Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Spot of Tea

By Frank N. Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

Who would have thought that some dried leaves, soaked in water, could be such a controversial item that it would be listed in history books as one of several reasons for armed rebellion?

Tea, in the 18th century, was more than just a simple beverage. It was a meal, a social event, a medicine, and by the latter part of the century, a political hot button item as it became the symbol of taxation without representation.

By January 1774, a month after Patriots in Indian attire turned Boston harbor into a sea of tea, the buying, selling, and consumption of tea had become politically and socially incorrect. What were the tea-loving, freedom-loving colonials going to drink?

The January edition of the Gazette
In the January 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette, a contributor writing under the pseudonym Philo-Aletheias, listed 17 substitutes for that popular beverage.1 He also included medical advice and beauty tips with many of the substitute recipes and he gave recommendations on just how to brew them, starting with “Every Sort of Tea is rendered disagreeable by being too strong.”

But if we must, through Custom, have some warm Tea, once or twice a Day, why may we not exchange this slow Poison, which not only destroys our Constitutions, but dangers our Liberty, and drains our Country of so many thousand Pounds a year, for Teas of our own American Plants; many of which may be found, pleasant to the Taste and very salutary, according to our various Constitutions.

As the first of his concoctions of brewed American plants, Philo-Aletheias lists "Sassafras Root, sliced thin and dried, with Raspings of Lignumvite" which makes a tea that is "exceedingly agreeable, when made weak. Not only was this brew agreeable, he says, but it "beautifies and smoothes the Complexion, prevents Pleurises, Scurvies, and Cachexies [weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness.] &c."

Prepare a tea of sweet marjoram mixed with a bit of mint and you have a concoction that will "relieve the Head and Nerves, strengthen the Stomach, help all the Digestions, are good in Catarrhs and Asthmas, and also giving a good Colour to the Skin, prevent Hystericks, and Melancholy." Truly a wonder drug--and it's available without a prescription.

"Mother of Thyme, and a little Hyssop," will not only revive your spirits, and "make [you] cheerful" and it’s also "good against cold Diseases, Asthmas, Coughs, and Vapours."

A tea of sage and balm leaves is "gently astringent, stimulating and strengthening, excellent in Fevers, when joined with a little Lemon Juice; good for weak Stomachs, Gouts, Vertigoes, and Cachexies.

Rosemary and lavender is apparently “excellent for Disorders of the Head, and Weakness of the nervous System, occasioned by India Teas, or otherwise; they resolve cold Humours, strengthen the Stomach, and rouse the Spirits."

Why rely on overtaxed imported tea from India when you have “A very few small twigs of white oak, well dried in the Sun with two Leaves and a half of sweet Myrtle”? This leafy, twiggy formula “… so exactly counterfeits the India Teas that a good Connoisseur might be mistaken in them.” If you don’t mind drinking sticks.

Out of sawdust and myrtle? Got “Obstructions of the Spleen, Liver, &c”? Why not try clover with a little chamomile.

Asthma? No problem. “Twigs of black Currant Bushes greatly relieve Asthmas, and often cure them in Children, with a few Worm Purges.”

Red Rose Bush Leaves and Cinquefoil, on the other hand, “recruit the Strength, mitigate Pain and Inflammations, and are beneficial to consumptive and feverish People, healing to Wounds, and serviceable in spitting of Blood.” This reader is confused about whether “spitting of Blood” is desired or undesired.

Then there is mistletoe and English wild valerian. “This tea is not the most pleasant, but tolerable, [you don’t hear Madison Avenue turning a phrase like that] and is one of the principal Antispasmodicks… has cured many of the Falling Sickness [epilepsy], purging by Sweat and Urine, and destroying Worms better than the narcotick Pink Root.” Before boiling up some mistletoe though, you may want to consider this. While it is used in several medical applications, “It is a poisonous plant that causes acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach pain and diarrhea along with low pulse.”2 Don’t try this one at home.

“Pine Buds, and lesser Vervain, make a Tea sufficient to cure most Agues, and are very powerful Dirueticks, removing Indurations of the Spleen, Liver, Reins, and Mysentery.” Powerful, indeed.

Do you have wormy children? Try “Ground Ivy, with a little Lavender Cotton, or Roman Wormwood, or Southernwood.” It will “open Obstructions, prevent malignant and infectious Diseases, cure Agues and Coughs, and kill Worms in Children.”

Do you need a remedy against agues and “hysterick Cholicks”? Then you’ll want a tea made from “Fennel Seed, and inner Bark of Magnolia.”

“Strawberry Leaves, and Leaves of Sweet Brier, or Dog’s Rose, make a Tea agreeably dulco-acid, cooling in Fevers, bilious fluxes, Sharpness of Urine, and Indispositions of the Stomach.” Keep it in mind the next time your flux is bilious.

Another fine brew is golden rod and betony. “A Tea of these, drank with Honey, are highly corroborative and detersive, to cleanse Ulcers in the Lungs, and Wounds of the Breast, Palsies, &c.”

“Twigs of the liquid Amber Tree (commonly called Sweet Gum).” Sweeten that with honey and the resulting tea is “very pectoral, and a Specifick with some in Pleurisies.” Elder flowers are optional.

Do you suffer from “flatulent Cholicks, Hystericks, and Depression of Spirits”? “Wastings, Hemmorrhages, and Fluxes” getting you down? Philo-Aletheias’s final tea-like substance of peppermint and yarrow will fix you right up!

The writer assures that all of his teas are safe and innocent, that even pregnant ladies can drink them (except the thyme and hyssop, the mistletoe and valerian, and the ground ivy and lavender cotton).

“Married Persons may add a little Ginger to any of them.” Why just married persons? More research may be needed.

If the Gentlemen and Ladies of the first Rank will use their Influence and Example to abolish this pernicious Custom of drinking the Asiatick Teas, and introduce and persevere in using our own, they will have the Self-pleasing Satisfaction of having emancipated their Country from the basest Slavery and Tyranny of Custom, and erecting a Monument to Common Sense, which will merit the Praise of unborn Generations. 


It’s interesting to note that by the end of the following year, instead of instructing its subscribers with recipes for herbal teas, the Virginia Gazette would be publishing the recipe for gunpowder as this anti-tea tax movement had evolved into full-blown revolution.


1Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, January 13, 1774, Page 1. Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. <>.

2The Handy Science Answer Book. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1997.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

George Mason and Pohick Church

By Rev. Tom Costa
GHHIS and Pohick Church Docent

Sometimes referred to as "the Mother Church of Northern Virginia," Pohick was the first permanent church in the colony to be established north of the Occoquan River, sometime prior to 1724, near the site now occupied by Cranford Methodist Church on Old Colchester Road. It was named "Pohick Church" because of its proximity to Pohick Creek (“Pohick” comes from a Dogue Indian word meaning "hickory").

In 1732, the Virginia General Assembly established Truro Parish, defining it as all the lands in the colony above the Occoquan River, extending to the western frontier. As the only church within these boundaries, Pohick became the head parish church of the newly formed district. The large church parishes in colonial times served as local government districts before the establishment of counties.

George Mason was a life-long Anglican who attended services regularly, and was first elected as a vestryman for Truro Parish in 1748. Members of the vestry oversaw a great number of tasks, both religious and governmental. In addition to collecting tithes or church taxes; building and maintaining churches and chapels in the parish boundaries as needed; and providing for ministers, clerks, and sextons; there was the responsibility to care for the poor—allowances and care for the sick and destitute, the maintaining of neglected children and widows, and the care and apprenticing of orphans.

By 1765 the old wood-frame church was beginning to show signs of decay, and the question of rebuilding came before the vestry. It was said that George Washington, who had joined the vestry in 1763, favored building a new church on a more central site two miles north of the old church. George Mason opposed such a move, pleading that their ancestors had worshipped at the old church and many of them were buried in the adjoining churchyard. The question was left unsettled, and another vestry meeting was appointed for a final vote by all 12 members of the vestry. In the meantime, Washington surveyed the neighborhood and marked the houses and distances on a well-drawn map. Armed with his survey map, Washington was said to have presented his case for the new site as being more centrally located to the greatest number of plantations and parishioners. When the vestry voted on November 20, 1767, the resolution to build a new Pohick Church at the new site was carried by a majority of seven to five.

Even though the old site had been nearer to Gunston Hall and the new one was closer to Mount Vernon, the debate and its ultimate outcome did not cause any grievances between the two old friends or end their ability to work together for the good of the parish. When the Vestry further decided to build the new Pohick Church on a grander scale, constructing it out of more durable stone and brick, George Mason, along with his fellow vestrymen George Washington and George William Fairfax, was part of the church building committee that approved the building designs and construction work.

When Daniel French the undertaker (the colonial word for what we would call a building contractor) for the new church construction died suddenly in late 1771, it was George Mason, as executor of his estate, who stepped in as undertaker and completed the building of the current Pohick Church in 1774. An interesting connection between Gunston Hall and Pohick Church also dates to this time: in 1772 Mason approved the hiring of master carver William Bernard Sears to handle all the interior wood carving and decorative gilding in the church until its completion. Sears, by then a well-established craftsman in the Alexandria area, had first come to Virginia as Mason’s indentured servant and had carved all the impressive woodwork at Gunston Hall several years before.

Mason continued to serve as a vestryman all during the difficult years of the Revolutionary War. By the time the Virginia General Assembly disestablished the Protestant Episcopal (formerly Anglican) Church in 1785, eliminating local tax support for the parish churches and disbanding their vestries, George Mason had guided and supported Pohick Church and the poor and needy of the area for a period of 35 years.

Journal Of Early Southern Decorative Arts, November, 1982, Volume VIII, Number 2. Winston-Salem, NC: The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
Lillback, Peter A., George Washington's Sacred Fire. Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press, 2006.
Minutes of the Vestry, Truro Parish, Virginia, 1732-1785. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc., 1995.
Slaughter, Philip, The History of Truro Parish in Virginia. Philadelphia, PA: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1907.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Letter to Ann Eilbeck Mason

Dear Ann,

The lovely portrait of you still hangs at Gunston Hall, as it did during your lifetime, alongside that of Colonel Mason.

Your tomb bears a beautiful inscription, including words that speak to the adoration and grief of a devoted husband: “… Once she was all that cheers and sweetens life, the tender mother, daughter, friend and wife, once she was all that makes mankind adore …” These words pale by comparison with those in Colonel Mason’s eulogy of you.

Beyond these descriptions, I have little idea what you were like. How did your voice sound? Was there, as I suspect, a prankster in your personality? Were you afraid of thunder or mice? Did you have a childhood best friend? Were there duties expected of a lady such as you that seemed tedious and unpleasant? Did you have a favorite holiday, or pastime, or skill? Did you resemble, in appearance or disposition, either of your parents more than the other? How I wonder who you were, Ann, and whether we might have been friends.

I am a single citizen among many who share a reverence for those who worked and struggled and sacrificed to create our nation. Among our shared interests is Gunston Hall, because we appreciate not only its elegance and simplicity, the activity that defined your plantation life, the work that was expected of you as mistress, and that you offered with pleasure, or the love and devotion that blessed your marriage. It seems to us that “dignified” well characterizes every aspect of your life.

Above and beyond all of these things, we cherish the principals of innate human rights which your husband espoused, fought for, sacrificed friendships for … and which we feel confident were as fundamental to your thinking as they were to his. We share gratitude that those powerful declarations of human rights articulated by him now represent the foundation of our government and our society.

It is because of this that you, your husband, your home, and your shared humanity are preserved as a memorial in perpetuity. It is because of this that a Society exists of ladies who endeavor relentlessly to promote and honor the effort and sacrifice of those who helped to create a free, just, and democratic nation 237 years ago.

As a member of this Society I have repeatedly found myself lingering in Gunston Hall’s burial ground, chattering away to you. It is a particularly peaceful and lovely setting. Why I chose you rather than your husband with whom to commiserate only a lady might understand! There lie both of you, but it has invariably been your counsel I sought, confident that many of your days as Colonel Mason’s wife were devoted to hearing, supporting, and guiding your husband as he wrestled with some of the most difficult and critical decisions ever imposed on a caring human being. It always seemed to me that you must have demonstrated a special ability in this regard.

Until one day I was struck immobile by the date of death etched on your tomb: March 9, 1773.

1773! Before everything.

Ann Eilbeck Mason's tomb.

You departed this world two years before the colonies declared a war of independence against Britain; before, in support of that effort, Colonel Mason wrote a Declaration of Rights on behalf of Virginians and all colonists, the Declaration to which I have referred; before those colonists defeated the British, gained their precious and God-willed independence, and established a democratic government for, by and of the people; before your friends General and Mrs. Washington became our nation’s first President and his First Lady; and before … thanks to the indefatigable work of your husband … our democracy became grounded in the fundamental principal that ALL MEN ARE CREATED FREE AND EQUAL.

Could you have imagined that, Ann, that all must be accepted and entitled as free and equal?

237 years later, our democracy remains the strongest, fairest, and most coveted government on Earth.

If only your life had not been cut short! I can only imagine how different the details might have been. Perhaps, with your daily companionship and your gentle and nurturing counsel, Colonel Mason and General Washington might have found a way to achieve what became our Bill of Rights without the loss of a friendship. Perhaps you yourself might have become a First Lady of the United States of America, and who knows what your intelligence and insight might have brought to bear? Perhaps we might know much more today about the life of Gunston Hall and its owners than is available to us.

Still, we are enormously blessed to have your legacy, if not your written word. Rest comfortably, Ann, in the assurance that your husband’s contribution to the creation and endurance of a brilliant, honorable nation is without compare. And know also that your lives, your productive home, and your respect for the sanctity of every human life will remain an inspiration to all who cherish freedom, in perpetuity. There will always be ladies who see to that.

In gratitude,
A Citizen

Thursday, January 9, 2014

George Mason on Education

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

For many Virginia planters, education was something that happened at home, under the oversight of tutors and governesses. Others were sent to academies, boarding schools or colleges for education, either in the colonies or in Great Britain. Records suggest that George Mason IV was educated by tutors engaged either by his mother, Ann Thomson Mason, or his Uncle John Mercer, or in small private schools. It is believed that Mason enhanced his education by frequent use of his uncle’s extensive library. When Mason had his own children, it seems he engaged both sides of the dichotomy for their education.

The current schoolhouse on Gunston Hall property.
We know that George Mason V had the privilege of a tutor, as his great uncle, John Mercer, writes of his distaste in the whole breed of tutors. He found that they were “without either good religion or morals & I attribute it to George Mason’s (the fifth) tutor that I have long doubted with a good deal of concern, that he has not improved in either.” In the Recollections of John Mason, another of George Mason’s sons writes about the tutors he recalls being present during his education at Gunston Hall. “The private tutors in my father’s family as far back as I can remember were: first a Mr. McPherson of Maryland and next a Mr. Davidson & then a Mr. Constable, of Scotland both…I remember I was so small when the first of these gentlemen had charge of the school that I was permitted to be an occasional visitor of it rather than made a regular attendant.”

All of the Mason children, as well as some friends, neighbors and cousins on occasion, were likely to have been tutored at the same time in the schoolhouse which John Mason later describes. A little further south of the Masons, on the Northern Neck, Philip Vickers Fithian describes the life of a tutor at a Virginia plantation, and lists the eight pupils, of varying ages and relations, he taught while employed by the Carters at Nomini Hall.

At least two of the Mason children also attended school off the plantation. John Mason includes commentary of the schools he attended including an academy in Stafford County and a small school with “a Mr. Hunter, a Scotchman also, and quite a recluse,” in Calvert County, Maryland. In the spring of 1787, the young Mason was apprenticed off to a merchant in Alexandria to learn the business. The other child known to attend school away from Gunston Hall was the youngest, Thomas. He, like John, was sent to the academy in Stafford. The two boys did not stay together however. The next record of Thomas being away at school is a postscript from George Mason to John, saying simply, “Your Brother Thomas is at the Academy in Fredericksburg.”

Advertisement in the Virginia Gazette.
What the children were learning at Gunston Hall is hard to say. The extent of George Mason’s commentary on the matter is limited to a note in which he asks about the “Price of a few School Books.” We can infer the general gist of things from what other students were learning in 18th century America. The Carter children were learning reading; writing, including spelling; math; and the older boys were studying Latin when Fithian first joined them. Pieces in the Virginia and Maryland Gazettes advertise and solicit for schools and tutors in other subjects such as Greek, French, Astronomy, Navigation, Trigonometry and Geometry.

Dancing and music were often a specializations in a tutor, and it appears that traveling Dance and Music Masters were common. In Alexandria, Miss Sarah Carlyle and her mother traveled to Mount Vernon for spinet lessons. Interestingly, John Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepson, reports on May 18, 1770, that his sister “Patsy Custis and Milly Posey went to Colonel Mason’s to the Dancing School.”

Upon the completion of the most basic of reading, writing and mathematical skills, the girls of the Mason family were undoubtedly removed from the schoolhouse for more feminine pursuits. John Mason writes of a tutoress, Mrs. Newman, who was responsible for his sisters. It is likely that the girls were learning the skills necessary to manage homes like the one they were growing up in. Eldest daughter Nancy Mason came to the duty out of order when her mother died in 1773, whereupon she became the mistress of the house and oversaw it with “an amiable Disposition…[and] a degree of Prudence far above her years,” owed potentially to her education.

Although we do not know the specific details of the education of the Mason family, it is likely they were not much different from so many other wealthy Virginia families. George Mason obviously cared about the education of his children, though he was not as vociferous on the subject as he was on others. He hired tutors, sent them to schools, and generally made it clear in his will that money was to be spent on their upkeep.

Dunn, Terry K., ed., The Recollections of John Mason. Mason Neck, VA: The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 2012.
Farish, Hunter Dickinson, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978.
John Carlyle to George Carlyle, October 17, 1766. Letters of John Carlyle.  Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.
John Parke Custis to George Washington, August 30, 1770.  Papers of George Washington.  Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Mount Vernon, VA.Rutland, Robert A. The Papers of George Mason. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1970.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

It's a New Year!

By Frank Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

The year is now 2014. We know because the calendar told us, we watched a ball drop, sang a Robert Burns poem, we kissed a loved one or two, sipped a bubbly beverage, and woke up with a headache just in time to watch the Rose Parade.

In 1752, things were a little more complicated for England and her colonies than just hanging a new calendar on the wall. That was the year of the big switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

Those of us in the 21st century United States complain twice a year when we have to turn our clocks backwards and forwards for Daylight Saving Time; have to think every four years about a longer February; and, of course assume the world and all its computers will self-destruct every time a new millennium comes around.

Imagine you lived with George Mason and his new bride Ann in 1751. Like everyone else in the British colonies you celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25 or Lady Day (the traditional name of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin). Then, a mere nine months later, 1752 began on a new New Year’s Day, January 1. To make matters worse, when you went to bed on Wednesday, September 2, 1752, you woke up the very next day on Thursday, September 14, 1752. Eleven days of your life just disappeared! And we complain about losing an hour of sleep when we set the clocks back.

The proposal to change the calendar was made by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. His reasoning was sound; adjustments had to be made because the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun just weren’t exactly cooperating with Julius Caesar’s Julian calendar which had been in place since 46 A.D. Time needed an adjustment so Easter could be consistently and accurately scheduled.

The Julian calendar year was 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the actual trip around the sun. Over centuries, this inaccuracy caused days to drift away from the actual seasons when they were suppose to occur. The vernal equinox, critical for scheduling the Feast of Easter, had shifted from March 21 to March 11. If something wasn’t done, soon stores would be hanging Christmas decorations before Halloween. Oh, wait, never mind.

Gregory’s papal bull to reform the calendar was quickly accepted by most Catholic countries in Europe. Italy, Spain, France and Poland converted to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but in Protestant countries like England, new calendar reform was mistrusted, fearing it was a plot to get those countries back into the Catholic fold.

The British Empire was satisfied with the Julian calendar until Parliament passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. After waiting for over 160 years, the British could say the change was practical and not religious. According to Parliament:

Whereas the legal supputation of the year of our Lord in England, according to which the year beginneth on the twenty-fifth day of March, hath been found by experience to be attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom….

By the time Parliament had hammered out all the details of eliminating days, moving New Year’s Day, calculating leap years, allowing for movable and immovable feasts, festivals, taxes, courts, holy days, pasture use, rent payments, and all other details, the Act ran over 3,000 words with 18 charts and tables to help clarify the information, including one that made it easy to know the date of Easter Sunday right through 2199 (it’s April 14, in case you need to know).

The Virginia Gazette summed up the legislation much more succinctly in its June 20, 1751, issue with but 111 words.
We are assured, that the alteration of the Style of the Year will take place the first of next January, and that that will be the first day of the year 1752; that eleven days will be taken out of that year at Michaelmas following; that all State Holydays will be observed on the same day of the month they are at present, that Payments will be made according to the Number of Days, counting from their Date. The Table of Moveable Feasts is made by Doctor Bradley [the king’s astronomer]. We are to reckon by the Gregorian Style, and all Quarterly Payments are to be made at the four great feasts as usual.

Changing the date when the new year begins and eliminating 11 days from the year can cause confusion for historians and researchers, as well as for the people who were living through it. O.S., meaning Old Style and N.S., New Style are often used to compute birthdates and to date events and documents.
Notice in the VA Gazette as to the change in date of the New Year

George Washington, for example, was born on February 11, 1731, O.S. Because he was born before New Year’s Day in March, after the 1752 calendar change, his birthday became February 22, 1732, N.S., the date that his birthday is traditionally celebrated. Thomas Jefferson, who carefully gave instructions about which of his many accomplishments to carve on his tombstone, had his birth date inscribed as April 2, 1743 O.S.

So 1752 was the shortest year in history, at least in England and her colonies, with a mere 355 days. An historical event of note in that year was on June 15, when Benjamin Franklin used a kite, a key, and a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electricity. It’s good that he didn’t try to discover electricity during those missing days in September, or you would be reading this in the dark.

Happy New Year, New Style


“Calendar (New Style) Act 1750.” Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. <>.
Poole, Dr. Robert. “Time's Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England (Google EBook).” Google Books. UCL Press. 1998. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <>.
Stanton, Lucia. “Old Style (O.S.).” Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS.., June 1995. Web. 20 Dec. 2013. <>.
“The Scots Magazine, Volume 13, 1751 (Google EBook).” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013. <>.
“Virginia Gazette, Hunter, June 20, 1751, Page 3.” Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.< /DigitalLibrary/VirginiaGazette/VGImagePopup.cfm?ID=990>.