Friday, May 30, 2014

Fathom the Bowl

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Drinking in the 18th century was often a very communal activity, and begun at a young age, as cited by our previous blog on the topic.  George Mason was no exception.  He kept cellars at Gunston Hall, as evidenced by the sheer number of wine bottle seals uncovered through archaeology.  Through documentation it is also believed that Mason made cider, peach brandy and a cherry liquor of some sort.  Mason himself, however, is described in his son John's Recollections of John Mason, as being "abstemious - and particularly in drinking..." Which, considering the fact that Mason was producing alcohol is very interesting.  On the other hand, John goes on to say that he "drank a glass or two of wine a every day, when wine was to be had."  It may be said that in an age in which it was often unsafe to drink water, Mason drank alcohol in careful moderation.  Especially because of the tradition John goes on to describe.

John states: "We dined in those days at two o'clock.  [George Mason's] habit was every day between 1 and 2 to send for one of his sons to make the bowl of toddy which was compounded always of West India Spirits, loaf sugar, and water - with a little nutmeg grated over the top."  Toddy and punch were very similar beverages with many descriptions of the blending and mixing of alcohol, sugar and water, with nutmeg for a garnish.  Punch most commonly is improved by the addition of citrus.  In 1808, the London based Sporting Magazine carried an article on punch which opined that "punch is wholesomer than...toddy, which is grog with the addition of sugar."  He goes on to note that "It is remarked that the drinkers of toddy get sooner intoxicated than those who drink punch."  Both beverages can be served hot or cold dependent on the alcohol added to them and the time of year.  In this case, it sounds as if Mason was serving a cold toddy with, or just before, the midday meal.

A toddy ladle with a baleen handle.  Baleen was often used in
 the handles of such ladles as it floats should the instrument fall
into the bowl.  This ladle in the the shop at Gunston Hall.
 John also says that Mason "drank his toddy just before dinner every day, made very weak."  Like the Roman practice of mixing water with wine at gatherings centuries before, the pungency of the toddy was very dependent on the maker and the recipe. It took some skill, and knowledge about how sugars, alcohols and waters blended.  In Mason's time, rum was the most common base for both punch and toddy.  While it is not unusual that either drink might be made with gin, whiskey or an Asian liquor called arrack, we can be sure that Mason was using rum based on his son's reference to "West India Spirits."  The name toddy, however, may refer to the original use of the Asian arrack rather than rum.

Toddy was on of the names for the wine of the palm tree found in southeast Asia.  Arrack was often a term given to liquors of local manufacture which were made from a variety of plants.  Eventually, arrack came to either the distilled palm wine from Sri Lanka, or, when spelled arak, licorice flavored liquor in the Middle East. In 1859 Sir James Emmerson Tennent gave an account of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, remarking that cultivated palm "trees are devoted to 'Toddy' drawing, the liquor being drunk fermented, distilled into arrack, or converted into sugar."  Rack, or Arrack Punch was very popular in 17th and 18th centuries.  These beverages were so popular that they spawned songs about them.  One such song remains in modern memory called Fathom the Bowl.  It's date of origin is unclear, but the song clearly refers to the communal practice of drinking punch and toddy.

Come all ye bold heroes give an ear to me song,
We'll sing in the praise of good brandy and rum,
It's a clear crystal fountain near Ireland doth roll,
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl.

I'll fathom the bowl,
I'll fathom the bowl,
Give me the punch ladle
I'll fathom the bowl.

From France we do get brandy, from Jamaica comes rum,
Sweet oranges and apples from Portugal come,
But stout and strong cider are Ireland's control,
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl.

I'll fathom the bowl,
I'll fathom the bowl,
Give me the punch ladle
I'll fathom the bowl.

Roud 880: "Fathom the Bowl" Accessed online, 29 May 2014.
"Sir John Sinclair, On Punch" The Sporting Magazine, vol 32, London, 1808, p215.  Accessed online, 29 May 2014.
Tennent, Sir James Emmerson. Ceylon: An Accounty of the Island, vol 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1859.  Accessed online, 29 May 2014.

Wondrich, David. Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.  NewYork: Penguin, 2010.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

George Mason, Lifesaver

By Frank Barker
Vice President of Educational Endeavors

As bloggers and researchers we are always looking for interesting topics to blog about. We have a few unwritten rules for these blogs, but I’ll write a few of these rules anyway then they will no longer be unwritten.
The blog should be historically accurate.
It should have some sort of connection to George Mason, his family, and his times.
It should be interesting, to keep our readers coming back for more.
And if, somehow, we can find a new angle, something that others haven’t written about…in newspaper jargon, a scoop; well, we might have a successful week of blogging.

This writer may have found just such a stop-the-presses moment. In of all places, the newspaper. Not just any newspaper, but that colonial newspaper of record, the Virginia Gazette.  The Colonial Williamsburg digital library has a searchable index of every available issue of this weekly paper from its first issue in 1736 through the last in December 1780 when the newspaper followed the state capital to its new location in Richmond. Take a look:

Edition of the Virginia Gazette on August 10, 1769.  Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

In the index, a researcher might begin logically by looking up Mason, George.
There, located between French Mason: “in 2nd Va. Regiment,” and Gideon Mason, “deserter,” is a wealth of links to George Mason references in the pages of the Gazette.  Let’s take a look at a few.
adv. for bids for building Truro parish vestry house
adv. merchandise for sale
calls meeting of Ohio co. (13 times from 1752 until 1778)
elected member of Congress (May 23, 1777 issue)
declines to be delegate to Congress (June  27, 1777)
letter to, in post office
on Va. committee of safety
plaintiff in Chancery court
saves lives of six men
trustee for opening navigation of Potomac river
Wait, what was that? “Saves lives of six men”? Would that not be a worthy story to add to our history of George Mason?

Let’s take a look. In the August 10, 1769, issue of the Virginia Gazette is an excerpt of a letter dated July 22. Much of the news of the time is reported by letters, some from England, some from other colonies, some from Virginia. Anyone could be a reporter.

“On Monday last,” says the correspondent, “we had a smart thunder storm which produced melancholy effects here.” It seems that about 3 p.m., “Seven men being a reaping on the plantation of Mr. George Mason” took cover from the storm when the wind started gusting. The seven “betook themselves to a tree for shelter from the rain, and stuck their sickles into it, which they had scarce done when a flash of lightning struck the tree, drew out all the sickles, and knocked down every man.”

One, a Mr. Reese, died instantly. The others were “terribly burned and to all appearances dead, until Mr. Mason (who came to their relief) thought of an expedient for their preservation, which was to blow into their mouths.” This was done to all seven; “six were happily brought back to life.” Five were said to recovering nicely, one was still in “a dangerous situation,” and the “unfortunate young Reese” might have been saved as well, “had not his windpipe been cut with a sickle or a splinter from the tree.”
So there it is. An incredible story of George Mason saving six lives using a rescue technique barely heard of in the 18th century.

 Why isn’t this part of our George Mason story?

Perhaps it’s because the information came to Williamsburg via Philadelphia from a correspondent in Chester County. In Pennsylvania. It seems this is another George Mason, not the Sage of Gunston Hall.

Just when you think you have a historical scoop, the facts get in the way.


"Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, August 10, 1769, Page 3." Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg, n.d. Web. 21 May 2014.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

On This Day in History: May 15, 1776

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

In May of 1776, George Mason was a part of the newly formed Virginia Convention.  He arrived late, on the 18th, to the convention, due he said to "a smart fit of the Gout," to find that "the first grand Point has been carried nem: con: [nemine contradicente, or without dissention]."  That point was a resolve to the Virginia delegation at the Continental Congress to pursue independence from Great Britain.

The Lee Resolution, with notations on
which of the new states supported the idea
of Independence.  Courtesy of NARA.
Edmund Pendleton, speaker of the Virginia Convention, signed the resolution.  It "Resolved unanimously, that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose that respectable body [the Continental Congress] to declare the United Colonies free and independent states."  Mason, as per usual, was not particularly happy with the wording, finding "the Preamble is tedious, rather timid, & in many Instances exceptionable," but hoped that "it may answer the Purpose."  Fortunately it did.  It took Thomas Ludwell Lee, to whom the instructions were sent, two weeks to receive it and present it before the Continental Congress.  On June 7th, the Lee Resolution was presented before Congress.  And from there, was born the ultimate decision to write a Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson was tasked with drafting the document, and as public memory serves, the 4th of July became the date of independence for what would become the United States.

The Virginia Convention's resolution continues however, stating that "a committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration of Rights, and such a plan of government that will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony."  Without even knowing that the Continental Congress would approve, Virginia moved forward with its own plans of independence.  George Mason would be on the committee to draft that Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution which would be ratified nearly a month before the Declaration of Independence.

Mays, David John, ed. The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734-1803, vol. I. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967.
Rutland, Robert A. ed. The Papers of George Mason 1725-1792, vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What's Under (and In) the Mattress?

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

One of the most commonly used pieces of furniture in Western society is a bed.  They come in a wild variety of shapes and sizes, colors and materials, but they are all beds.  On a modern bed, typically, there is a box spring and a mattress resting on wooden slats.  Such slatted beds, and the box springs that went with them, were a later innovation.  In the 18th century, beds were more likely to rely on the tension of a rope or taut linen sheet for support, similar to a modern camp bed or cot does.  Unfortunately, research has not been able to determine what kinds of beds George Mason had in his home at Gunston Hall.  It has, however, left a plethora of research including a number of probate inventories listing what others in the area had by way of bedsteads, including the inventories of his brother, mother and two sons.

A camp bed with a sacking bottom.  The struts provided
 support for the collapsible frame rather than the mattress.  
From Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803.
Sometimes, it's challenging to tell from probate inventories which kinds of beds were often found, as many of them describe the frames as "Bedstead, Bed and Furniture" (bed meaning the mattress and furniture all of the associated equipment, such as sheets and hangings), or "Four Bedsteads with curtain Posts of Walnut."  Some lucky inventories however, clearly state: "1 blue painted bedstead with sacking Bottom [line break] 2 low post bedSteads[sic] with cords," and "one green Bedstead with sacking bottm[sic]."  When studying an actual 18th century bed, it is easy to tell which sort of bottom it had.  If it was a corded bed, there are holes in the sides, head- and foot-boards.  If a sacking bottom, pegs or nail holes can be found on the frame of the bed to hold the sacking tight.  Both of these methods needed to be tightened periodically so that it didn't sag or become impossible to get out of.

Beds with sacking bottoms typically have webbing along the sides with eyelets through it.  a small cord would be looped through those and corresponding eyelets on the sheet that supported the center of the mattress.  The tightly woven fabric would have little give in it, but over time, it would eventually stretch, and the cords could be tightened up by hand. If necessary the sacking could be replaced.  This style of base is often seen on beds with canopies and the splendid furnishings seen in our earlier post about beds, although that is not always the case.

A rope bedstead in action at
Gunston Hall.  There are two
beds, or mattresses on top
and a spare mattress below for
unexpected guests.
Cord beds, on the other hand, relied completely on the cords looping through the sides, to support the mattress.  Rope, often of hemp or what a modern user might call manila, would have been used to support this kind of bed.  George Mason's son Thomas was a merchant, and the inventory of his shop upon his death lists "11 Bed Cords" at 2 shillings a piece in the goods for sale.

The rope would be tied off at one end, and threaded through the holes in the frame, and woven over and under in the same way a basket is done.  This was typically a two person job to ensure the tautness of the rope as it is worked up.  On this style of bed, when tightening, a tool was helpful.  This was the bed key or straining wrench.  Such a key would be hooked on the loose cord on the outside of the bed and twisted to take up the slack.  The person twisting the wrench would hold the cord taut until the slack could be taken out of it on the other side.  Check out this video taken of a bed being tightened up at the Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth, TX.

 Multiple mattresses, "beds," or "featherbeds" were often stacked on top of the frame.  Two of the beds on George Mason, Jr's inventory are listed with a "Mattrass."  His younger brother Thomas sports "4 Mattrasses" for the five beds he has listed on his inventory and the same number of "Feather Beds & Bolsters."  These mattresses were large sacks stuffed with straw or rushes to firmness and then had the feather mattresses laid over top of them.  The bolster, like the mattress, was a firm support for the softer pillows.  The feather beds themselves were also not quite the downy, soft things the term brings to mind.  They were densely packed with material.  Both George Jr and Ann Mason, George Mason IV's mother, had excess feathers listed with their bedding materials, possibly to adjust the firmness of their feather beds.  Thomas Sheraton, famed furniture maker of the late 18th century, stated that beds should be firm, and to achieve that, layered thusly: "begin with a straw mattress, then a flock [wool] ditto, on which a feather bed is to be laid, and lastly, a hair [possibly horsehair] mattress; but if it should feel too firm, then a very thin flock mattress may be laid upon it."  It is possible to imagine the Masons sleeping quite comfortably on beds of that style when taking into account the springiness of the bed frames, as well as the firmness of the mattresses.

Adams, Rev. Samuel. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book J-1, 1806.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Carlyle, John. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book D-1, 1780.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Ann. Probate Inventory. Stafford County Will Book Liber O, 1763.  Stafford County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, George. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book H-1, 1797.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Thomas. Probate Inventory.  Fairfax County Will Book I, 1800.  Fairfax County, VA Courthouse.
Mason, Thompson. Probate Inventory. Stafford County Will Book Liber S, 1786.  Stafford County, VA Courthouse.
Sheraton, Thomas.  The Cabinet Dictionary. London, 1803. Reprinted: New York, Praeger Publishers, 1970.