George Washington enjoyed a wide variety of the types of public entertainment available to eighteenth century Americans. While Washington's popular image is often one of sternness and formality, he often patronized the travelling players and performers who made their living moving from one community to the next, showing off their acrobatic skills or exotic animals.
As a Burgess, George Washington himself helped an immigrant named Peter Stover get permission from the Virginia legislature to found a new town in Frederick County, to be named Strasburg, after Stover's hometown in Alsace. In correspondence concerning the upcoming submission of the bill establishing the town, Washington asked Stover "if you wanted Fairs appointed," so that both pieces of legislation could be handled at the same time; as signed by the governor, the bill included permission to hold fairs twice each year in the new community.1
In February of 1752, the Virginia legislature passed "An Act for allowing Fairs to be kept in the Town of Alexandria." Agreeing that fairs would be "very commodious to the inhabitants of those parts of Virginia, and greatly increase the trade of that town," the burgesses decreed that two fairs be held in Alexandria each year, in May and October. A difficult-to-decipher notation in one of Washington's financial ledgers indicates that he may have attended or even sold something at the Alexandria fair in the early 1760s. The reference to the fair is grouped together with payments to a man for driving nine head of cattle for Washington. The entry also notes that Washington saw a lioness, bought a subscription to the Alexandria purse (a horse race), and purchased a ticket for a ball, all activities which might be expected to occur in conjunction with a fair.2
Many years later, during George Washington's presidency, Martha Washington traveled from Philadelphia to Trenton with her two youngest grandchildren and several other household members. On their return trip, the group stopped at a fair in Bristol, Pennsylvania, where the first lady spent 7 shillings and 6 pence on "things for the children."3
Over the years, George Washington and various members of his household were able to learn something about the world outside Virginia from the itinerant entertainers who traveled along the eastern seaboard. Many of these individuals worked with exotic or specially-trained animals. For example, Washington recorded paying ten shillings to see a "Lyoness" in June of 1766, and three years later spent three shillings and one and a half pence to see a "Tyger," which could have been either the now-familiar striped Asian tiger or a North American cougar or puma, referred to by the colonists as "red tigers."4 Washington saw a "Cugar" in Philadelphia during his presidency, as well as a "Sea Leopard," a type of sea lion.5 At least twice in his life, Washington paid to see an elk, and during the presidency, he paid "for to see Elephant."6
One of the most intriguing references is a notation in a financial ledger that notes that four days after Christmas in 1787, the Washingtons paid eighteen shillings to "the man who brot a Camel from Alex[andri]a for a show."'7 The Washington family was also interested in animals exhibiting special qualities or training. During the presidency, the Washingtons paid $3.00 to a "man who had a very sagacious Dog," so that they could see "his performance."8
Interesting human performances also attracted the attention of the Washington household. In May of 1767, George Washington paid one pound, seven shillings, and six pence for "seeing Slight of hand performd."9 In addition to rare animals and human performers, the Washingtons also enjoyed other entertainments. During the early part of the presidency, when the executive mansion was in New York, the Washington family made several visits to a waxworks, where one of the exhibits featured "a representation of The President of the United States, sitting under a Canopy, in his Military Dress-Over the Head of his Excellency a Fame [probably an allegorical figure of a woman] is suspended (also in Wax) crowning him with a Wreath of Laurels."10
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. "George Washington to Peter Stover, 9 November 1761" The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 7 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Pres, 1990), 98-99, 99n.
2. George Washington, "Sundrys. . ." Ledger A (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 143a.
3. Stephen Decatur, Jr. Private Affairs of George Washington, From the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), 235-36.
4. George Washington, "Sundrys. . ." Ledger A (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 143a; The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 2 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), 193n.
5. Decatur, 203, 265.
6. George Washington, "Sundrys. . ." Ledger A (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 232 a; Ledger B, 6 July 1788 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 269a; Philadelphia Household Account Book, (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 25 August 1796 and 16 November 1796.
7. Ledger B, 29 December 1787, 257a.
8. Philadelphia Household Account Book, 17 November 1795.
9. Ledger A, 20 May 1767, 249a.
10. Decatur, 62.