Friday, December 3, 2010

Preparing the Great House for Winter

This past week we have been working on readying the Great House for not only our Christmas program (1774:  A Stratford Christmastide), but also setting up new room scenarios for the winter in general.  You've already heard about how I like to change the house displays for the seasons (like summertime scenarios), so the winter is no exception.  Here's a glimpse into how I prepare for the winter scenarios and the Christmas program each year...

First, we decide on a theme for the Christmas program.  This year Jon Bachman, our Educational Events Coordinator, picked a year - 1774 - as the interpretive theme.  Having one particular year gave me a good starting point for deciding how to set up the house appropriately.  Then I took some time looking at Lee family papers (like the 1776 household inventory) and period accounts (like the diaries of planter Landon Carter and local schoolmaster Philip Vickers Fithian).  Pulling information from secondary sources came next (At Home and The Festive Tradition are two favorites).

I then spend a lot of time writing a memo (11 pages this year) to outline the stories I want to tell in each space.  The Blue Bedchamber, for instance, is set up loosely based on a diary entry of Landon Carter where he is taken ill with colic (abdominal pain and constipation) after eating a dinner of pork and oysters.  Carter describes taking a syrup of white walnut bark and molasses, and as a result goes "with ease to the close stool pan twice."  The diary entry is a rather graphic description of his bathroom habits and we have a close stool (toilet) pulled out in the room along with a glass of the syrup sitting nearby to help interpret this.

The Dining Closet is set up with a hunt breakfast:  cold meat and vegetables, bread, hoecakes, and hot coffee.  Here we take the opportunity to talk about outdoor activities in the wintertime.  Did you know that included in the 1776 household inventory was a pair of snow shoes?  Well, fox hunting was a favorite pastime and you can see the gentleman eating breakfast here before their big hunt begins.  A couple of hats and a wool great coat lay nearby awaiting their departure.

Downstairs, a number of rooms help illustrate how the slaves and servants experienced the holiday season - some receiving gifts from their masters (coins and bottles of rum) and others with more work to do.  The holiday season was a time of merriment for the Virginia gentry, but for their household slaves and servants it was a busy season full of extra guests and fancy dinners and dances.  You see the Servants Hall set up as though some of the indentured and hired servants have been able to carve out a few free moments to enjoy some food and fellowship before being called to their next task.

That's just a sneak peak of what we have going on in the Great House this holiday season.  Come see it all aglow on December 11th and throughout December, January, and February.

Landon Carter quote: Jack P. Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752-1778, II (Richmond, Va., 1987), p. 908.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fun on the Farm: Perspectives from an Intern

Hi folks, my name is Townsend Hart and I’m a historic preservation and museum studies minor at the University of Mary Washington. I’m currently interning with both Gretchen Goodell (Curator) and Abigail Newkirk (Director of Interpretation and Education).

The objective for the internship is to research various objects belonging to Stratford and create interpretive proposals. Initially I planed to work on five objects in total, but some of the objects required more in depth and time consuming research. It has really been a learning experience and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do such involved, fascinating projects.

The first object I began with was the nursery fireback- marked with two cherub angels and the date 1745. I was able to find some interesting things about both this particular fireback as well as firebacks in general. For example, the fact that the Lee’s even had one greatly tells of their wealth considering firebacks were rare and only in the possession of the upper class at the time. To complete my research I looked through archival information (early RELMA notes, Lee family member accounts), books on iron works, and Robert E. Lee biographies.

The second object that I worked with was a handwritten book of Sermon’s attributed to Hannah Lee Corbin (originally dated to around 1780). My initial task for the book was to determine who actually penned the book because there is no name written. For this I completed a handwriting analysis comparing some letters written by Hannah Lee Corbin and her son-in-law George Turberville. Next I attempted to find a single original source...what a crazy experience this was! Google Archives proved to be an excellent resource. I was able to search an individual sentence and come up with original sources, many from 18th century journals. If it was Hannah Lee Corbin who penned this, it really shows her moxie and intelligence.

I have loved getting to see the inner workings of a historic house museum first-hand. There really is no better environment to have this experience than at Stratford. I enjoy taking breaks to feed the horses, or Zander and Steve as I call them, but I highly doubt these are their actual names. I’m looking forward to making way on my next project: thinking of something cool for the coaching event in the spring as well as come up with some creative ideas for the interpretation of the coach house.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hands-on History

Most history buffs and museum enthusiasts have a specific memory of being at a museum as a child (sometimes called "sticky memories" because we remember vivid details even as adults). Sometimes it is a story that was told, or a specific room. Often it relates to a game or activity...something that could be touched. Accomplishing this in a historic house like Stratford Hall can be difficult, so this fall the new Hands-On Activity Room was opened. Located in the East Slave Quarters, this room is designed to be family-friendly. We first blogged about the project in April.

The building is located to the south-east of the Great House and furnished with child-sized furniture, a colorful rug, costumes to play dress-up, and building blocks. The centerpiece for this new room is a custom made Discovery Chest. This piece of furniture has nine drawers filled with books, stuffed animals, dolls, fake food, shark teeth, and colonial games. Each drawer has a box that can be lifted out, allowing families to bring the items to the carpet or tables to play.

This area will continue to grow and evolve as we get feedback from our youngest visitors, but a great step forward in providing families with a memorable experience at Stratford Hall!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The new Slave Quarters Exhibit

The past month has been a flurry of activity here at Stratford Hall. All summer we have been updating everyone about our preservation and interpretation projects. Over the next three weeks, we will be highlighting three specific projects: West Slave Quarters, Hands-on Activity Room, and Southwest Outbuilding.

The exhibits in the West Slave Quarters have been updated and are now open to the public. If you would like a refresher on all our activities this summer, please read our posts about Restoration of the Slave Quarters and Furnishing Plan for the Slave Quarters.

The first pieces to go into the new spaces were the new barriers. Andrew and Eric from AK Metal Fabricators spent two days at Stratford Hall to install our new barriers. The design is the same as those used in the Southwest Outbuilding. These barriers will protect the collection, allow visitors a clear view of the exhibit, and stand-up to the elements. They also pivot open, making cleaning and maintenance very easy.

Our next component was the new text panels. Neal and Doug from Gropen spent a day installing text panels and reader-rails (text panels that sit on top of our barriers).

The last installation was the archaeological samples. Built-in to our new reader-rails are archaeological boxes. These plexi-glass boxes contain archaeological finds that were discovered around the Slave Quarters and provide insight into the lives of the slaves who lived here. The final step was for Curator Gretchen Goodell and Collections Manager Sarah Holland to move the artifacts and furniture into the new exhibits.

Below are some more images of the finished exhibit. Next week we will highlight the new Hand-on Activity Room.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So that is what the scaffolding is for...

If you have visited Stratford Hall this past week, you probably noticed the scaffolding that is on the south face. This is for the preservation of the cornice (the uppermost piece of molding right below the roof line). It is hard to see the details from the ground, but the decorated cornice also contains a large number of dentils (series of tightly packed rectangular blocks).

The layers of paint are being removed using infrared heat and scrapers. Once the paint is removed, any required preservation of the wood can be done. The entire cornice will then be primed and repainted. This is a very labor intensive project that will continue throughout the fall and continue in the spring (work will stop for the winter months).

While you may not notice a huge difference the next time you visit us, this type of work is an integral part of the preservation of Stratford Hall.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Women's Equality Day

Ninety years ago today (August 26, 1920), Secretary Bainbridge Colby signed the 19th Amendment into law. After generations of struggle, voting rights were extended to women. In honor of this anniversary, we decided to highlight a few of the remarkable Lee women. Compared to their famous brothers, fathers, and husbands, we know little of the Lee women.

Much like her
husband Thomas Lee, Hannah Ludwell Lee was known for her strong personality. Before moving to The Clifts, Thomas and Hannah lived at Machodoc. In January 1720, thieves broke into their home and set fire to the plantation. Thomas, Hannah, and their children escaped the flames by jumping from an upper window. Hannah, pregnant with their fourth child, miscarried. Thomas and Hannah eventually recovered their financial losses, beginning construction on Stratford Hall in 1738.

We do not know the architect of Stratford Hall, but Thomas and Hannah’s eldest son provided a hint when he mentioned that he regretted Hannah’s taste had been followed in the design.

Alice Lee was a yo
ung teenager when her parents died. Giving up hope of receiving her inheritance from her father’s estate, in 1760 she went to England where she met and married William Shippen, Jr. of Philadelphia. During the meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, she and her husband entertained her brothers and other important revolutionary figures, such as the Adamses. Alice Lee Shippen actively collected money in Philadelphia to support the American troops and accompanied her husband (appointed Director General of Hospitals in April 1777) at several encampments of Washington’s army. These encampments included Middlebrook, NJ, Reading, PA, and Valley Forge, PA.

Alice's sister also expressed views that were not typical of the time. Hannah Lee married Gawen Corbin II of Pecatone Plantation. When Gawen died in 1759, his will stated that Hannah would forfeit the estate if she remarried. Rather than lose the property, Hannah entered a common law marriage with Dr. Richard Lingan. Dr. Lingan moved into Pecatone and there they raised their two children.

In 1778, Hannah Lee Corbin wrote her brother Richard Henry to advocate for voting rights for women landowners. Richard Henry's response (dated March 17, 1778): "Perhaps 'twas thought rather out of character for Women to press into those tumultuous Assemblies of Men where the business of choosing Representatives is conducted."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Slave Quarters Exhibits On The Way

At the beginning of July we officially closed our slave quarters to the public. These two buildings are reconstructions on the site of the late-18th century stone quarters that housed "home farm" slaves (domestic workers and other skilled laborers).

You've heard already about the preservation work currently in progress, and the planning for educational hands-on and classroom space that will open in the east building in the coming months. But remember I mentioned that there are two buildings? What about the west building (the one closest to the Great House, pictured above)? In October 2010 we'll be revealing a brand new exhibit space in this structure. Designers are putting the finishing touches on the text and graphic panels. I'm working feverishly on lists of museum objects and appropriate reproduction objects to furnish the two lower-level rooms (the building is a double quarter for two families, with main living rooms below and attic lofts above). And Sarah, our collections manager, is getting dirty this week as she tries to safely clean and move the historic furnishings out of the spaces and into storage.

What will you see when we reopen the space in October? You will see two separate living spaces. One will house an enslaved gardener named Anthony (he appears in a 1776 inventory) and other skilled male workers. I am hesitant to call this a "bachelor" household, though. Slave women often worked as field laborers, so perhaps the single men living here had wives and children that they visited on Sundays and holidays at outlying farm quarters away from the Stratford home farm.

The other living space will be furnished to represent a female domestic family, specifically a woman named Nelly and her daughter Mary. Nelly and her child Mary appear in a 1776 estate inventory, and we find Mary again in a 1782 slave list with the descriptor "blind" after her name. What was life like for Mary? That's just one topic we'll touch upon in these new exhibits.

You'll also soon see on display fragments found in archeological digs in the area. We've included things like a stoneware and creamware dish fragments, a sewing needle, and a shell button. Artifacts that indicate that slaves were consumers. They purchased fashionable goods using money earned by raising and selling vegetables and other goods, or bartering their skills.
This project has been in the research and development phase for close to two years, drawing upon period documents, archaeology, and current scholarship. Stay tuned for the big reveal in October. We look forward to having you visit and hearing what you think!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Summer Projects and Interpretation

As you can see in the last five blog entries, we have been very busy at Stratford Hall this summer. Projects are underway in the Southwest Outbuilding, Slave Quarters, and Kitchen. Extensive research and investigations are in progress for the Historic Structure Report (HSR) and Cultural Landscape Inventory (CLI).

So, now what? Two areas greatly impacted by the projects are the interpretation and educational programs.

The interpreters at Stratford Hall guide visitors through the Great House seven times a day, seven days a week. This July, almost two thousand people toured the Great House. When you add in bus loads of school children and special events, our staff interacts with thousands of people each year.

I am the Director on Interpretation and Education. My job is to help take all this new information and ensure it is reflected in the interpretation (guided tours, school activities, and programs). Our interpreters are constantly learning more about Stratford Hall and updating their tours. While the investigations and projects are underway, the interpreters must also know how to talk about what the visitor is seeing (construction, restoration, furniture out of place, and open probes in the walls).

After the projects have been completed and the reports submitted for review to the staff here at Stratford Hall, all aspects of the interpretation will be reviewed. Just like the tour we provide today is very different from the tour a decade ago, the current tour will undoubtedly be updated to reflect the changes in scholarship.

We hope you continue to follow our progress and visit Stratford Hall to see for yourself all the work that has been done. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below or on the Facebook Fan Page.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Investigating the House...

If you have been to the Great House in the past couple of weeks, you probably noticed that a few things are out of place. This is due to the fact that we are in the middle of investigations for a Historic Structure Report (HSR). What is a Historic Structure Report you might ask? It is a report that provides historical, physical, and graphical information about a historic structure (you can read the National Park Service's Preservation Brief here). They often include current condition assessments, but ours will not since the Preservation Department conducts assessments on a regular basis.

We have hired the firm of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects to prepare our HSR. They have been working hard to collect all the historical information they can on the Great House from the past 270 years. Armed with this information and years of experience, a team descended on the Great House last week for three days of intense physical investigation.

Prior to their arrival, we opened multiple probe areas throughout the first floor so they could see what evidence might be behind the plaster. Other physical evidence they examined and scrutinized included
nail holes, wear patterns on the floors, scars and patches in the wood work, and wall framing that could be observed from the attic. We are waiting for the team to analyze their finds before we share too much, but I can share one or two discoveries. One question we think we answered is that the unique niches in the East and West Passages appear to be original with a little reworking by "Light Horse Harry" Lee. One other discovery we were not expecting is that the evidence points to a closet being present in the back section of the Nursery that would have been accessible from the adjoining Chamber.

We are very excited about this report being finished and sharing the information with everyone. This HSR will be a invaluable resource for the Preservation, Collections and Education Departments here at Stratford Hall. The HSR will be a guide for all of us as we continue to restore, refurnish, and interpret the Great House for our visitors. And we would all like to thank everyone for their patience as we work to make the Great House an overall better educational experience.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cultural Landscape Report in Progress

Hi Stratford Hall blog followers, my name is Tim Barrett. I am a Master of Historic Preservation student in the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Environment and Design. A summer assistantship has brought me to Stratford Hall (SH). This opportunity has been made possible through from a recent multi-year partnership between SH and UGA. The result of this partnership will be reports, recommendations, and management strategies to improve the interpretation and stewardship of the SH cultural landscape.

Initially, a cultural landscape inventory, or “CLI,” is being developed with assistance from the Jaeger Company (a private landscape architecture firm based in Georgia). A CLI typically includes an inventory of historic features and an assessment of their condition, integrity, and significance. This field has become familiar to me through an internship with the National Park Service’s Cultural Landscape Program, nonprofit consulting work supporting the acquisition of historic sites, and a mapping project with National Geographic Society staff on the Chesapeake’s “Treasured Landscapes.” However, the depth and richness of SH’s cultural landscape is unparalleled. From its beginnings, SH has been defined by its people and landscape, and undoubtedly these forces have had a profound influence on American history. Where else can you find early 18th century buildings, nesting eagles, old sunken roads, world-class geological resources, two miles of contiguous waterfront, and 1900+ acres affording unspoiled historic viewsheds all in one place?

The SH cultural landscape inventory is still in its early stages. Thus far, we have begun to identify and document the historic landscape features that can be found throughout SH’s significant land holdings. Field work has been both fun and revealing and has even required occasional bushwhacking through some of the property’s remote, densely-forested areas whose landscape has stories to tell but is no longer accessible by roadway or trail. Here, the ticks and chiggers thrive, the poison ivy is thick, and the summer sun is unforgiving. Sunscreen and calamine lotion are constant companions.

I have had the privilege to work with and learn from Stratford’s exceptional staff, including former education director, Ken McFarland, and research and library collections director, Judy Hynson. Ken and Judy’s collective knowledge and commitment to Stratford’s landscape resources is truly remarkable. This work has taught me a lot about the proud legacy of stewardship that SH has enjoyed over its long and storied past and the people who have made it possible. Living and working on the site has been an experience that I will always remember and treasure.

Please stay tuned for research developments, state of the art maps depicting SH’s cultural landscape, and perhaps even a few surprises as the work of this exciting partnership continues to unfold in the fall and beyond.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What's Cooking in the Kitchen?

Well, there may not be anything stewing on the coals (yet!), but the kitchen is getting a makeover! I'm Brenda Hornsby Heindl, summer intern and recent graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, and I'm reassessing the furnishings, room use, and interpretation of the Southeast Dependency/Kitchen building.

After researching the restoration of the space in the early 1930s, I've been reading through original documents of the Lee family, period recipes, archaeological reports, and other eighteenth-century documents from the region. I've also been comparing the kitchen to other eighteenth-century sites (intact and archaeological) such as the Shirley Plantation, Menokin, Kenmore Plantation, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier. I recently returned from a research trip in Williamsburg, where I met with curators, archaeologists, and historic architects and architectural preservationists who helped me with assessing the context of an eighteenth-century kitchen. Because of Philip Ludwell Lee's surviving 1776 probate inventory, as well as the strength of other Lee family records from that decade, I'm leaning toward a kitchen setting of the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

One of the most exciting things listed on the 1776 inventory is a chocolate stone! During a recent conversation with Frank Clarke of Colonial Williamsburg, I learned that there were two types of chocolate stones. Perhaps one day Stratford Hall will have a foodways program that includes making chocolate!

Did you know that Stratford's kitchen likely once had a large closet space located near the hearth? After examining pre-restoration photographs, as well as a 1763 document mentioning materials stolen from the "kitchen closet," the kitchen proposal will definitely suggest looking for evidence for that closet! (Look at the ceiling and wall to the left of the hearth in this pre-restoration photograph--see the outline where the plaster is missing?)

Working with curator Gretchen Goodell, my hope is to create an interpretative space that can be visited without an interpreter, but also a useable space for cooking demonstrations. Combining original sources, objects, and archaeological and architectural material will provide for an in-depth look at the kitchen of Stratford Hall.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Summer Preservation Interns at Stratford Hall

The interns of the preservation department, under the supervision of Phil Mark, are commencing work on their summer restoration project. Erin White, a graduate student from the Heritage Resources program at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, started the ten-week internship at the end of May. Jess Warren, from Georgia, is a student in the building preservation technology program at Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and he started his internship in mid-June.

This is what they have to say:

Our main project for the summer is the restoration of the reconstructed slave quarters near the Great House. Before Jess’ arrival, Phil and Erin started by removing the back window sashes on the east quarters. The sashes were labeled and taken back to the preservation shop. Using environmentally-friendly silent paint remover, which uses infrared heat, Phil and Erin began removing the glaze, glazing points, and paint from the exterior side of the sashes. We then removed the panes of glass, taking much care not to break them. After all of the glass was removed, the interior sides of the sashes were sanded.

Jess cut the Restoration Glass to replace the broken panes. Restoration Glass is cylinder glass made in Germany in the manner of early glass production before the invention of float glass in the 20th century. Restoration Glass is appropriate to the period of the main house. After the panes were checked to ensure a proper fit, Jess used Sarco glazing to set the glass, which requires a very steady hand.

Currently, we are removing paint and sanding the eaves and window frames of the quarters. We then use Boracare, a non-toxic insecticide, to protect the wood. After this dries, primer, then paint, is applied. If you come by the slave quarters and see us on scaffolding, this is probably what we are doing, so feel free to ask any questions. We’re there Monday through Friday, 9:00-5:00!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Update from the Preservation Department

Hello, all! It's time again for an update from your friendly Preservation Department. With the Southwest Outbuilding and Northwest Stairs opened to the public, we're moving on to our summer projects. The big project of the summer is the restoration of the two slave quarters that will be reinterpreted and used for educational space. We also have some preventative maintenance projects that we need to address in the coming monthes. The good news is that my two summer interns have arrived and are at work now. It will be nice to have some help for the next couple of months! As work really gets going this summer, I will be back with a detailed update on the Slave Quarters Restoration and the work of the interns.

In the meantime, I did want to share a recent trip I took to Vermont for a Timber Framing workshop held at Shelburne Farms, a few miles south of Burlington. The workshop was held by the Preservation Trades Network and the Timber Framers Guild at the Shelburne Farm's Breeding Barn. The workshop focused on restoration and in-situ repairs of timber framed structures.
The participants of the workshop were able to learn various techniques by repairing the 1891 Victorian Breeding Barn. Most participants split into groups and worked on repairing large support posts. This was accomplished by using lap joints to install new timbers at the bottom of the posts. I was part of a group that replaced a section of rotten gert between the first floor and the hay loft and six rotten floor joists of the hay loft. Of course this was the messiest job of the week, but I enjoyed it. All in all, the workshop was a great experience--I was able to learn some techniques that I will be able to use here at Stratford Hall, I met some great people, and I helped out another historic site. All the instructors for the workshop were incredibly helpful and passed along a lot of great information to us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Re-discovering Stratford Hall

It is no secret that visitation at historic sites like Stratford Hall has been declining. This is not a new development, but part of a long-term trend that began over 30 years ago. Careful observers have lots of opinions on why this is happening, but it is clear these trends reflect a significant cultural shift in the way Americans understand the past. In short, being led around an old house and being lectured about the dead (and usually white) occupants is not the attraction it was for our grandparents.

So what to do about it? This is the big question. For those sites that are no longer viable economically, they may be better off as private homes than public institutions. This way, the buildings would be preserved and perhaps occasionally opened to the public. This solution was adopted by Colonial Williamsburg when they sold Carter's Grove. In contemporary Wall Street parlance, however, there are some sites that are "too big to fail." Or putting it another way, their stories have such national significance that they must be preserved as public institutions. Stratford Hall is one of those places.

For this reason, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to remake the Stratford experience in a way that is designed to appeal to a new generation of museum visitor. Many of the comments posted on this blog are pieces of this bigger plan. One of the most important components of this plan is re-thinking how our visitors experience Stratford Hall. Or more specifically, how do we convey educational content to our visitors?

In October, we hosted a conference entitled "Re-Discovering the Historic House." This conference brought together people from a variety of disciplines, like game designers, story tellers and cultural critics, that could help us think differently about how this experience can be re-fashioned for a new audience. If you want to hear about these ideas, you can listen to the podcast on our website.

As the next phase of this process we are planning to implement a new tour experience here and at two other sites, probably in Boston and Philadelphia. The new tour experience would be developed at all three sites simultaneously, accompanied by extensive visitor evaluation. The hope is that this will lead to a replicable model that can be adopted by other sites across the country. It will be a multi-year project.

What will this new experience be like? Right now we don't know the specifics. That's the principal question we need to answer. However, it is fair to say that the new experience will be much more visitor directed and will allow the exploration of history from multiple perspectives. We will still offer the guided tour for those who want them. But for most visitors, we will provide another way for them to explore Stratford at their own pace so they can learn about and discover the things about this place that are important to them. As this process unfolds, we will provide updates here. Stay tuned!

Posted by Paul Reber, Executive Director

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Archaeology Field School at Stratford Hall

For five weeks in May and June, Stratford Hall is once again hosting a Field School in Archaeology in cooperation with the University of Mary Washington's Department of Historic Preservation. Under the direction of Dr. Douglas W. Sanford, students learn to survey, excavate, document, and interpret the archaeological record of Stratford's 18th century landscapes. Students are housed on the plantation, and in addition to field work they also participate in weekly class discussions of archaeological readings and take field trips to nearby historic properties and other archaeological sites in Virginia and Maryland.
The focus of this year's dig is the Oval Site (ST92), a farming complex which dates from approximately 1740 to 1780, and is located about 800 feet south of the Great House on the western side of the Oval drive. The site was originally discovered in the 197os during a plantation-wide survey directed by Dr. Fraser Neiman. Beginning in 2001, the site has been investigated by 8 UMW field schools. At present, the site consists of what we suspect to be an overseer's house featuring a full-height brick-lined basement, a large 20' x 40' post-in-ground barn, and a third structure, also post-in-ground, that was discovered last year in the western portion of the site. This structure is believed to have been either a kitchen or slave quarter.

The 2010 Field School is continuing to investigate and uncover portions of this possible kitchen or slave quarter. We are currently in our third week, and have already found a portion of what we hope is another posthole for the building, several other features, and numerous artifacts. The artifacts include both architectural debris and domestic refuse ranging from countless brick fragments, hand-wrought iron nails, and pieces of window glass to a wide variety of ceramics including coarse utilitarian earthenwares to fine porcelain tablewares. Brass tacks, white-clay pipe stems, table glass, gun flints, brass buckles, iron bridle bits, and even a prehistoric projectile point have been found as well.
By carefully digging 5' x 5' squares of dirt, layer by layer with shovels and trowels, in the area of the suspected third building, the students and crew continue to learn more about the size of this structure, what it was used for, and what was around it. The artifacts screened from those layers of dirt tell us when the site was occupied, what kinds of materials were used in the building's construction, and what kind of activities were carried out by the occupants of the site. Learning more about this building and the enslaved African Americans and free white employees who likely worked and/or lived in this structure contributes to the understanding of Stratford's complex 18th century communities and landscapes.

The Field School is onsite Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm and runs until June 18th. We hope you'll come and visit while we're working and learn more about this site!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Setting up house

It is wedding season and I've been looking at a lot of wedding registries lately for a few friends who are getting married.  Most couples today register for "fancy" goods like china and expensive wine glasses, but also for "practical" goods like a dish drainer or trash can.  It got me thinking...when Thomas and Hannah Lee set up house at Stratford in the late 1730s/early 1740s, what did they need?  Granted, at that point they had young children and a household already, but I bet they needed new furniture and other items when they moved into the new digs.

Looking at the inventory taken after Thomas Lee's death in 1750 (excerpt above - click to zoom), you definitely see a mixture of fancy and practical.  A clock worth 10 pounds and a "Chandeleer" worth 21 pounds are listed along with "a Parcell of Cannisters," a coffee roaster, and "4 Water Glasses and other things" worth less than a pound combined.

Recently I've been trying to fill in our collection with the small, everyday sorts of things that I know would have been needed by residents of Stratford in their daily lives.  One of my most recent acquisitions for the collection is a small looking glass that would have been useful in a family bedchamber or upper servant's chamber.  We see low-cost looking glasses in the Stratford household inventory, like in the Blue Room inventory in 1775, where appraisers found "1 small glass" valued at 3 shillings.  Not every room in the Lee household would have had fancy, gilded and carved looking glasses (although some would have!).  Like our own homes, the rooms at Stratford would have been decorated in a hierarchy - the fancy public rooms with expensive furniture, the more intimate family rooms that you used on a daily basis, and the private service rooms that only the staff or family would see.

Now I just need to decide which way to go with my wedding gifts...

Looking glass image courtesy Pook and Pook.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words..."

...but sometimes doesn't tell the whole story. This week several members of Stratford Hall's staff, including me, participated in a Virginia Association of Museums (VAM) workshop on planning digital projects. One particular project that we want to pursue is the digitization of our historic images so we could easily share them--or at least a good number of them--with on-line visitors (via our web site, e-newsletter, Flickr, and social networking sites) as well as having them available for our collection catalog, exhibits, publications and research.

Hall's collection of visual images contains thousands of photographs and slides just waiting to be organized digitally into a searchable database. Although many of them are interesting images in their own right, even without an additional layer of history attached, just a short caption makes them much more meaningful. We want to catalog our images in a database that will also capture background information. For example, a 1930s black-and-white image of a setter with pups is charming; however, the fact that Stratford Hall's Resident Superintendent, Gen. B. F. Cheatham, sold the offspring of his cherished Irish Setter Shirley (pictured) to raise money for reconstructing the springhouse is a much more compelling story.

Historic images of the Great House at Stratford have the additional importance of documenting changes in the structure. This circa 1908 cyanotype [this process used predominantly between 1880 and 1920 and identified by its blue tint], taken by Edward A. Preble and given to Stratford by his daughter Marjorie Preble Thorne, shows a small porch at the east end of the house, straight front steps, outside window shutters, and a painted five-board fence bordering the lawn.

Digitizing our images will allow us to make more of our collection accessible to the public and will prevent needless handling of precious originals, helping to preserve them for future generations. The project is a challenging one, but we've already begun "brainstorming" about logistics and plan to have a digital strategy developed within the next new months. Check back with us for updates and more shared images.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Collections Manager in her element

Many people in and out of the museum world wonder what a Collections Manager really does on a day-to-day basis. My job description is long and filled with specific language targeted for people knowledgeable in Collections Management. I receive questions ranging from “So you handle the money right?” to “What is there to manage?” As the staff of Stratford Hall recently completed the restoration and reinterpretation of the Southwest Outbuilding and Northwest Stair Passage, this is a prime opportunity to explain what my job entails at a Historic House Museum.

The Southwest Outbuilding, with its reinterpretation of a workshop and servants chamber, has a mixture of both period correct reproductions as well as pieces from Stratford Hall’s decorative arts collection. The workshop, filled with close to one hundred tools from the M-WTCA and other donors, needed to be individually cataloged, their condition evaluated, photographed, measured, and labeled with accession numbers using museum appropriate materials. Once this information is collected, I input the data into our collections management database, Rediscovery, as well as create and maintain paper files with photographs, invoices, and other pertinent information regarding the objects. Even objects that are considered non-accessioned (which means they are not part of the permanent collection) receive the same treatment as accessioned objects. They are labeled, cataloged, photographed, and measured so that future employees at Stratford Hall do not pick up a pillowcase on the newly crafted field bed and wonder if it is part of the permanent collection. Even the hands-on activity was numbered to prevent future confusion!

This information assists members of the Stratford Hall Collections department with one of their most important tasks in managing the collection – inventory. Images, measurements, and accurate locations for pieces in the collections enable us to know where everything is on the estate. An accurate inventory helps with insurance values, donor and lender communications, and relationships with other departments within our organization.

Even though the areas are now open to the public, there is still much to do, including securing loan pieces to be displayed in these areas (which include working with insurance companies and fine art shippers), monitoring the building environment, adjusting cleaning routines, inventorying the pieces from the Architectural collection used in the Northwest Stair Passage, and other tasks as they arise. So please, come and see the reinterpreted spaces at Stratford Hall – who knows, you might see me in the back of a room - crawling on the floor – inventorying! J

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming Up Next: The Slave Quarters

Now that we've mostly completed the Southwest Outbuilding and Northwest Stair Passage restoration and reinterpretation, staff is moving on to the next project on our list. This project is restoring and reinterpreting the slave quarters. The slave quarters were built in 1939, supposedly on original foundations (though archaeological work has not discovered those foundations). These buildings are the types that house slaves and skilled slaves might have lived in--they are much closer to the Great House and made of stronger materials (stone, instead of wood) than those lived in by field slaves. Thus, we are using what we know to help us tell the story of the enslaved people working in and around the house at Stratford Hall.

Phil Mark will begin restoration on the buildings in May, and Gretchen Goodell is hard at work researching the people's stories that we are going to include in these buildings (you'll hear more about these parts of the projects in the coming months). We have two slave quarters--one will continue as an interpreted space, where visitors can learn about the enslaved people who would have lived here, their relationships, and their lives. The other slave quarters building is going to become a hands-on history area for families to use. This is where my work comes in.

I'm currently researching hands-on history areas at various historic sites and deciding what kinds of activities we will be including in our own. This space will be open during the same time as the Great House, and parents will be able to take their children there to do activities throughout the day. We will have fun activities available for young children--like building blocks--and we'll also provide 18th-century costumes that children can dress up in, a discovery chest for learning about some of the items that can be found at Stratford Hall, and colonial games that children will be able to play with throughout the day. These are just a few of the activities we'll be providing once this space opens in October.

We're hoping that having this hands-on space will give parents more activities to do with their children at Stratford Hall. Coupling the hands-on area with our Signers' Club program that's already available (this program is similar to the Junior Ranger program with the National Park Service) will provide a number of activities for children of all ages.

We'll be updating you throughout the summer on the progress on the slave quarters project!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dressing J. Paxton the joiner: using primary documents

The collections team is working feverishly to get ready for the installation of the Southwest outbuilding next week.  One of my tasks in all of this is to create a furnishing plan that draws on what we know about Stratford and its residents.  In the servants' chamber, we have chosen to highlight the domestic life of the skilled craftsmen who worked here based on archaeology and documentary research.  J. Paxton, a joiner, is one of our named residents.  From a surviving account book, we know he worked at Stratford, that he borrowed specialty planes from nearby Chantilly plantation, and that he was paid in cash as well as brandy and sugar.  But that's about it.

So we have the who, but how do you bring Paxton to life through objects when you have very few clues?  Well, I've been using 18th-century runaway advertisements from Virginia newspapers (here and here) as a start.  Strange, you may think, but take a look at the entries for indentured joiners* and you get a whole host of details about what joiners like Paxton wore, looked like, how they spoke, or their personality quirks.

"Run away from the subscriber, Robert Robinson, a valuable joiner and carpenter...had on, a fasionable good beaver hat, a fine cloth coat, of a parson's gray color, with hair buttons...light blue worsted (wool) stockings...wears in his sleeves either a pair of black or a pair of oval purple buttons set in yellow metal."

"Run away from the indented Servant Man named Hugh Rogers,...has light brown straight Hair, is very fond of Liquor, and when drunk is talkative and quarrelsome, but when sober is peaceable and of few Words, by Trade a Carpenter and Joiner, and can saw with the Whip Saw.  He had on, when seen upon the Road, a Check Shirt...and a fine Hat about Half worn."

A studied survey of these advertisements left me with a list of clothing and personal articles (as well as some good laughs).  Patterns began to emerge that helped illuminate the common dress of joiners working on Virginia plantations in the 18th century.  Early next week we'll install reproduction clothing in the chamber, reflecting those findings and ultimately bringing J. Paxton, the joiner, and his companions to light.

*To find indentured joiners in the Colonial Williamsburg database, browse under 'indentured' and then 'joiners' in the list.