George Washington's watermark featured a central figure of Liberty leaning on a plow, holding a liberty pole with a cap aloft. The design is encircled by the lettering of "GEORGE WASHINGTON" surmounted by a griffin. Washington's watermark conveyed his unique role in shaping America's early democratic roots.
The griffin embodied the intelligence and strength of the lion and the eagle. Liberty poles were first raised in the American colonies to protest the Stamp Act of 1765. The liberty poles were topped with soft red conical caps communicating semantics with origins in ancient Rome where newly-freed slaves had heads shaved and donned red caps. Lady Liberty leans upon a plow relevant to Freemasons, representing the continuing advancement from a lower to a higher state.
Watermarks are produced by the pressure of a projecting design mold impinged upon the surface of wet paper in order to control thinning during manufacture. Watermarking creates a translucent image with areas of lighter fiber density that is visible when the paper is held up to the light. Watermarks provided an early form of trademark for documents to deter counterfeits. In addition, watermark technology was linked to papermaking and papermakers; Washington was among a group of Americans who were not papermakers but employed watermarks nonetheless to set provenance for documents they issued.
Two possible Pennsylvania-based papermakers connected to Washington may have provided the watermarked paper. James F. Magee or Henry Schütz's paper mill on Sandy Run, Whitemarsh Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania both supplied paper found at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon set a precedent as a location to be granted special free franking privileges before Congress issued a red inked "City of Washington" stamp for presidential use. After Washington's death, when Congress was informed of the enormous amount of letters and packages during the period of mourning for Washington, the body passed an act granting the former First Lady Martha Washington franking privileges in 1800.
Reference Specialist, Special Collections Department
J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University
Gravell, Thomas L., and Miller, George. American Watermarks, 1690-1835. New Castle, DE.: Oak Knoll Press, 2002.
Rickards, Maurice. Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. New York: Routledge, 2000.