Thursday, February 27, 2014

Furnishing Education: A Desk on Frame from the Collections

By Lydia Blackmore
Curatorial Volunteer

The desk in it's former location in the schoolhouse.
The large desk on frame recently seen in use in the school house as a podium for educators and a storage space for slates and battledores, is, in fact, among the oldest pieces of furniture in the collection at Gunston Hall. The desk is made of walnut with mortise and tenon construction and solid turned legs, indicating that it was produced by a rural craftsman in the Mid-Atlantic (from Pennsylvania to Virginia) in the first half of the eighteenth century. The late Queen Anne style narrows the date to around 1730.

One of the most beautiful elements of the desk is the original engraved brass escutcheon. The decorative element surrounds a key hole at the front of the piece, just below the hinged lid. Behind the escutcheon is an old lock. Although the lock is not original to the piece, it was likely installed in the eighteenth century. It is not unusual for desks to have locks, as they are safe storage places for valuable books, correspondence, and money. It was also not unusual for those locks to be replaced when they were broken for malicious purposes or just because someone lost the key. In 1766, John Saunders, the carpenter at the College of William and Mary was paid for several repairs in the grammar school room, including “putting a lock to desk in school.”

This form was common in Virginia throughout the 18th century. By 1710, desks were regularly listed in Southern inventories of both private and public spaces. A “large desk on a frame” was included in
Hinges on the interior of the desk.
the 1726 estate inventory of Thomas Sorrel of Westmoreland County, Virginia. Although the earliest examples were probably imported from England, locally-made walnut and pine desks were widely available by the middle of the century.

Desks, as a furniture form, came in all shapes and sizes in the 18th century. The smallest were portable boxes with a slanted top, while the largest had writing surfaces that folded out over a chest of drawers with a book case above. Desks on frames, such as this one, are a particular variety of the form, meant to be used by a standing writer. Sometimes, they were used in businesses to keep accounts. The slanted surface supports large books for keeping records, while the locked area underneath provides safe storage for financial records. Thomas Lee had a “writg desk” in the Counting House at Stratford Hall in 1758. His son, Philip Ludwell Lee, also had a “writg desk” listed in the “Under Room Office” when his probate was taken in 1776.

This form is most often associated with its role in education. Standing desks are perfect for learning sums, practicing penmanship, and reading aloud to students. Philip Fithian, tutor for the Carter family at Nominie Hall, wrote in his diary on February 2, 1774, that “Prissy this day began Multiplication. We had also a large elegant Writing Table brought to us so high that the Writers must stand.” Two years later, the school room at Stratford Hall contained “1 round leaf table,” a “writ[in]g desk,” one “old desk,” and “2 stools & 5 chairs” to furnish the education of the Lee children. The education of some of Virginia’s most prominent families took place at these distinctive desks.

Lacey Villiva recently wrote a blog article on education at Gunston Hall. George Mason IV hired several tutors to educate his many children while at home, and sent several of his sons away to schools in the Chesapeake region. The school house at Gunston Hall probably held a desk on frame from which the tutors educated the Mason children.

This 1730s desk, however, is more of the time of George Mason’s own education. Mason spent his early years on his family’s plantation in Fairfax County. In 1735, when young George was only 10 years old, his father died in a boating accident, leaving his mother in charge of three children and their education. Although the bulk of George Mason’s legal and philosophical training took place in his Uncle John Mercer’s library, he also received some lessons from hired tutors. Mrs. Mason engaged a Mr. “Williams” and a “Mr. Wylie” to educate her son in the 1730s. It is possible that at some point in his education, George Mason practiced his penmanship or his figures at a large standing desk on frame, such as this shining example from the collection at Gunston Hall.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. The Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990.

Goodwin, Mary R.M. The College of William and Mary: A Brief Sketch of the Main Building of the College, and of the Rooms to be Restored to their Eighteenth Century Appearance. Research Department, Colonial Williamsburg, 1967.
Hill, Helen. George Mason: Constitutionalist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Hurst, Ronald and Jonathan Prown. Southern Furtniture, 1680-1830: In the Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997.

“Lee, Thomas.” Westmoreland County Records 1756-1767. From Probing the Past.

“Lee, Philip Ludwell.” Westmoreland County Records 1756-1767. From Probing the Past.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The USS Gunston Hall: A Legacy of Honorable Service

This past Christmas, I received a holiday card from Captain Timothy C. Kuehhas, Commanding Officer of the USS Gunston Hall.  I was truly honored and deeply moved to have received a card from the Captain and his crew because, among other reasons, it was a powerful reminder of two very important facts.

USS Gunston Hall at sea.
First, this card reminded me that the legacy of George Mason and Gunston Hall is represented in a variety of places, ranging from a naval vessel to a County in Ohio. Most importantly, however, this card, sent on behalf of servicemen and servicewomen, patriots all, at a time when they should be receiving cards of thanks and best wishes from us, reminded me that George Mason’s and Gunston Hall’s legacy is and will always be about more than what happened in the past—it is about ideals of democracy, service, patriotism, integrity, and honor—all of which are embodied and represented by those serving onboard the USS Gunston Hall today.

So, without any delay following receipt of this card, I also sought to learn more about the USS Gunston Hall. Accordingly, I am pleased to share the following brief history of the two ships bearing this name.

The first USS Gunston Hall was an Ashland-class dock landing ship built and launched by the Moore Dry Dock Company, located in Oakland, California, in 1943.  The ship boasted an overall length of 457 feet, a beam of 72 feet, and carried a complement of 290 officers and crew.

During World War II, during which she earned 9 battle stars, the USS Gunston Hall participated with distinction in every major operation in the Pacific Theater from 1944 to the end of the war.  Able to carry tanks, a diverse array of vehicles, equipment of various types, and soldiers, the USS Gunston Hall possessed a versatility which supported its involvement in beach landings and assaults at places such as Guadalcanal, Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

Shortly after the war, then based in San Diego, California, the USS Gunston Hall returned to the Pacific. Once in the Pacific, in 1946, she participated in Operation Crossroads, a series of scientific tests related to the atomic bomb located at Bikini Atoll.

The USS Gunston Hall was decommissioned in 1947, but only briefly. After a retrofit which strengthened her hull and improved her ventilation systems, the ship was recommissioned in 1949 and stationed in the Arctic, ultimately returning to San Diego in 1950.  After the outbreak of war with Korea, the ship set sail for Pusan, Korea. Serving for the duration of the war, the USS Gunston Hall earned another 9 battle stars between 1950 and 1953.

In 1955, the USS Gunston Hall participated in one the Navy’s largest humanitarian efforts, Operation Passage to Freedom, during which over 310,000 North Vietnamese residents, 68,000 tons of cargo, and 8,000 vehicles were evacuated and from the North and sent safely to South Vietnam.

Subsequently, the USS Gunston Hall deployed from the West Coast with troops bound for Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but with the withdraw of Soviet missiles, she returned to California before reaching the Caribbean. She also shuttled between Pacific ports and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Shortly thereafter, in 1970, the USS Gunston Hall was sold to Argentina. She was decommissioned for the last time in 1981 and scrapped.

But soon a new USS Gunston Hall would be born.  Launched in 1987 at Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans, Louisiana, the new USS Gunston Hall is a Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship 610 feet in overall length and 84 feet at her beam.  Part of the Atlantic Fleet, the ship’s mission, as explained at here, is to transport US Marines and their combat equipment to areas around the world and to launch and support assault landing craft and helicopters during amphibious operations. 

USS Gunston Hall crest.
The new USS Gunston Hall’s shield includes colors from the Mason family crest and symbols honoring the battle stars and distinguished service of the first USS Gunston Hall. The ship’s crest also features the motto DEFENDING THE CONSTITUTION, which intentionally recalls the Bill of Rights and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776. Additionally, the grassy knoll on the crest denotes the land of Virginia and the landscape of Gunston Hall.

After reading about the history of the first USS Gunston Hall and learning about the current USS Gunston Hall, I felt an even greater sense of pride about being able to work at George Mason’s Gunston Hall. Accordingly, while the USS Gunston Hall is presently deployed at sea, please join me in thanking all those servicemen and servicewomen who have served or are presently serving on either of the vessels bearing the name USS Gunston Hall.  The record of distinction, valor, and service embodied by these ships and their crews is impressive and all of us at George Mason’s Gunston Hall are proud and honored by any association with these two vessels and the brave individuals comprising their crews. 

Thank you Captain Kuehhas, our thanks to your crew, and please accept our best wishes for a safe voyage in defense of and service to our great country.  Huzzah!!

Scott Muir Stroh III
Executive Director, Gunston Hall

Information for this article found at:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sleep Tight: Staying Warm at Night

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Eighteenth Century homes could get quite chilly this time of year, often becoming downright frigid as central heating had not yet been invented. Banked fires never went out, but they provided little to no heat in the room. What would the Masons have done when temperatures could drop to well into freezing range at night? There were lots of things that could be done to keep warm at night; we’ll explore a few here including bed hangings and bed covers of various sorts.

The bedstead with hangings in the Chamber at Gunston Hall.
Firstly, bed hangings provided the first layer of warmth for sleepers. If you use your imagination, take yourself back to building forts as a child, or with your own children and grandchildren. Once all of those blankets get draped over the couch cushions, it gets a little warm under them, doesn’t it? People in the 18th century were trying for that warm, damp heat to keep body temperatures up throughout the night.

Families like the Masons could afford such a lavish expenditure, which could have included matching window curtains. Various bills and inventories include lovely descriptions of bed hangings. George Washington requested “yellow Silk and worsted Damask Furniture, lined with Tammy… [with] 3 pr. Yellow silk and worsted Damask Window curtains.” Furniture here means furnishings or fittings, and from context the bed hangings. They were often designed to be easily raised and lowered from the head of the bed on a series of rings, pulleys and strings. One wealthy gentleman requested “Cotton of a large pattern and Rich colors to be well fitted and to Hang upon brads or with Hooks and Eyes so as to be Easily taken up or Down. [Image: drawstring interiors]

Fabrics varied from incredibly fanciful to fairly plain. Textile books that survive from the period give samples of fabrics that might have been used for ordering new hangings. Everything from silk, cotton and wool were used for the hangings depending on the season and the wealth of the purchaser. Some of the very fine wool hangings were worsted, or tightly spun fibers, with decorative finishes which might appear to be silk to the modern viewer. The finest of homes might have had silk hangings with lovely damask brocades. In the second half of the century, cotton hangings became more popular; to some extent because they were increasingly washable. [Image: Harateen]

The next layer of warmth was the top cover on the bed. For some families this might have been the top outermost layer, as not everyone could afford fashionable beds with bed hangings. This might have been a rug. Such rugs were not intended for the floor, but rather were designed to be used solely on the bed. To the modern eye they might look like a shag rug from the 70s, but they would have been a heavy, insulated layer on beds without hangings.

Another option for that layer might have been a quilt. In the 18th century, quilts were not always the lovingly designed patched pieces we connect with that word today. In homes of quality, quilts were most often whole cloth, or made of a single kind of fabric, often silk and covered in exquisite stitchery. They were filled with wool batting and backed with linen or wool. This would have been another warm layer on the bed. Sheets and pillowcases would have been the foundation for all of these things. In the probate inventory database, the vast majority of sheets listed were linen.

When all else failed, one could always search for company to keep warm. In February 1780, George Mason wrote to his cousin James Mercer, “This cold weather has set all the young Folks to providing Bedfellows. [As justice of the peace] I have signed two of three Licences every Day…I wish I knew where to get a good one myself; for I find cold Sheets extremely disagreeable.”

Just two months later, Mason married Sarah Brent.

Montgomery, Florence M. Textiles in America: 1650-1870. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Gunston Hall Room Use Study.
Probing the Past: Probate Inventory Database
Rutland, Robert, ed. The Papers of George Mason. Vol. II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1970.