Washington rarely wrote in his books.

Instead, he developed a system of note-taking, using loosely-bound, pocket-sized, blank books that could be easily carried and consulted when needed. All together, he produced almost 900 pages of notes from agricultural and historical works.

...if not prevented by company, I resolve, that as soon as the glimmering taper, supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing Table and acknowledge the letters I have received

George Washington to James McHenry, May 29, 1797

Inkstand, c. 1785, MVLA Gift of Mrs. Lyttleton B. P. Gould, Jr., M. Chapin Krech, Dr. Shepard Krech, Alvin W. Krech, Peter Chapin, Charles Chapin, and Mrs. Charles Merrill Chapin III, in memory of Esther Maria Lewis Chapin, 1986 [W-2974/A-E]

Taking notes or writing a letter in the 18th-century required a precisely-cut quill pen, paper, ink, and some form of blotting material.

The inkstand with two ink wells may have been used by Washington. Washington typically made his ink from high-quality, prepackaged ink powder, a fact which contributed to his notes’ long-term legibility.

Argan Lamp, 1790, MVLA Gift of John Pierpont Morgan, 1915, [W-12/A-B]Washington often retired to his study to read and write after attending to work on his farms, on weekday evenings and on Sundays. There, a desk and two or three writing tables provided workstations for himself and the private secretaries he employed to assist in copying and arranging his correspondence and financial accounts. For illumination, they relied on the limited light coming through the windows in the south wall during the day, and candles and Argand oil lamps at night.

Stored in the bookcases lining the study, locked in trunks, and filed in his desk, the security of his notebooks and papers posed a constant source of concern to Washington. In 1797, he dreamed of building a structure "for the accommodation & security of my Military Civil & private Papers which are voluminous, and may be interesting." He never realized this goal, leaving it to future generations to collect and organize his papers and make them available to posterity.

Copying Press

Copying press, England, c. 1790-1815, MVLA, Purchase, 1995 [M-3885/A-G].

Copying press, England, c. 1790-1815, MVLA, Purchase, 1995 [M-3885/A-G].

For much of the 18th century, copies of letters had to be made by hand and were typically copied and arranged in leather-bound letterbooks. Then, in 1780, English inventor James Watt developed a copying machine that produced duplicates with a few turns of a crank. Washington received his first copying press as a gift from an admiring Dutch merchant, John De Neufville, in 1782, who hoped Washington would find it “useful and agreeable.” He found it so useful that he later acquired a second one.

This device is similar to the copying press owned by George Washington. To make a copy, a damp sheet of paper was placed on top of the original. As both were passed through the rollers, the pressure drew the ink up from the original through to the copy, creating an exact duplicate.

George Washington Wired

As a man of the Enlightenment, Washington was caught up in the quest to advance knowledge, better the human condition, and attain world peace.

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Take Note!

Take Note!

The content on this page was adapted from Take Note! George Washington the Reader, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2013–2014 and the exhibition catalogue.

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