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.
Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.
After a difficult spring semester, I returned home from the University of Virginia to visit my family, exchanging the stirring smell of coffee from Alderman Library for the welcoming aroma of authentic Vietnamese food. Being home is always a welcome, much-needed break. My productivity level plummets, and my motivation to look presentable disappears. I constantly find myself wearing pajama pants and T-shirts, and I usually think my fashion choices are fine. Being home is a break from the necessity to appear “put-together”…or so I thought.
As the giant Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon inched its way to the lineup, all I could hear was “This is it!” The moment felt surreal. I was in the middle of the street of New York City, grinning widely in my orange-and-blue uniform, and getting ready to perform in the two-and-a-half mile march from Central Park to the Macy’s star in Midtown Manhattan.