According to his presidential household accounts, on April 5th, 1794, George Washington “pd. for 8 tickets to see automatons by order.” These automatons were mechanical creations made of wood or plaster, operated by “hidden springs and gears.” With the ability to perform many different complex actions, such as writing, dancing, and imitating human movements, automatons created a source of lively entertainment for spectators.
The circus is not what usually comes to mind when thinking about George Washington, though it seems Washington was intrigued by it. According to his Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Washington “[paid] for 8 tickets for the Circus” on April 24, 1793. This was the first circus to take place in the United States, and it had debuted only a few weeks prior.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
The zeroing in on the Washingtons’ lives that the financial papers provides is incredible; small details are captured and preserved, down to the exact day that sundries were purchased or that employees were paid. Even beyond the numbers, the language and phrasing of these documents provide a glimpse into the world of colonial Virginia.
Wealth bought Patsy many luxuries: fine clothes and jewelry, a harpsicord and dancing lessons, excursions to Williamsburg, a pet parrot, and other pleasant things. It could not buy her good health, however. From a very early age, Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. As she entered adolescence, the disease began to grow ominously worse, much to the distress of her family.
When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.
Many Colonial Virginians considered unfair British economic practices to be an infringement of their natural rights. The economic grievances of the Virginia planter class eventually became a key motivator for rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson complained in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginians were at the mercy of “the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us.” Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”
On Wednesday, April 24, 1793, George and Martha Washington responded to an invitation from Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their letter read, “Mrs Washington is so much indisposed with a cold as to make her fear encreasing it by going to the Circus this afternoon. The President & rest of the family propose to be Spectators at the exhibition of Mr Rickets.” Martha’s indisposition, however, came at an unfortunate time, as it prevented her from attending a key moment in American entertainment history—the introduction of the modern circus.
One of the primary goals of the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) has been to make Washington’s financial records freely accessible. The GWFPP team has worked tirelessly to provide accurate transcriptions as well as to build and illustrate relationships among people, places, and themes. However, what would be the point of all this if no one could use the website? In order to make sure the GWFPP site is accessible, efficient, navigable, and meaningful, we conducted usability testing in December 2016.
While the financial records detail Washington’s purchases, and thus his belongings, it is difficult to gain deeper meaning from the records in their raw form. We could look at each document line-by-line—discovering that Washington bought twenty bushels of corn one day in 1790 and then sold four pounds of beef the next—but we do not gain any broad historical insight from such information. In order to see meaningful patterns and trends, we must look at the data as a whole.