Wednesday, December 31, 2014

To Keep One's Self Warm

Object: Warming Pan, ca. 1770-1800
Accession#: 1900.0061

Winter presented a difficult time for families simply trying to keep warm, including the Randolphs. As one historian states, “for most American colonists, winter could be anything from inconvenient to challenging to deadly.” The fireplace provided the only source of heat until Benjamin Franklin invented the wood stove. A fireplace gives but takes away, as much of its heat goes up the chimney and pulls cold air back in to replace it. So heating a room could be a somewhat unsuccessful venture. The following quote, from the Farmer’s Almanac (1784), gives advice on how to keep warm during winter:

Take a piece of wood, fling it out the window into the Yard;  then run downstairs as hard as you ever can; when you have got it, run up again with the same measure of speed; keep throwing and fetching up until the Exercise shall sufficiently heated you.  Renew as often as the occasion shall require!

However, during the night when one might not be energetic enough for such an exercise and is ready for some rest, a warming pan might be filled with hot coals. It would then be used to warm the beds before being occupied.

Usually made of copper, warming pans were circular with a hinged cover that was perforated and etched with landscape designs or flowers. It would also be fixed with a handle made of oak. Better quality ones had handles made of mahogany that were “richly carved with elaborate designs.” An example of a warming pan similar to what might have been used by the Randolph family is this one in Wilton’s collection. It is made of brass, copper, and wood and has a long handle which ends at a round pan with hinged lid. 

Originating in England in 1740, warming pans were preceded by stone water jugs that would be filled with hot water. Similarly there was a foot warmer which was a pierced tin box in a wooden frame that was filled with coals and placed in coaches or in rooms. They might also have been used in church and set in the bottom of the box pew to keep worshipers warm. Warming pans were hung by the fire place for ease of use in one’s bedroom and as one historian attests, “Their burnished faces added glory to the stern faces of Colonial interiors.” They were inserted constantly and repeatedly into the bed as to not scorch the sheets, which might have been linen at that time. The Randolph family had as many as 5 bedrooms that each might have taken part in this luxury which would have been a treat for whoever was the first to hop into bed. 

Works Cited

Jennings, George Wilson. House and Garden, Volume 34. “Keeping Warm in Colonial Winter:

Robinson, David. “Coping with the Cold”. Colonial Williamsburg. 21 November 2014.

“How Hampton Citizens Lived in Colonial Times: Part 4: Colonial Fireplace: Source of Heat and
Light”. Lane Memorial Library. 21 November 2014. <>

“Keeping Warm in the Winter”. The Senate House. 21 November 2014.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sophisticated Art of...Tatting?

Object: Tatting Shuttle
Accession#: 2008.0010

This brown tatting shuttle in Wilton’s collection is made of ivory or bone and a faded white thread is wrapped around middle. This simple yet important tool is what holds the thread and is held in the right hand like a pencil, blade uppermost. The thread leaves the shuttle on the side furthest away from the holder. To form the knot, the shuttle is passed over and under a taut thread held in the left hand. So the stitch or knot is made by the movement of the fingers. More elaborate designs may be made with more than one shuttle being utilized. A tatting shuttle can be made of bone, ivory, mother of pearl, or tortoise shell. Two oval blades are connected in the middle forming a spool-like tool.

Real lace, “the manufactur[ing] of which was a sophisticated art,” is composed of many kinds of ornamental knots and stitches of which the tatting knot is one. The word tatting does not seem to appear in print until 1843 and the origin of tatting is unclear. The knot may have originated about 2000 years ago when sailors used a large shuttle to weave heavy cords into fishing nets. This technique then might have been passed onto weavers who used a finer stitch to weave lace. According to one historian, “lace making was a thriving business in Europe” catering to the royalty who could afford garments trimmed with lace. Children and handmaidens were taught to tat edgings which were bought by weavers to be added to garments that were then sold for large sums of money.

Anne, 2nd Countess of Abermarle
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
The commonly held belief, however, is that tatting evolved from the “old craft of knotting.” Practiced toward the late seventeenth century in Western Europe and the British Isles, it was particularly popular with the ladies of French and English courts. Around 1760, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait of Anne, 2nd Countess of Abermarle, engaged in the craft. Lengths of thread were knotted at quarter inch intervals. The pre-knotted thread was added to other fabric. A shuttle was used to manipulate the thread. The technique of tatting starts with a similar smaller shuttle which merely is the holder of the thread as it is in knotting.

The tatting knot is created by looping and tying knots that are formed on a core thread which gives, as one historian attests, “the strength and comparative firmness of the work.” In England it was called knotting, in France frivolite, and America tatting. In the 19th century, when the craft became popular, women’s fashion magazines, such as Godey’s and Harper’s Bazaar, included tatting patterns and instructions in their issues. This technique is used to trim anything from undergarments and pillowcases. Although the craft of tatting may have come later, the Randolph daughters may have been taught knotting.

Interested in lace? Visit Wilton between now and January 15 to see a site-specific lace installation as part of Wilton's current exhibition Anywhere But Now. Displacement, by Olivia Valentine, mimics the wood paneling of the house with thread in a bobbin to create a large lace piece.

Work Cited

Leslie, Catherine Amoroso. Needlepoint Throughout History: An Encyclopedia. 18 September 2014. <

Kelly, Donna.  “What is Tatting?”.Victoriana Magazine. 8 August 2014.

Nicholls, Elgiva. Tatting Techniques: Old Revivals and New Experiments. Charles Scribner’s
and Sons, New York: 1976.

Tabler, Dave. “Reviving the Ancient Art of Tatting”. Appalachian History: Stories, Quotes, and
             Anecdotes. 7 October 2011. 29 August 2014.

Image Credit

The Tatter’s Guild of Australia. 29 August 2014. < >

Wikimedia Commons. 18 September 2014.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Select Airs

Object: Music Book, Select Airs, for the Piano Forte, arranged from De Webers Celebrated Opera Der Freichutz
Accession #: 2005.0019

Lithography was invented in Germany in 1796 by Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder.  Greasy crayon was applied to slabs of limestone and then his scripts printed with rolled on ink.  Crayon marks were retained so well that duplicate copies could be made in unlimited quantities. Lithograph comes from the Latin for stone, litho, and mark, graph. This music book, Select Airs, for the Piano Forte, arranged from De Webers Celebrated Opera Der Freichutz, includes 23 pages of music and a lithograph of Weber’s Opera. Carl Maria von Weber, a German composer, conductor, pianist, and critic lithographed a set of Variations for the Pianoforte himself under the guidance of Senefelder.

Born in Eutin, Holstein and raised in a family of singers, Weber’s father made sure he was given an education which included literature and art. He had several music teachers, met many musicians and composers including Meyebeer. Weber's first opera, composed in 1800 when he was 14, was Die Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), parts of which survive. The composer studied under Michael Haydn in Salzburg and later in Munich under singer Johann Evangelist Wallishauser and organist J.N. Kalcher. From 1813-1816, Weber was Director of the Opera in Prague. From 1817 he was director of the opera in Dresden, “working hard to establish a German opera, in response to the Italian opera which had dominated the European music scene since the 18th century.”  Weber’s works influenced the development of the romantic opera in Germany and Der Freichutz was an instant success in Berlin, in 1821, and within a few years was performed in every major opera house in Europe.

It has been said of Der Freischütz, “Weber’s beguiling score is full of rustic energy and vivid evocations of the natural world,” and that, “his study of aesthetics, of German folk tales and his interest in the supernatural were brought to bear on Der Freischütz. Fred Plotkin, a commentator and writer on opera, continues

Der Freischütz, often referred to in English as "The Magic Marksman," draws from German Romanticism’s use of the supernatural as a threatening presence, especially when it emanates from the forests found at the edge of villages. Weber introduced hunter’s horns and adroitly used various instruments in the orchestra to depict these natural and supernatural phenomena, and the chorus is deployed to spooky effect as the sounds of scary spirits. Weber used other instruments, such as the clarinet, to express the emotions and frustrations of young, sentimental love.

Almost 200 years after its debut, the scope of Weber’s opera continues to be enjoyed by audiences around the world. In the United States, the first opera to be performed in 1796 was Gretry’s Sylvain, in New Orleans. Although it is not known for certain that the Randolph family participated in the viewing of operas or similar theatrical productions, they did have an appreciation for music. This can be seen through the harpsichord they owned which was the most expensive item on their inventory of 1810. Music is once again enjoyed at Wilton through the museum’s free summer concert series and other events throughout the year. 

Works Cited

Ives, Colta. "Lithography in the Nineteenth Century". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 30 May 2013. <> (October 2004) 

Larner, Gerald. “Overture Der Freischütz”. Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 31 May 2014.
Plotkin, Fred. “Overlooked Operas: Weber's Der Freischütz”. WQXR: Operavore. 8 July 2013.
29 May 2014. <!/story/305476-overlooked-operas-der-freischutz/>  

Tommasini, Anthony. “London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: ‘Der Freischütz’”. New York
Times. New York Times, 21 June 2013. Web. 29 May 2014. <
“Opera in New Orleans”. OperaCreole. 23 June 2014.

“Carl Maria von Weber”. Classic Cat. 5 June 2014. <

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

To Permit a Sheltered Enjoyment of a View

Object: Pole Screen, c. 1770-1780
with late 19th –early 20th century needlepoint
Accession #: 1984.0051

Pole Screen in Wilton's Parlor
Eighteenth century fire screens provided protection from the intense heat of the fireplace and kept sparks from flying into the room. There is a type known as a ‘pole screen’ with a small panel and fixed to pole upon which it can be raised or lowered.  An example of one of these particular screens is in Wilton’s collection, a Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany pole screen with an adjustable rectangular frame holding a needlepoint figural scene.  In the scene is a man on his knees next to a woman with her arms stretched upwards and a castle in the proper left background.  The pole screen has a columnar support on tripod base and pad feet.  Fire screens would have helped shelter members of the Randolph family as they sat around the eight fireplaces at Wilton.  These would have especially been useful in rooms such as the parlor, study, and master bedchamber where people may have been sitting near a fire for long periods of time.

Earliest known screens occurred in China in the 2nd century B.C.E.and were made of mica or glass panels,and were used to “permit a sheltered enjoyment of a view.”  Some may have been carved and inlaid with jade, painted with landscapes, texts, memorable events or simple scenes of everyday activity.  Japanese screens were characteristically of six panels with a landscape spread across the whole instead of each frame being independent of the others like the Chinese screens.  Screens developed in Europe out of necessity to protect against drafts and the large fires of the Middle Ages.  Metal was avoided in the construction of these screens as the heat would make them too hot.  They were generally made of wood and covered with a variety of materials; wallpaper, textiles, and leather were among the most popular materials.

British Cheval Fire Screen, ca. 1730-1740
Metropolitan Museum of Art 
(acc#: 64.101.1154)
Not only were there the smaller screens on tripod feet like this Chippendale Mahogany pole screen but also ones known as “cheval screens” which stood on a pair of feet and four legged “horse” screens.  There were also larger standing screens with up to twelve leaves, which could be unfolded to cover a wide space or collapsed as necessary.  These were usually set up against a door for facilitating with the blocking of cold drafts and "provided the occupants of a room with a measure of privacy."  Smaller table top screens blocked drafts that made candles sputter and melt uneven.

By the 1860's, when heating stoves were used to warm rooms, the fire screen became a more decorative piece by placing it in front of an empty fireplace. However, during the 18th century when the Randolph family was living at Wilton, pole screens similar to this one were used for protecting those sitting near a fire from the extremity of the heat as well as the sparks that tended to fly out from these fires.  Guests and other occupants of the house would enjoy the warmth provided by the fire but not be sweltering.  Come to Wilton and see this fire screen as well as some of the other comforts enjoyed by the Randolphs and their guests at this elegant Georgian home.

Detail of needlework screen.

Anderson, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Furniture. Crown Publisher’s Inc. New York: 1965.

Prown, Jonathan and Ronald L. Hurst. Southern Furniture: 1680-1830, The Colonial
            Williamsburg Collection. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg: 1997.

“Fire Screen”. Ingenious Inc. 8 August 2014. <>

Image Credit

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Illuminating Wilton: A Candle Box

Object: Candle Box, English, c. 1770-1790
Accession #: 1986.0003
Candle Box on display at Wilton

For over a century now candlelight has been cast in a romantic glow - however for the five thousand or so years of human existence prior to the invention of electric light - candlelight was an unsteady, messy, expensive, and notoriously dim source of lighting. Contrary to the depiction of historic interiors on the screen which are overflowing with lighted candles as if Liberace were the set designer - candles were used sparingly and required diligent care to prevent them from blowing out or catching the house on fire. 

In  eighteenth-century Virginia candles could be made from a variety of available substances such as tallow, beeswax, and myrtle or bayberry wax. Tallow, or animal fat, was relied on most often for the making of candles despite emitting an unpleasant odor.  Beeswax was “warmly accepted” when introduced because it released a more pleasant odor, burnt cleaner, and did not produce as much smoke.  The cost of beeswax candles limited their use by even the wealthiest to special occasions of hospitality. Most households used the tallow candle to light their passages and chambers. 
Detail of rear joint construction

The making of candles was a labor intensive and messy job. In Colonial America, women found that wax could be extracted from the bayberry bush.  It took 15 pounds of boiled berries to produce one pound of wax.  The process was tedious and therefore  “the trend of the bayberry candles was short lived.”  It is no surprise then that those that could afford to do so preferred to purchase ready-made candles rather than produce them. During 1769 alone nearly 10,500 pounds of tallow candles were imported into Virginia along with over 6,000 pounds of spermaceti, or whale oil, candles. Spermaceti candles were of such value that their presence in a household was often remarked upon in estate inventories. It produced a wax that was odorless, burned brighter, and created a candle that was more resistant to heat. 

Laboriously made or dearly purchased household candles were then carefully guarded and inventoried by the mistress of the house or the housekeeper. Household pests were attracted to the ingredients that were in candles. It was feared that servants and slaves would pilfer them, or that a careless child burn the place down. Storage contributed to the maintaining of the household’s lighting supplies. Candles were sometimes stored in cellars to keep them cool or in closets to “combine convenience with security.” Candles were also stored in candle boxes, such as this one in Wilton’s collection.  Candle boxes could be either free standing and hung on the walls.  They could be made of wood, brass, sheet iron, and tin. Candle boxes made it more convenient to access smaller quantities of candles as well as keeping more expensive candles away from household pests or accidental use by the servants. 
Rear of candle box

Surviving Randolph family inventories provide a hint as to how the family illuminated Wilton. Though one of the grandest houses in the colony - the estate inventory lists just five brass candlesticks and snuffers. No other lanterns, lamps, or candlesticks of any other kind are included. Five burning candles - with the aid of the light from the fireplace - would have provided the only documented artificial illumination at Wilton. 

The candle box is currently displayed in the gallery space at Wilton House Museum as part of an exhibition of the weird and wacky from daily life in eighteenth-century Virginia now on display at the museum in What History Reveals until October 30. 

Works Cited
Clouston, R.S. English Furniture and Furniture Makers of the 18th Century. 9 April 2014.

Powers, Lou and Harold Gill. “Candlemaking”. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
Report Research Series-33: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (1990). 24 April 2014. <>

 “Special Exhibits: Fire and Light”. Allison-Antrim Museum. 5 April 2014.

“Architecturally Speaking: Room Study: Recommended Objects: Lighting”. Gunston Hall
Plantation. 5 April 2014. <>

“History of Candlemaking”. Agricultural History Project Center and Museum. 25 November

2013. 5 April 2014. <>

Monday, July 14, 2014

Conservation of The Peoples Choice: Alexander Spotswood's Waistcoat

Wilton House Museum's collection includes a small but significant number of historic textiles and costumes associated with historic individuals. The majority of these rare surviving textiles came to the museum as donations from descendants of the item's original owner - relics preserved from generation to generation with varying histories and levels of preservation. One such item is a section of an eighteenth-century gentleman's silk waistcoat donated to the museum in the 1930s by descendants of Alexander Spotswood with a family history of the coat having belonged to their illustrious ancestor. 

Alexander Spotswood served as Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 1710 until 1722. During his administration he advocated for more enlightened treatment of the Native Americans, trade regulations, and western expansion. A granddaughter of Alexander Spotswood married a son of the builder of Wilton, Peter Randolph. Spotswood descendants cherished the waistcoat for generations and at some point, possibly to share the relic among heirs, the coat was cut into quarters. It was one front half of the coat that was given to Wilton House Museum. 

Noted conservator Loreen Finkelstein is expertly handling the conservation of the item. The fragile fabric will be removed from the acidic backing and frame, the object carefully cleaned with gentle textile vacuum and brush and after cleaning, the item will be stitched onto a mounting fabric before being placed in a protective new frame. 

The Virginia Association of Museums awarded the conservation needs of our Spotswood waistcoat it's People's Choice Award in 2012 in connection to the Association's Top Ten Endangered Artifacts conservation awareness program. Donations and well-wishes in support of its conservation arrived from individuals and organizations from around the country. It was even featured in a creative Youtube video

"The textile collection at Wilton House is of particular interest" observed costume historian Mary Doering "both regionally and nationally. Textiles provide tangible evidence of the daily lives of the occupants of Wilton House and their circle of acquaintances. Textiles tell fascinating tales." 


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Man of Letters Was Clean Shaven

Object: Shaving Stand  c. 1760
Accession#: 1900.0082

Wash stands appeared in the mid-eighteenth century along with a proliferation of other specialized furniture forms created for the comfort and convenience of the user. Though today the proliferation of washstands on display in house museums may lead us to believe they were standard household items, estate inventories of the time reveal washstands were most frequently found in more affluent homes and not always in the bedroom. At Wilton for example the 1815 estate inventory of William Randolph IV's only lists one wash stand and basin and is identified as being located, not in a bedroom as one might expect, but in the study.  From this we may conjecture that William Randolph IV would have done his shaving and washing-up there.

This mahogany swash stand embodies the playful curves and ornamentation characteristic of the mid-eighteenth century. Lightweight washstands could be easily moved about a room as needed, perhaps near a fireplace for warmth or at a window to take advantage of early morning light. When not in use its slender size and three-legged base was perfectly tucked out-of-the-way into a corner. Wash stands often had three levels, the top level holding the basin, the lower platform held the pitcher or chamber pot.  The second level of drawers held washing requisites such as brushes for the teeth and powders for the wig. This example  includes the further embellishment of a spherical compartment fr soap. 

Resting on the top of our washstand is a Japanese Imari style shaving bowl of  the mid-eighteenth century. A shaving bowl can be identified by the notch cut out along the rim of the bowl so as to be placed at the throat of a gentlemen, just under the chin, to catch the removed facial hair and lather. Beards and facial hair in general were un-fashionable for the eighteenth-century gentleman and remained so until the mid-nineteenth century. According to a contemporary “the man of letters was clean shaven.”  

One of the shaving tools found in George Washington’s possessions was a whetstone, which was used to sharpen a razor so that it would not become dull.  Razors and other shaving implements were readily accessible to buy during the mid- to late-18th century. Wallace, Davidson, and Johnson, a mercantile firm formed in 1771, in their first year showed an order that included three and half dozen razors of various grades ranging from “common” to more costly “cast steel” types.  To facilitate shaving, a shaving brush, which was introduced in the mid-18th century, was used to apply lather to the face.  Washington owned one which is described as “appear[ing] to be made of badger bristles.”

John Mason, son of American statesmen George Mason, wrote that his father “always shaved himself—and used to shave his whole head which was covered by the Wig twice a week...”  The Randolph gentleman would no doubt have been involved in this routine—their portraits showing them clean shaven and wigged. 

Further Reading:
Hurst, Ronald C. and Jonathan Prown. Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial
Williamsburg Collection. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Williamsburg, 1997.
          Withey, Alun, Dr. “Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History”. 21 March 2014. 6                    March 2014.

“Wash Stand and Shaving Mirror”. The Cowper and Newton Museum. 6 March 2014.

“Architecturally Speaking: Room Use Study: Recommended Objects: Personal”. Gunston Hall
Plantation. 6 March 2014.

“Object Spotlight: Washington’s Shaving Gear”. George Washington Wired: A Mt.Vernon Site.
6 March 2014. <>

Papenfuse et. al., Edward C. “Biographies WAL”.
A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland
Legislature 1635-1789. Volume 426. pg.855. Archives of Maryland Online. 10 April 2014. <>

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Re-Thinking This Old House

Creative leaders in the museum, entertainment, architecture, and archaeology professions gathered at Wilton House Museum for a day of ideation and dialog on future museum interpretation and programming.  Inspired by our mission statement, strategic plan, and the findings of our recent paint analysis investigation, Chipstone Foundation sponsored this Idea Day to offer advice and suggest paths to relevancy.  Participants, Jon Prown, Carl Lounsburry, Sumpter Priddy, David Crank, Donna Harris, Franklin Vagnone, Mark Wenger, and Sylvia Yount offer advice and suggestions on ways to invigorate our museum interpretation and programming.

Experiences, theories, and concepts filled the day’s conversations.  It was particularly reassuring to find that Wilton is not alone in the struggle to remain relevant in its community.  Like so many other historic house museums, we are rethinking the standard house museum interpretation that was established over fifty years ago.  As the community around us continues to evolve, so must we.  To those ends, we opened our minds to what was offered throughout the day.

As Director of Education three concepts resonated with me: access to history, dialog with visitors, and questions over answers. Equipped with our mission statement, we are better poised to experiment with exhibitions and interpretations.  As museums are considered the leading repository for historical resources and research we are better prepared to provide a more complex understanding of our past.

All three of these concepts were experimented with at our new March re-enactment, Washington at Wilton.  Along with the modern carpets and stanchions, most of the historic chairs were removed from the Wilton's study and replaced with period reproductions so that visitors could sit in the room and converse with George Washington.  The response from visitors was overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to the changes made to the historic setting we also asked visitors to put themselves in the shoes of a small farmer on the eve of the Revolution and decide whether or not they would leave their farm to fight for liberty.  The dilemma of personal security versus the potential benefit for the greater good was brought up in the discussions with Washington and the other re-enactors.  With the pros and cons debated, visitors cast their votes as well as defined what liberty meant to them.  What was most surprising about the voting was that it was not overwhelmingly in favor of war with Britain.  Rather, the votes were evenly split between war and peace.

For the past month, Wilton's study has remained devoid of the obvious modern intrusions that were removed prior to His Excellency's visit.  With the reproduction furniture remaining in the room, visitors are invited to have a seat in one of the designated chairs when they enter the room.  By sitting in these chairs visitors are introduced to a new perspective of this historic space.  In setting the study in this manner and inviting visitors to engage in it, we have stepped away from the vignettes of a by-gone day and welcomed our audience into a more true representation of this space.

As we continue to experiment with this evolution in our interpretation visitors are welcome to add their voice to the conversation.  What is the future of the historic house museum?  How do we remain good stewards to our collections, create historically accurate settings, and increase visitation?  What do you want out of your experience?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Latest Acquisition

Thomas Sully
Portrait of Peyton Randolph (1778-1828)
Richmond, VA
Object ID: 2014.1.1-2

Wilton House Museum announces the recent acquisition of a portrait of Governor Peyton Randolph, a dashing and romantic painting by American artist Thomas Sully. After centuries of private ownership the painting now joins other Randolph family portraits on display in Wilton House Museum. This acquisition enhances our collection, advances our interpretive story, and connects the Randolph family and Wilton collection to one of the more dramatic moments in Virginia’s history, the 1811 Richmond Theatre fire that claimed the lives of seventy-two people.

Peyton Randolph (1779-1828) is the son of Edmund Randolph and Elizabeth Nicholas. Edmund had a distinguished career as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, the first United States Attorney General, and seventh Governor of Virginia. Peyton had a respectable career in politics, but is best remembered for serving as Acting-Governor of Virginia following the death of Governor George William Smith in the Richmond Theatre fire on December 26, 1811.

As the senior member of the Council of State, Randolph acted as governor until January 3, 1812, when the House of Delegates was able to reconvene and elect a new governor. Later, Randolph was an official reporter for the Virginia Reports, which was the official court reporter of the Virginia Supreme Court, until his death in 1828.

Having studied the painting of miniatures in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas Sully (1783 – 1871) joined his brother Lawrence in Richmond and opened an artist’s studio where from 1804 through 1806 he painted portraits of prominent Virginians such as Peyton Randolph. Moving from Richmond, Sully studied under portrait artist Gilbert Stuart before establishing his studio in Philadelphia where he continued to paint masterly portraits and dramatic scenes from literature and history. “Thomas Sully is one of nineteenth-century America’s most important artists, whose career began in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Very few of his early works have survived today, so it is why it is a red-letter day for Wilton to obtain a handsome portrait such as the portrayal of Mr. Randolph,” says Dr. William Keyse Rudolph, the Andrew W. Mellon Chief Curator and The Marie and Hugh Article Halff Curator of American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art.  Dr. Rudolph is the curator of the first United States Sully retrospective exhibition in thirty years: Thomas Sully:  Painted Performances. Sully is best known for his portraits, especially those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Sully’s portrait of Andrew Jackson is represented on the twenty dollar bill.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

All the Bells and Whistles

Object: Baby Rattle with Whistle and Coral Teether
Accession Number: 2006.0003

Children have had and played with toys for as long as people have made it a point to record it.  While this is true, according to Karin Calvert, author of Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900, the purpose and appearance of their toys has changed over time in America.  Different time periods have had different ideas of what childhood play should look like.

The collection at Wilton House museum includes a silver and coral rattle and teether that dates from the late 18th or early 19th century.  It consists of a piece of red coral with an ornate silver handle surrounded by bells, and a whistle at the other end.  It has a maker’s mark which is made up of a lion’s passant, a queen’s head, the letter “X” or “K,” and an anchor.  This maker’s mark is evidence that the rattle was likely made in Birmingham, England.

In the 17th century, children were expected to be essentially small adults.  This was out of fear that a child would not develop into an adult unless they were pushed by the parents.  For example, American colonists did not want their children to crawl, as they believed crawling was animalistic and beneath the dignity of human beings.  Most of the furniture for children was designed to deter crawling and promote standing and walking.  In all respects, children were encouraged to “grow up” quickly.  The toys children played with during this time were those that encouraged them to be adults.  The items that were acceptable were those that would prepare children for activities of adulthood, such as using a gun, sewing, cooking, or using tools.  During the second half of the 18th century, children were given more freedom to be children.  American parents began to believe the development of children into adults was natural and would occur without the children being pushed.  Playtime became acceptable and valued as necessary for a healthy childhood.

The coral and silver rattle served several purposes.  In addition to being a handsome toy, keeping the child happy and entertained while their older siblings contributed to the household chores, it was also a teether, a magical charm to ward off evil spirits and disease, a financial investment as it was made of silver, and a statement regarding the parent’s prosperity and position.  Rattles like this may have been given as elaborate christening gifts.  They were one of the few toys of the time period made specifically for infants.  For this reason, bells and coral became an icon associated with infancy during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The coral provided a smooth surface for a child to relieve the discomfort associated with teething.  It was believed the coral protected children from disease.  Parents feared teething as much as they did the deadly diseases of the time, such as diphtheria.  Doctors warned parents that problems associated with teething could cause “fevers, cramps, palsies, rheumes and other infirmities.”  Additionally, teething troubles could lead to “falling-sickness, and sometimes death thereby.”  Coral was the most common object recommended by doctors to assist them with the process.  Parents also believed the rattle protected children from the evil eye and other evil spirits.

During the time period in which the coral and silver rattle was made, play was understood to be a necessary and beneficial activity for children.  While this is true, these rattles were not toys exclusively; they served other practical, superficial, and even supernatural purposes.  They provided the infant with a teething outlet, exhibited a family’s wealth and position, and allegedly warded off evil curses.  The combination of these purposes kept children as well as their parents happy.

Portrait of a Boy with a Coral Rattle

10-month-old Elizabeth Gilbert in 1839 of New England

This blog entry was written by Shari Davis, an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying history. An audio version of this blog entry can be found here.


Brown, Gillian. “Child’s Play.” In The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Caroline F. Levander and Carol J. Singley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1992.

McManus, Jennifer, Julia Grover, Kim Surber, and Theresa Laufer. “Play and Material Culture.” Gettysburg : Gettysburg College. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

"Nicholas Roosevelt: Rattle, whistle, and bells." The New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

Robinson, David. “Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers: Christmastime or Anytime, Kids Still Enjoy the Toys and Games Their Forebears Loved”. The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

Image Credit

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Pinch of Snuff

Cowrie Shell Snuff Box
Accession Number: 1903.0002

What introduces Whig or Tory,
And reconciles them in their story,
When each is boasting in his glory?
A pinch of snuff.

Where speech and tongue together fail,
What helps old ladies in their tale,
And adds fresh canvas to their sail?
 A pinch of snuff.

            From the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, the consumption of snuff played an important role in the social lives of men and women. As implied by the preceding poem, snuff stimulated conversation at social gatherings or allowed for a point of contact for those of different backgrounds. An 1863 article in Harper’s Weekly claimed snuff was consumed to prevent infections and “amuse the vacant mind” in the presence of dull company. Snuff also created moments of surprise and cultural difference, such as the shock many eighteenth century northerners experienced when encountering elite southern women regularly using snuff.
Clearly it was an important part of colonial and early American life, but what is snuff? Snuff was made by curing tobacco leaves and then grinding the leaves by hand or with a mortar and pestle, a method initially adopted from Native Americans. With the wide variety of tobacco leaves available in colonial and early America, snuff came in a variety of types and flavors. For example, a common type of snuff called “Maroco” called for “forty parts of French or St. Omar tobacco with twenty parts of fermented Virginia stalks in the powder.” Usually a pinch of snuff was inhaled through the nose, sometimes as often as every hour.
Snuff users developed distinctive mannerisms and technologies associated with the production and intake of snuff. Of particular interest was the emergence of small, pocket-sized containers used for carrying snuff known as snuff boxes. These boxes were made of materials including shells, paper-mache, wood, and silver and were often decorated with engravings, portrait miniatures, or jewels. Snuffboxes functioned as an accessory for many men and women, therefore demonstrating their social class based on the materials used to construct the box or the beauty of the piece. Paper-mache boxes were common and less ornate, while boxes made of shells or jewels were more rare and associated with the upper class.

The collection at Wilton House Museum contains a mid-eighteenth century brown and white cowrie shell snuffbox with silver hinges and a silver bottom engraved with “E.T” in script. Although the original owner of the snuffbox is unknown, the Randolph family likely owned an object similar to the cowrie shell snuff box because of their great wealth. Cowrie shells were associated with womanhood, fertility, birth, and wealth. Since cowrie shells were only found in Africa and Asia, Europeans and American colonists typically acquired cowrie shells through their involvement with the West African slave trade. Cowrie shell snuff boxes were quite rare compared to other types of boxes and it is exciting, and unique, that Wilton has one in their collection!

This blog entry is by Caitlin Foltz, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying 19th and 20th century American history.  Listen to the podcast version here.


Betts, Vicki. “The ‘Social Dip:’ Tobacco Use by Mid-19th Century Southern Women.” (Accessed Feb. 2, 2014),

“Cowrie Shell.” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. (Accessed Feb. 7, 2014),

Curtis, Mattoon M. The Book of Snuff and Snuff Boxes. (USA: Van Rees Press, 1935).

“You Say Six Reasons Are Enough.” Harpers Weekly. (Sept. 28, 1867, p. 619). 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Drink and be Merry

Object: Cellarette
Accession #: 1951.0013.0001 and 1970.0002      
During the 1700s and 1800s, affluent members of society acquired sophisticated and costly beverage accessories, including specialized furniture for storing drinking vessels. Cellarettes, or bottle chests, were made in fashionable designs and materials for dining rooms, parlors, or studies. They were both fashionable and practical, allowing the host to serve a wide assortment of wine and spirits from the comfort of the room.
            Traditionally, the cellarette was made of wood, often times mahogany, and with a hinged lid, that was frequently equipped with a lock.  The interior was often lined with metal or lead, and compartmentalized to hold up to twelve bottles or decanters.  They came in a variety of shapes and progressively grew taller, as did the wine bottles, in the 18th century. Common varieties were oval or rectangular with tapered or fluted legs on castors and were occasionally hooped with brass bands. Usually, they were kept under the centre of a sideboard or side table, and were rolled out for use. In some cases, the box portion of a cellarette could be detached from its base (you never knew when spirits would need to be hidden from unexpected guests).

Wilton has two contrasting cellarettes in the collection.  The first is a small mahogany English, George III hinged box from the late 18th century with brass lion head ring handles. Its interior is finished with four compartments, currently housing glass decanter bottles.  The set of 18th  century bottles share the qualities of rounded shoulders and a round glass stopper, as well as, being decorated with a gold leaf design consisting of flowers and leaves. Currently this cellarette is on display in the Randolph study. It makes more sense for this small piece to be used and portrayed there since it was more likely that of a personal collection of wines or spirits were kept for aside for the head of the house and his private guests while in that room, or for his own recreational use.

The second piece is a much grander cherry American, Federal style cellarette from the early 1800’s. The upper section is considered removable and also consists of a hinged lid with brass hardware.  The front has an inlay decoration of a stylized urn with leaves, while the stand is similarly inlaid on square tapering legs. The inlay’s consists of boxwood, ebony and rosewood on this piece. A larger, more elaborate cellarette such as this one, showcased in the Wilton dining room, displays the options of spirits to guests and made it’s  accessibility to guests quite easy.


American Decorative Arts Acquisitions . 81. Detroit Institute of Arts, 2007. 53-82. Web. <>. 

 Anderson, Jennifer. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Harvard University Press, September 2012. 340. Web. <>. 

Fletcher, Brigitte. "Trendy Wine Furniture." Antiques & Fine Art Magazine. <>.