Ice Cream and Mosquitoes: Summertime in Virginia

On the first day of summer, the collections staff prepared the Mansion for a new season—swapping the springtime food for summer delicacies and dishes. The scenarios in the Butler’s Pantry, Dining Room, Kitchen, Greenhouse Slave Quarters, and Washington Bedchamber reveal this seasonal change.

Butler’s Pantry

Butler's pantry, summer 2018Dishes and tablewares used in earlier courses of the dinner taking place in the Small Dining Room have been removed to the table.

Dining Room

A pair of blue-and-white Chinese export dessert pails, also called iceries or glaciers, takes center stage in the dessert course offered in the Small Dining Room. The strawberry ice cream made in the Kitchen will be dished into the dessert pail’s inner liner with ice packed around the liner and onto the lid to keep the delectable contents chilled. Eighteenth-century porcelain services often included such pieces for the serving of this fashionable dessert. The French white-and-gold porcelain service George Washington purchased from the Comte de Moustier in 1790 included “2 Iceries compleat,” “12 ice plates” and “36 ice pots.”

Other sweets tempting our guests include tarts in the silver basket, crèmes in the covered cups, and fresh plums and pears in the pierced porcelain baskets. A final course of dried fruits and nuts sits on the sideboard.

Kitchen

The Kitchen has once again become the spot for making a favorite treat of the Washingtons: ice cream. On the floor in front of the table, a wooden bucket holds a tin ice cream freezer packed in ice and salt. Cream, sugar, and flavorings (here, fresh strawberries) were added to the freezer, which was then turned by hand using the handle built into its lid. Sugar nippers, a mortar and pestle, a sifter, and an earthenware pitcher are displayed nearby to teach our guests about the ingredients (and the hard work) required to make this special indulgence.

George Washington’s accounts include several purchases of utensils for preparing and serving ice cream, including a “Cream Machine for Ice” in May 1784 (the first reference to the dessert at Mount Vernon), as well as ice cream molds and an ice cream spoon (purchased in Philadelphia in June 1796). During Washington’s presidency, Martha is known to have served ice cream at her weekly Friday levees. Attesting to the dessert’s popularity at Mount Vernon, the inventory taken after George Washington’s death lists two pewter ice cream pots, valued at $3.00, and another eight of tin, valued at $1.00, stored for the winter on the second floor of the Kitchen.

The strawberries in the yellow earthenware bowl might be some of the first fruits born of the “few seed of the Scarlet Alpine Strawberry” that George Washington received as a retirement gift from Winthrop Sargent of Cincinnati (then part of the Northwest Territory) on June 16, 1798. Sargent boasted that this variety “produces most excellent Fruit during all the Summer and Autumn and which have not been till lately known to me in America – for twenty Years I was unsuccessfully essaying to procure it.” Mount Vernon’s Horticulture team has reestablished a “berry bed” in the Fruit Garden and Nursery, installing 600 strawberry plants, 30 red currants, and 30 red gooseberries.

Other summer produce on view in the Kitchen and Larder includes cucumbers, cabbage, melons artichokes, figs and peaches. Some of these fruits and vegetables went fresh to the table, but a portion of the season’s yield would be pickled for winter, a process we will see with the fall scenarios.

Greenhouse Slave Quarters

New summer fruits and vegetables have also been introduced to the men’s and women’s sleeping rooms in the greenhouse slave quarters. Many of the enslaved individuals at the Mansion House Farm tended small gardens, and they might have received additional produce from friends and family on outlying farms. Fruits and vegetables in the slave quarters include: musk melons, pattypan squash, cucumbers, peaches, cherries and peanuts. All of these faux foods are based upon botanical remains excavated at the House for Families site. Mount Vernon’s enslaved community supplemented their rations with this produce. Additionally, they sold melons and cucumbers to George Washington for the Washington family’s use. Honey and a honeycomb resting in a bucket in the men’s sleeping room are also ready to sell to the Washingtons. Enslaved workers Nat, Davy, Sambo and Isaac are all known to have sold honey to George Washington. The men may have kept bees or collected honeycombs in the surrounding woods.

Washington Bedchamber

The house servants replaced the white dimity curtains from the Washingtons’ bedstead with a shield of mosquito netting. This lightweight material protected against mosquitoes and other pests while still allowing cool night breezes to pass through during the sweltering summers along the Potomac. We have pulled back a portion of the netting to allow our guests to see how the hangings encapsulated the sleepers at night.

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