Keeping Warm in the 18th-Century Winter

The passing of Twelfth Night will the end of another Christmas for the Washingtons and signal collections staff to ready the Mansion for the long, cold, and quieter winter months ahead. The Washingtons’ guests have packed their bags and headed home. Today's visitors in the Mansion can learn how the Washingtons kept warm during the 18th century.

Washington Bedchamber

The Washingtons’ bed is being prepared for their retiring on a frosty winter night. The bed curtains are drawn closed to provide them with privacy and protection from cold drafts. The heavy wool bed rug and blanket have been pulled back and a brass bed warmer (England or United States, ca. 1790) is being run between the linen sheets to take off the chill. The warmer’s hinged cover, decorated with engraved and pierced designs, flips open so the pan can be filled with hot coals or embers.

Dining Room

Visitors to Mount Vernon recalled that breakfast was a “very substantial Repast” featuring hoecakes and several varieties of cold meats, including ham and tongue. They were also given the choice of coffee, tea, and chocolate to drink. According to George Washington’s adopted grandchildren, his usual breakfast consisted of “hoecakes swimming in butter and honey” and “three cups of tea without cream.” We have replicated that breakfast for this scenario. The current setting features a “tobacco-leaf” pattern teapot and tea caddy (Chinese export porcelain, 1760-1775), so named for its colorful overglaze enamel decoration, at the head of the table. There is also a coffee roaster in the kitchen scullery, connecting the breakfast being served in the dining room to the preparatory work in the kitchen.

Kitchen

Here enslaved cooks Nathan and Lucy are using ingredients that Martha Washington retrieved from the mansion cellar to make pies. During the warmer months when the gardens were in bloom it was very important to preserve as much food as possible so that you would not go hungry during the winter. The Washington’s ate pickled fruit and vegetables almost all winter.

In the scullery, we have installed a coffee-making scenario. Coffee was a very popular drink for breakfast, but they couldn’t just press “start” on the coffee pot. General Washington first had to order the coffee beans, which came from Yemen, Surinam, or the West Indies, then the cooks had to roast the beans, grind them into powder, and then brew the grounds.

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