or local county court had to provide a certificate that verified the validity of the importation of a person. The man seeking land would then select the land he desired and have an official survey made. The patent’s claimant would then take the description of this land to the colony’s secretary who created the patent that would then be approved by the governor. Once a headright was obtained it was treated like a commodity and could be bought, sold, or traded. It also could be saved indefinitely and used at a later date. Mason did not acquire patent rights to his land until March 1656/57. Gov. Edward Digges [1620-1674]* granted Capt. Mason 900 acres abutting northwest upon Aquia creek.  With the title ‘Captain’ coming from his appointment to the county militia.

George reportedly brought his younger brother William [1632-1702/7?]. William apparently settled with George on the Potomac then returned to Norfolk to establish his family seat. He married Virginia [?] and had two sons Ralph and John. The family later moved to Southern Virginia which is now known as Pasquotank Co., North Carolina.

George goes on to make a place for himself among the Virginia gentry of the time, serving as a county justice and later appointed High Sheriff of Stafford county and also representing, in the House of Burgesses, Westmorland and later Stafford County. 

 *His tombstone reads To the memory of Edward Digges Esq. Sonne of Dudley Digges of Chilham in Kent Kn t & Bar t Master of the Rolls in the rain of K. Charles the First. He departed this life 15th of March 1674 in the LIII d year of his age, one of his Mag ty Councill for this his colony of Virginia. A gentlemen of most commendable parts and ingenuity, the only introducer and promoter of the silk manufacture in this colony. And in everything else a pattern worthy of all Pious Imitation. He had issue 6 sons and 7 daughters by the body of Elizabeth his wife who of her conjugal affection hath dedicated to him this Memorial.

“Early Virginia Emigrants” 1623-1666, p. 220.
Baird, Robert (2001). "Understanding Headrights".

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What Do You Think?

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

George Mason wrote and spoke prolifically about government, citizenship, liberty, and representation throughout the late 1700s.  For example, he wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, was one of the most frequent orators during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and wrote countless letters to his contemporaries about his ideas on government.

An outspoken critic of the Constitution, he refused to sign the founding document.  He published 17 objections to it, even going so far as to carry spare copies in his pocket, and handing them out to acquaintances.

So begins our newest exhibit at Gunston Hall, which is designed to encourage responses from visitors about the recent government shutdown.  Given George Mason's comments about the way our government was being set up, and we wanted to know what visitors who walk through our door think about his commentary in the context of our current situation.

Since opening last Thursday, we have gotten wonderful responses from staff and visitors, including some younger visitors. They range from simple to complex, and as you might imagine, are emotionally invested in the situation at hand with the government.  Most of them connect to things Mason said about government, or answer specific questions we developed, such as "Do you think the concerns expressed by Mason in the late 1700s remain valid today?"

In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason stated "That no free Government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." One of the responses to that statement was "Government - Frugality - an important aspect of government then and should be now!"

Other participants created a trail of discussion on the salaries of the legislature and whether or not they are being overpaid for their work.  That is very interesting when one considers that in 1992, just a few years before the last government shutdown, the 27th amendment was ratified.  The amendment, which prevents the implementation of Congressional salary changes until after the next election of representatives, was first proposed on September 25, 1789.  No matter which side of the political spectrum our representatives fall upon, it seems they have had money issues from the very beginning; much as Mason feared.

In Mason's Objections to the Constitution, he was also worried about our representatives on a larger scale: "In the House of Representatives, there is not the Substance, but the Shadow only of Representation; which can never produce proper Information in the Legislature, or inspire Confidence in the People; the Laws will therefore be generally made by men little concern’d in, and unacquainted with their Effects and Consequences."  One of our respondents agrees, "He certainly got that right as present circumstances show!"

There's only one question left.  What do you think?  Feel free to leave a comment, or drop by the museum and put up a sticky note.  We'd love to hear what you have to say.

Also, stay tuned!  This "Pop-up" exhibit represents the first of many small, temporary and interactive experiences we plan to produce for the purpose of connecting Mason's writings with contemporary issues.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Collections Spotlight: Mason Lap Desk

 By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director

Gunston Hall has acquired a folding desk that bears a brass plate, of the period, with the name “Mason.”  The piece is made of mahogany with barber pole inlay on the edges. The top features a central patera, simple stringing, and a quarter fan on each corner. These elements of design, with the red cedar and white pine secondary woods, strongly suggest a Baltimore origin, c. 1790-1810.

The writing desk survives in wonderful condition with its original surface. Traces of the original green dye used to accent the quarter fans and patera can still be seen.

As to the ownership we have little regarding provenance, but will continue to research the piece.

This type of desk represents the high level of style one would associate with the Mason family’s wealth, taste and stature. Aside from the brass name plate, our Room Use Study discussed the likelihood of George Mason owning a desk such as this;

One additional type of object merits discussion in this category--the writing box [traveling desk, folding desk] or lap desk. A smaller version of the top section of what furniture scholars refer to as a desk on frame, these small personal writing desks are known through period survivals. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one, now in the collection of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, upon which Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence. It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to distinguish them from their larger cousins in period inventories.

The issue of a writing box or lap desk is raised by George Mason's purchase in 1773 at the Belvoir sale of a desk valued at a mere 2£6. One can only theorize that based on low value that this is a personal and portable form. Mason's need for such a form can certainly be postulated based upon his travels to Williamsburg, Richmond, and Philadelphia.

The full text of this section can be found in the GunstonHall Room Use Study on our website.  We also want to thank Sumpter Priddy III for bringing this find to our attention.

Donated in honor of Mrs. Henry Raab for her service as First Regent of Gunston Hall.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

To Drink Like a Colonial

By Rod Cofield
Director, Historic London Town and Gardens

“There’s but One Reason I can think,
Why People ever cease to drink:
Sobriety the Cause is not,
Nor Fear of being deem’d a Sot,
But if good Liquor can’t be got.”
(W. Stokes, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 6; London, July 1736; 417)

Residents of the colonial Chesapeake most definitely drank.  A lot.  They loved ale, cider, beer, and wines from around the world.  When they got tired of drinking those on their own, they mixed and matched to create a variety of drinks such as Sampson (cider and rum), Flip (strong beer and rum), or Rattle-Skull (rum, brandy, beer, and a touch of lime).  And when they had imbibed too much, Benjamin Franklin’s list of 200 words to describe drunkenness could be utilized (to name a few: bowz’d, crack’d, fetter’d, knapt, and nimptopsical).

This tradition of drinking permeated all aspects of colonial life.  Ale, beer, cider, punch and other alcoholicdrinks are found in records relating to christenings, daily life, weddings, funerals, birthdays, and even elections.  As a matter of fact, a key part of George Washington’s first election strategy was to giving voters in Frederick County, Virginia plenty of alcohol to drink.  His campaign expenditures included 66 gallons of rum punch, 58 gallons of beer, 35 gallons of wine, 1 hogshead of rum, as well as smaller amounts of cider and brandy.  He won that election with 309 out of 397 votes cast.

Even children drank beer, albeit usually a variety called small beer.  This small beer had a lower alcohol content than its stronger cousins and was considered suitable for children, breakfast, or the infirm.  A colonial recipe for small beer attributed to George Washington can be found at the New York Public Library’s website.

By growing up with alcohol as part of their daily diet, it should come as no surprise that many colonials had prodigious tolerances for alcohol.  On February 20, 1704 Daniel Emory drank three quarts of beer (the equivalent of 6 pints) in an Annapolis tavern.  He repeated that pattern on the 25th and 26th.  And on March 6 he drank two gallons of beer.  As the following news item indicates, women also drank a lot in the colonial era:
Yesterday a woman, who goes by the name of Thirsty Martha, being at a public house, a man offered to pay for as much ale as she could drink while he smoak’d out a pipe of tobacco; she accordingly drank eight pints in the time, (which was not less than a quarter of an hour) and went off not at all disordered, excepting that she complain’d she was still very dry.
(Maryland Gazette, 28 November 1750;2)

The English people’s love of drinking, and the consequent creation of places to drink, is best hinted at in the following 1710 quote:
Upon all the new settlements the Spaniards make, the first thing they do is build a church, the first thing the Dutch do upon a new colony is to build them a fort, but the first thing ye English do, be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern or drinking house.
(Captain Walduck, letter to John Searle; as quoted in David Watt’s The West Indies, page 128).