On Feb. 22, 1800, a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Church, then the pro-Cathedral in Baltimore. They had come to hear Bishop John Carroll’s eulogy of George Washington. When Carroll spoke, he mourned the loss of a wise leader but reminded the crowd of the hope of resurrection. “To be allied with wisdom,” the bishop declared, “is immortality.”
The best way to describe the Washington biographies by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye (December 12, 1858 – November 11, 1923) and Lucy Ellen Guernsey (August 12, 1826 – November 3, 1899) would be as family affairs. The Story of Washington was written by Elizabeth, illustrated by her sister Allegra, and edited by her father, Edward. Meanwhile, Washington and Seventy-Six was written by Lucy and her sister Clara. A distinctly feminine voice permeates the pages of the two books. Both authors focused on Washington’s public life and placed a strong emphasis on the female connections that shaped the man.
Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
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.
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.
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.
The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.
This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me.
During my search for documents and letters relating to Martha Washington, I’ve stumbled upon numerous interesting articles. One of the most attention-grabbing pieces was a short recipe for “lettis tart.” To begin, I had to wonder – what exactly is “lettis”? I assumed it simply was “lettuce” misspelled, but when I googled “lettis” to confirm my hunch, I found a blog post about a modern attempt at the recipe. It identified “lettis” as iceberg lettuce. Though a little research suggests that iceberg didn’t exist in Martha’s time, the post was all I had to go on, and by this time curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I added the ingredients to my grocery list.