Poplar Forest Archaeology

"I have this summer built a wing of offices 110 feet long…"

Leave a comment

Being Fussy Never Tasted So Sweet

It’s time to admit a difficult truth…archaeologists are not perfect. We are not omniscient and the artifacts we recover during excavation are sometimes misidentified. One of the many reasons why we continually reexamine our older archaeological collections is to rectify any gaffes and to reevaluate the data from a fresh perspective. Sometimes, we end up with a fun new tale to tell about our sites. This is one of those times.

During a recent reevaluation of artifacts from the 1989 excavations of the Wing of Offices adjacent to the main house at Poplar Forest, a small metal object emerged to tell its story. It is a thin fragment of brass sheeting, cut into a decorative shape, stamped with an art nouveau design of lines and curves and embossed with the word “Whitman”. Originally cataloged as a ‘possible clock hand’, this item has now been properly identified as a fragment of a set of advertising candy tongs that came in a box of Whitman’s Chocolates in the beginning years of the twentieth century.


Fragment of Whitman’s Chocolates advertising candy tongs, Poplar Forest archaeological collection.


Complete example of Whitman’s advertising candy tongs, provenience unknown, image source.

Stephen F. Whitman & Son, Inc. started in 1842, when the eponymous founder opened a small retail “confectionery and fruiterer shop” near the Philadelphia waterfront (Davis 2013). In order to compete in the growing market for sweets in American culture, Whitman’s introduced a new concept to candy sales in 1854: the pre-packaged confection, now known as a ‘trademarked’ package (RS). This initial product was a box of Choice Mixed Sugar Plums (small rounds of flavored boiled sugar) sold in an “elegant box, pink and gilt, lavishly decorated with designs of rosebuds and curlicues” (Goldstein 2015). By the end of the century, Whitman’s had garnered multiple awards at international expositions for ‘product excellence’ and introduced several new pre-packaged products to the markets, including many of the chocolate treats that are still in their repertoire today (RS).


Box of Whitman’s Choice Mixed Sugar Plums, 1854, image source.

By the late nineteenth century, chocolate had become a staple item in the diet of everyday Americans, but it was not a recent invention. Two spouted ceramic vessels excavated at the Maya site in Colha, Belize and dating to the Middle Preclassic period (600-400 BCE) were analyzed and found to hold substantial amounts of chocolate’s chemical signature theobromine (Powis et al 2002). This evidence reaffirms the understanding that the Maya peoples have been drinking chocolate for thousands of years. It is known that chocolate was consumed across Central America; the Aztec people adopted its use and even made cacao beans a form of currency (ICCO). The first mention of chocolate by Europeans was in the 1502  accounts of Ferdinand Columbus (Christopher Columbus’s son), when he described the “…almonds which the Indians of New Spain use as currency…” (Grivetti and Shapiro 2009). Forty years later, chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court; from there it spread like wildfire throughout the countries of Europe and, via their colonies, to the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. An increase in both supply and demand, combined with an emerging global trade market, encouraged innovation in the chocolate business (Grivetti and Shapiro 2009). Chocolate quickly became a familiar ingredient to people of the 18th century, but the short shelf-life and laborious production process was still an expense that only the upper classes could afford.  Chocolate had taken its first steps to becoming a central element of the Western diet, but the Industrial Revolution would catapult it the rest of the way there.

Aztec woman pouring chocolate, Codex Tudela, 16th century, image source. ∗ Page from De l’Usage du Caphe du The et du Chocolate, P. S. Dufour, 1671, “Traits of Chocolate”, image source.

Chocolate is made from the ground seeds of the cacao tree. The seeds (beans) grow inside large pods, which are harvested, fermented, and dried before being sorted, packed, and shipped to chocolate manufacturers (Vukovic 2004). At the factory, the beans are roasted and ground until the heat from the process causes them to separate into its two constituent parts: cocoa liquor (the mass of the chocolate) and cocoa butter (the oil from the beans) (Chapman 1917). The cocoa liquor is then mixed with sugar, a small amount of the cocoa butter, and flavorings and put through couching and tempering processes before being molded into its final products (Chapman 1917, Vukovic 2004).


Workers in Whitman’s factory, February 19, 1921, image source.

For millennia, the process of turning cacao beans into chocolate was a lengthy process that needed to be performed by skilled laborers (Chapman 1917). Thus, most chocolates were made by the same people who sold them, in small, family-owned shops (many examples available in Grivetti and Shapiro 2009). The first chocolate ‘factory’ was established by Joseph Fry in 1761, but it wasn’t until his grandsons ran the company that it became the leading producer of chocolate in Britain (Goldstein 2015). With the growth of standardized and mechanized production methods throughout the retail market, more companies were able to produce large amounts of chocolate candies for a reasonable cost, allowing it to permeate the lives of ordinary people. An 1894 guide to the city published by the City of Philadelphia proclaimed “Cocoa, once the luxury of the wealthy and exclusive, has become an article of food for the people, supplanting coffee and tea upon thousands of tables, and, in some form, found in nearly every household.” (Taylor and McManus 1894). Over a quarter of the world’s cocoa production in 1911 was consumed in the United States alone (Chisholm 1913).


Whitman’s retail store, Philadelphia, PA, 1894.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the third largest producer of total manufactured goods and the largest producer of candy in the United States (Chisholm 1913). Whitman’s had become the leading chocolate maker in Philadelphia and one of the largest producers of confections in the country (Chapman 1917). But the candy industry was thriving; chocolate makers had to find a way to entice consumers to purchase their product over that of a competitor. Thus was born the great age of candy advertisements.


Advertisement for Whitman’s Instantaneous Chocolate, 1890-1892, image source.

A contributor to International Confectioners gave the following advice to his fellow candy sellers:

“The eye must be arrested… the talk that goes with it, in the form of well executed and worded window cards, should be of the bullseye kind, straight, strong, forcible and convincing without ‘flim-flam’ or a straining after unusual or striking rhetorical effects. In a word, the cards in a window display should convince with their candor and common sense, for the great mass of people, rich or poor, have simple minds and must be talked to in a simple way – Aim low.” (Blakely 1915).

This advice, though condescending and cynical in its estimation of the consumer’s intellect, does exemplify the general principles that chocolate ads seem to have followed in the early twentieth century; they often simply stated the superiority of their product while boxing the candy in elaborate packages. The emphasis in the ads was placed less on any new food trends than on the rising importance of novelty and convenience (Blanke 2002).


Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections, late 19th century, image source.

The brass candy tongs represented in the Poplar Forest archaeological collection were included as a sort of advertisement inside some of Whitman’s boxes of chocolates. They were placed flat underneath the lid for convenience of packing, but the consumer could easily bend them into shape upon opening the box at home. The first known advertisement illustrating the use of these tongs was run in 1899 and depicts a handsome young man offering a box of Whitman’s chocolates to two lovely ladies, one of whom is eyeing him flirtatiously. All three figures are stylishly dressed and the text is surrounded by elaborate whorls and scrolls, lending an air of sophistication and elegance to the ad that the creators clearly hoped would transfer to people’s opinion of the product.

Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections, 1899. Ayer Advertising Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. ∗ Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections, 1899, image source.

By 1901, Whitman’s had begun to narrow their marketing focus to the quality of the product itself and started to present it as the perfect gift for a special occasion. Ads featuring slogans such as “Always in good taste.” and “For sale where the best is sold.” continued to include illustrations of the stamped brass tongs like the ones found at Poplar Forest. In turn-of-the-century Western culture, high-society etiquette demanded a dedicated utensil for each dish served to a guest. By providing such a utensil (with the company’s name conveniently stamped in beautiful script on its face) in each of their fancy boxes, Whitman’s allowed each consumer to feel as though they were participating in a high-class ritual that they could only get by buying Whitman’s high-quality product.


Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections, 1901. Ayer Advertising Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.


Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections, 1906, image source.

In the early 1900s, the rapid commercialization of food production led to a (legitimate) concern for the safety of machine-made foods that used to be made in small family shops or in one’s home. Women’s magazines encouraged them to buy only high quality (i.e. high-priced) products as they were more likely to be safe (Kawash 2009). Walter P. Sharp and other company executives at Whitman’s recognized this movement and altered their marketing strategies accordingly. In 1907, Whitman’s began offering direct distribution to customers and began to place their products with only a single or the “better” drug stores in town. The “Fussy Package for Fastidious Folks” advertising campaign began in 1911 and was still in use as of 2005 (NCSA). The ‘Fussy Package’ was a specific collection of Whitman’s higher-prestige options including chocolate-covered nougats, molasses chips, almonds, marshmallows, neapolitans, and caramels (but “no cream centers nor bonbons”). It was also “Guaranteed fresh, pure, perfect.” and came with a money back guarantee; a bold statement in the company’s belief in the quality of its product that was not supported by many other manufacturers of the era (NCSA).


Advertisement for Whitman’s Fussy Package Chocolates, 1910, image source.

This thread of advertising worked exactly as it was intended. Boxes of Whitman’s chocolates flew off the shelves and the ‘Fussy Package’ became a staple in the Whitman’s catalog (the nut-centered candies are still sometimes referred to as the ‘Fussy Chocolates’). It was so popular that Whitman’s even tried to trademark the word ‘fussy’ in 1910 (the application was denied).


Advertisement for Whitman’s Fussy Package Chocolates, 1911, image source.

Walter Sharp, taking over the company’s presidency in 1912, introduced the Whitman’s Sampler, an assortment of the company’s best-selling chocolates. Tradition holds that he was inspired to design the now-iconic look of the Sampler box by a framed cross-stitch sampler hanging in his grandmother’s home. A spokesperson for the company on its centennial anniversary said “The original 1912 package had an aged, yet ageless look suggesting the box had been around for 100 years, giving first-time buyers a sense of confidence in their gift choice,” (Lindell 2012). Additional innovations included wrapping each box with cellophane to preserve freshness and including an index showing each candy inside each box (Davis 2013).

Walter P Sharp, inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame in 2005, NCSA. ∗ Whitman’s Chocolates and Confections Sampler, as it appeared in 1912, image source.

With the innovations in packaging, came a different tactic in advertising. The Sampler was promoted as an affordable treat for the everyman, but still kept the quality associated with the Whitman’s name.  Consumers responded, and by 1915 the Sampler was the most popular product in the Whitman’s line.

A review of surviving advertisements shows a demise of the Whitman’s candy tongs near the onset of the First World War. An ad in the January 11, 1917 edition of The Roanoke News (1878-1922) shows the familiar box of Whitman’s Chocolates, open with an unfolded set of candy tongs on top. The text below reads “When you call-and get a double welcome. As the person who selects Whitman’s Chocolates indicates by his selection that he has given thought to quality and good taste”. This is the latest advertisement showing the tongs that this author was able to locate. There is no documentation available as to the exact date when Whitman’s ceased to include candy tongs in their Fussy Package boxes. Perhaps the company decided to reduce expenditure on that particular line of packaging in lieu of the popularity of the Sampler. Perhaps the onset of the First World War and the resulting demand for metals for the war effort made the enclosure of brass tongs too costly. Whatever the reasoning, all traceable Whitman’s Chocolates ads after 1917 depict people enjoying their treats sans tongs.


Advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates, 1917, The Roanoke News, January 11, 1917.

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote that “…by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of [chocolate] both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain…” (letter to John Adams, 1785).

The fragment of candy tongs found at Poplar Forest cannot tell us about an individual person who lived here. We don’t know who bought the box of chocolates, or for whom, or for what occasion. But we do know that, whatever their motivations, both giver and receiver were participants in the much larger story of America’s sweet tooth.FN1205111_CHOCOLATE_USA.tif

In that spirit, Poplar Forest has partnered with Altus Chocolate to offer our visitors two exclusive chocolate confections. Come by or call 434-534-8120 to pick up a bar of dark chocolate with your choice of either peach-brandy or raspberry-coffee flavors.


Blakely, J. W. 1915. Window Dressing. International Confectioners Vol  24, January.

Blanke, David. 2002. The 1910s. American Popular Culture Through History series. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press.

Chapman, Ellwood B. 1917. The Candy Making Industry in Philadelphia. Issued by The Educational Committee of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Chisholm, Hugh. 1913. The Britannica year-book, 1913 – a survey of the world’s progress since the completion in 1910 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. New York, Ecyclopaedia Britannica.

Davis, George. 2013. A candy-coated history: How the iconic Whitman’s sampler came to be. Journal of Humanitarian Affairs. March 1, 2013. http://journalofhumanitarianaffairs.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-candy-coated-history-how-iconic.html

Goldstein, Darra. 2015. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 156-158.

Grivetti, Louis E. and Howard-Yana Shapiro, ed.. 2009. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, New Jersey, Wiley.

International Cocoa Organization. “Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures”. https://www.icco.org/faq/54-cocoa-origins/133-chocolate-use-in-early-aztec-cultures.html [Abv ICCO]

Kawash, Samira. 2009. “Home Made vs. Store Bought Candy”. candyprofessor.com, October 14, 2009. https://candyprofessor.com/2009/10/14/home-made-vs-store-bought/

Lindell, Crystal. 2012. Ageless at 100 – Whitman’s Sampler: America’s most famous box of chocolates celebrates its centennial. Candy Industry, April 2012. http://www.candyindustry.com/articles/85153-ageless-at-100—whitman-s-sampler-

National Confectionary Sales Association. “Walter P. Sharp”. http://candyhalloffame.org/CHoF/inductees/2005/walter-p-sharp.shtml [Abv NCSA]

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Stanley M. Tarka, Jr. 2002. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1): 85-106.

Russel Stover. 2016. Whitman’s Timeline. http://www.russellstover.com/whitmans-timeline. [Abv. RS]

Taylor, Frank H. and William B. McManus. 1894. The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894: A Compilation of Facts supplied by Distinguished Citizens for the Information of Business Men, Travelers, and the World at Large. Prepared under the auspices of the Trade League of Philadelphia. George S. Harris & Sons.

Vukovic, Heidemarie. 2004. Crazy about Chocolate.  The Herbarist 70:62-65.


1 Comment

Blowing Smoke: A Presidential Campaign at Poplar Forest

Anthropomorphic clay tobacco pipes, also sometimes called figural pipes or face pipes, were a popular type of commemorative souvenir in the nineteenth century. Pipe manufacturers often made pipes depicting the faces of famous political and cultural figures including George Washington, Queen Victoria, and Charlotte Bronte among many others. One particularly collectible subset of figural tobacco pipes is that of President pipes (Bell 2004). Although some of the pipes included in this category are more commemorative in nature, such as those of George Washington, most President pipes were made and distributed during presidential campaigns in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century (Pfeiffer et al 2006). One such pipe featuring the likeness of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, was recovered in 1994 from excavations at the Wing of Offices near the main house at Poplar Forest. Elected by a landslide during an era of national instability and increased tensions, Pierce quickly became seen as a weak leader that caused one of the major precursor events leading to the American Civil War.


Figure 1: Franklin Pierce pipe from Wing of Offices excavations, four views. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest Department of Archaeology.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Field School Week 6

By Ryan McDowell

Six weeks, gone by in a blink of an eye, but time is strange like that.  Logically, standing outside in the hot sun all day, digging up thick red clay, or bent over screening it should be a grueling task that does not go by quickly, but when you surrounded by wonderful people and beautiful scenery it does.  During our final week of field school, we continued to work at our units located close to the Northwest area of the curtilage.  For the first couple of days only small amounts of artifacts were found ranging from ceramic sherds, glass pieces, and iron nails.  On Tuesday, this changed when an unusual cluster of rock cobbles were uncovered at the base of the more southern unit.  In order to better understand what this could possibly be we began excavating a new unit located directly between the two that we were working on.  Thursday turned into an exciting day as many exciting artifacts were found.  These diverse items included unique items like a metal handle, a metal base, and a button.  The quantity of items continued through Friday from both units being excavated with many whole nails, sherds of unique ceramics, and a clothing clasp unearthed.  The finding of so many tantalizing objects made it all the more difficult to see the field school end.


For the final week, we all chose a project to work on related to Site 33, where we have been working this summer.  The topics for this project varied greatly.  Logan’s project was to conduct a minimum vessel count for the ceramic sherds we had found this summer.  A minimum vessel count is a tool used by archaeologists to group sherds of ceramic together that came from the same vessel.  This is extremely helpful for archaeologists since it gives a more accurate representation of how many ceramic vessels are actually present.  After Logan completed her minimum vessel count, she compared hers to one already completed for previous work at Site 33.  Les’ project looked at the context of fencing at Poplar Forest in an attempt to explain the abundance of barbed wire being discovered.  He analyzed many historical photos and videos in an attempt to relocate lost fence lines and then endeavored to relocate the fences by looking for physical evidence across the property.  His project showed the importance of the fence lines by what they told us about the use of the land.  For my project, I first analyzed the keys we found this summer then compared them to ones found elsewhere at Poplar Forest.  I made comparisons of key material, quantity from sites related to the main house or enslaved individuals, and quantity of keys from all the enslaved sites.  I hoped to convey the notion of privacy for enslaved individuals and present the question of how enslaved individuals interact with one another.  Every project showcased just a few of the different ways Site 33 could be interpreted.  We closed field school by discussing all the things we had learned this summer and ways we believe archaeology could continue at Poplar Forest.


As our summer at Poplar Forest ends, it is clear that the marks we leave behind is more than just filled in excavation units.  Through our work and the countless others both before and after there is a better understanding of the full scope of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Leave a comment

Week 5 at Poplar Forest Archaeological Field School

By Lesley Jennings

This week the field school students learned about the importance of public archaeology and the interaction between archaeologists and the public. Public archaeology uses various methods to educate visitors about a site and respect the historical peoples discussed. At Poplar Forest, experts use information gathered from their research to accurately and respectfully interpret, detail, and present the daily lives and realities of the plantation residents. Through the work done at Poplar Forest, we can show visitors through tours, exhibits, and onsite interactions how the residents influenced one another and the landscapes in which they lived and worked  Students had a good opportunity to interact with the public on July 4th, when the site hosts fun and educational exhibits for its guests and visitors, ending with a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence. The field school exhibited several artifacts from the site’s collection and invited guests to visit the archaeologists working in the field and talk with them.

This week, the field school also visited both Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne to see their collections and active archaeological projects, and to observe how they interact with the public. At Williamsburg, they use their artifacts and research to reconstruct and reenact the architecture and daily life of its historic residents as accurately as possible, and through these presentations they are able to actively educate and engage the public with the site. At Williamsburg, the field school also visited the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Art and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museums to see objects from all over Colonial America.

While Williamsburg presented its information through living history, the reenactment of historic life, Jamestown presented much of its information through the exhibits in its Archaearium. After an introduction to the history of colonial Jamestown, as well as its excavation and reconstruction, we visited the Archaearium to learn more details about how the settlers survived and interacted with the world. In keeping with the topic of Public Archaeology, we saw how the exhibits at Jamestown treated the historic peoples with respect. The exhibit of the Starving Time treated its subjects somberly and with sympathy, and The World of Pocahontas exhibit prominently used Algonquian to label the artifacts presented.



For the rest of the week, the field school continued their excavations of Site 33 in the Northwest Curtilage of Poplar Forest, and we have dug new units near the border of the artifact concentration mentioned in previous updates. Finds include a small key, daub, nails, ceramic, and barbed wire in good quantities, and we hope that these units will give new information regarding slave quarters in the area.

Leave a comment

Week 3 at Poplar Forest Archaeological Field School

By Logan Barger

June 20th began the third week of archaeology field school at Poplar Forest, in which students gained an introduction into the field of Landscape and Environmental archaeology.  Landscape archaeology is the study of the ways in which people shaped and were shaped by the world in which they lived over time.  By studying this interaction, archaeologists can gain a number of insights into the behavior of a civilization at a given time.  Sites of interest to landscape archaeologists include historic gardens, rural farms and plantations, urban and commercial areas, industrial facilities, battlefields, and many more.

Landscape and Environmental Archaeology have played a large part in the research taking place at Poplar Forest.  It has been one of the department’s main goals to study the and eventually reconstruct the ornamental landscape that played such a major part in Jefferson’s plans for the property.  A variety of different methods are being used to analyze the landscape and determine what the historic landscape may have looked like during the Jefferson Era; some methods include pollen analysis, soil chemistry, archival analysis, and dendrochronology (tree ring dating).

This week, the Poplar Forest archaeology department had the privilege of joining up with the Monticello archaeology field school to sit in on two lectures relating to environmental archaeology.  On June 20th, we traveled to Monticello and heard from Dan Druckenbrod on the application of dendrochronology to historical archaeology.  By taking a thin core of wood from a tree, one can examine the rings and come up with a fairly precise date for when the tree was planted.  Studying tree rings can also tell us a great deal about the environmental conditions for any given year during its life; for instance, if the rings are particularly close together one year, that could be indicative of a drought in the area.  Poplar Forest has used dendrochronology to date numerous trees in order to determine the age of various landscapes throughout the property.  On June 21st, the archaeology department traveled back to Monticello to learn about the field of palynology, or pollen analysis, from John Jones.  Pollen analysis is used in many fields, including the oil industry, forensics, beekeeping, and of course, historical archaeology.  By extracting and studying pollen granules from the soil, archaeologists can interpret the influence of vegetation and climate change on human behavior and demographic patterns, as well as the effect of humans on the environment.[1] Poplar Forest has used palynology to determine what species of plants, both ornamental and agricultural, were grown on the property over time.

In addition to sitting in on the lectures at Monticello, the Poplar Forest archaeology department was able to tour some of the sites that their field school has been working on, in addition to tours of the main house and grounds.  The department took a similar trip to James Madison’s Montpelier the following day.   By visiting the sites of other field schools, the Poplar Forest field school students were able to compare and contrast the work being done at similar mid-Atlantic presidential sites.  The current site at Montpelier is a more complete, though somewhat earlier, version of what we hope to find on site 33; their archaeology department has discovered a complex of slave cabins from Madison’s era of occupation.   By touring the main houses of each property, students were able to compare and contrast the means through which each property was preserved and interpreted.  Monticello was primarily focused on Jefferson’s life, and what he did while spending time at his home; Montpelier was similarly interpreted as applied to Madison.

This week, field school students continued excavating their units in Site 33 along the Northwest Curtilage, in hopes of locating mid-19th century slave quarters.  Students have been working on the units toward the center of the site, close to where a large quantity of building materials, specifically nails, had been discovered through earlier excavations.  The majority of artifacts coming out of the units have been refined earthenware ceramics, vessel glass, and nails which are consistent with the approximate date range of our site.  One of the more interesting finds this week has been a piece of a knife tang.  A number of features, primarily plow scars, were also found in the current units.  This week, students have also been working in the lab, learning to wash, label, and catalogue the many artifacts that have been discovered on the site thus far.


[1] “Archaeological Palynology.” University of Arizona, n.d. Web. 23 June 2016.

Leave a comment

Field School 2016

by Caitlyn Johnson, Summer Research Intern

Monday June 6 marked the start of the 2016 Poplar Forest Archaeology Field School. This year’s field work focuses on what is possibly a slave quarter from the 1830’s to 1850’s. The site was discovered during archaeological survey work conducted in preparation for building a new visitor entrance and access road into Poplar Forest. The concentration of this field school is on locating the boundaries of the site and pinpointing the exact location of the structure that once stood here. During the first two weeks we began excavations in the southern end of the site. Our first three units yielded a minimal amount of artifacts compared to other areas of the site. This provides a boundary along the south end and suggests that any building remains are likely located further to the north. Upon learning this, we shifted our focus approximately 50 feet to north of these first units in an area where we had previously found a concentration of nails.

In our second week we began excavating two new units which have begun to yield a concentration of artifacts, including ceramics, bottle glass, and one of our most exciting finds has been a padlock key. To learn more about keys and locks, check out our blog post here: https://poplarforestarchaeology.com/2012/11/. We will continue to open up units in this area looking for structural features, such as post holes, hearths, or in-ground storage pits.

Our field school students have also been helping out elsewhere. Early morning on June 9th the field school traveled to Botetourt County to aid in the excavation of the Greenfield Preston Plantation. Although unassociated with our focus site, this opportunity allowed the students to develop their skills as archaeologists and helped to perfect their troweling, screening, and overall excavation techniques. During this excavation several interesting and exciting artifacts were found! Butchered animal remains, ceramics, and buttons, just to list a few. This experience helped to build the students confidence while also creating better bonds between them and creating new and unique memories.

A good portion of Friday, the 11th, was spent in the archaeology lab working on the cleaning, labeling, and organizing of discovered artifacts due to a rain storm. After a lecture by Jack Gary on Jefferson and Ceramics, students learned to wash and properly record artifacts and their association with sites. Through the cleaning and logging of the artifacts we take an important step towards a more accurate and developed understanding of the site and the analysis one is capable of making, not only on these artifacts, but of the features found within the site.

Field School 2016


Leave a comment

Servant Bells at Poplar Forest

Servant bells, also called house bells, are systems of wire and pulleys that run throughout a building and allow a resident to call for a servant from the far reaches of the building without leaving the room they are in. The earliest record of mounted house bells was in a 1727 inventory of the Great House at Kiveton, seat of the Marquess of Carmarthen (Murdoch 2006).

The eighteenth century marked major cultural changes in aristocratic English household arrangement. The home became a familial sanctuary to which guests were permitted intermittently and in which servants were expected to be invisible (Tuan 1982). With the flood of consumer products into the marketplace in the late 1700s, luxury and consumerism became a visible marker of nobility and success. As a veneer of expensive cultured elegance became inextricably linked to one’s social status, the separation between the servant and master classes within the household became of mounting importance (Crowley 2003).

Prior to mounted bells, masters summoned servants by the ringing of a small hand bell or through vocal summons (Murtha 2010). However, these methods required servants to wait within hearing distance at all times; they could not engage in other chores or activities and still be accessible. House bells provided a more genteel way to request help from servants while simultaneously allowing the servants greater locational flexibility. Instead of coarsely yelling across the halls of his house, an employer could quietly pull a cord to summon his employees, projecting an image of ease and leisure (Crowley 2003).

Company Shocked at a Lady Getting Up to Ring the Bell

Figure 1: Company Shocked at a Lady getting up to Ring the Bell, James Gillray, 1805.

In the early 1800s, the United States was a young nation with a rising class based on ability and success instead of lineage. The upper echelon of American society was composed of the landed planters and successful businessmen who cemented themselves as elite members of society by emulating their European counterparts. Gentility, refinement, and polite behavior became the way to identify the truly refined members of society (see Figure 1) (Bushman 1992).

Robert Roberts, a black freeman and author of The House Servant’s Directory (1828), outlined servant duties and expectations for how slaves and servants were expected to behave in fine Antebellum households. Under the heading of “Remarks on Answering the Bells”, Roberts wrote: “…lose no time in going to answer it; never wait to finish what you are about, and leave the bell unanswered ; you never should let the bell ring twice if you possibly can avoid it, for it seems to be a great part of negligence in a servant”.

While many plantation homes in the Antebellum South followed their northern and urban neighbors’ example and installed house bells, many slaveowners simply did not see the need to do so. Bell systems in the North were intended to disconnect and depersonalize the relationship between mistress and servant, but racial stigmatization in the nineteenth century had already made the distinction between black and white absolute. Slaves within the home were implicitly understood as inferior by virtue of their race (Weiner 1998). Wealthy slave owners often had several slaves dedicated to serving the white family and more than one observer described such personal enslaved servants as the master’s ‘shadow’. Henry Cogswell Knight travelled extensively throughout Virginia in the 1810s and noted that “Where ever the Virginians go, a slave or two moves behind as their shadow to hold the horses, pull off their boots and pantaloons at bedtime, and, if cold to blow up the fire in their bedrooms with their mouths” (Knight 1824). English visitor Fanny Trollope felt some astonishment at slaveholders’ indifference to the constant presence of their attendants. In her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), she wrote “It seemed to me in this instance as in many others that the close personal attendance of these sable shadows must be very annoying, but whenever I mentioned it I was assured that no such feeling existed and that use rendered them almost unconscious of their presence.” In such homes, bell systems were reserved for the front door or when company was present (Murtha 2010).

Components of a System

Figure 2: Components of a Servant Bell System, Tom H. Gerhardt, Old-House Journal, October 1979.

Despite the predominate ambivalence towards enslaved servants, some American Southerners regarded a slave’s constant presence as more of a detriment than benefit. Thomas Jefferson kept several domestic slaves to run his houses at Monticello and Poplar Forest, but seemed to have an aversion to keeping a body servant solely for his personal needs (Stanton 2012). His grandson-in-law recalled that “It was incompatible with the sentiment of Manhood, as it existed in him, that one human being should be followed about by another as his shadow” (Trist to Henry S. Randall, n.d.. Stanton 2012). In the years after 1809, the slave Burwell Colbert acted as Jefferson’s personal servant, though probably not as a valet as understood at the time. Burwell was the butler of Monticello, responsible for keeping the keys, supervising the rest of the enslaved house servants, and acting as chief waiter at meals, as well as serving Jefferson himself both at home and at Poplar Forest (Stanton 2012).

Homeowners that chose to install bell systems had to be careful. Installing house bells was a specialized skill; an awkwardly placed pull could be unsightly or unusable, wires could get caught if not run properly, connections of the turning cranks could come loose, and bell springs could be mounted incorrectly (Madill 2013). If any one part of the system did not function as intended, the entire system would not work. Newspaper ads suggested that many English brass founders and bell hangers emigrated to America during a period of economic recovery after the Revolutionary War and were widely available by the turn of the century (Madill 2013, MESDA database). Within days of his election in 1800, President Jefferson ordered two water closets and a bell system to be installed in the White House as soon as possible (Seale 1986). The bells were hung by Mr. William Hedderly by the following summer (Baker 1913).

Bell systems function via a system of wires strung throughout the building (see Figure 2). A bell cord, or pull, was connected to copper wire which ran across walls and down to a bell mounted near the servants’ quarters or work areas. Bell cranks, small brass pivots, changed the direction of wire and allowed the force of the pull to be transferred around corners. The mechanical energy of the user’s pull traveled through the wires and joggled a large coiled spring on which the bell itself was mounted. The spring oscillated, causing the clapper of the bell to swing back and forth and create sound.

On American plantations, house slaves performed most of their labor in detached kitchens or work yards, thus interior bell boards were uncommon in the American South (Madill 2013). Most bells were hung outdoors on the rear of a house. A bell’s volume and range depended largely upon its size, so American installers typically assigned each room a different size bell (Madill 2013). Slaves had to listen for bell pitch to determine which room needed service.

Early bell hangers were forced to run wires over fine wood paneling and mount obtrusive hardware on the walls (Madill 2013). In order to minimize unsightly wires, early bell systems featured long, floor-to-ceiling-length decorative cloth or rope bell pulls (Figure 3). Placement of the pulls was as crucial to the system’s installation plan as the running of wires; pulls in bedrooms should be located near beds so homeowners could call servants at night while pulls in libraries were placed away from tall bookshelves so as not to be obscured (Madill 2013). Although only one bell-pull per room was considered necessary, fine rooms sometimes displayed two, often flanking both sides of the fireplace or bed, providing symmetry and visual order as well as communicating the family’s wealth and status.

French Silk Bell Pull

Figure 3: French Silk Embroidered Bell Pull, 1804–14, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the mid 1800s, construction publications promoted a new method of bell hanging using hidden wires carried through small metal tubes sunken in the plaster during house construction (Madill 2013). With hidden wires, came the desire to hide the existence of the system altogether and the vogue for cloth pulls was replaced by the trend for smaller, stylized metal push-levers (Madill 2013). However, while enthusiastically embracing the hidden wires and cranks, many families, especially in the American South, chose to keep their ostentatious decorative bell pulls. Ornamental bell pulls exhibited ladies’ sewing ability, a valued domestic skill in the early nineteenth century. By this time, embroidery and femininity had fused in the public consciousness with larger ideas of domesticity and morality (Farnham 1994). Large embroidered bell tapestries not only publically displayed the finer accomplishments of the ladies of the house, but also reinforced the family’s proper status. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, America’s most widely circulated magazine prior to the Civil War, began printing patterns for embroidered bell pull tapestries in the 1850s, decades after the technology to replace them was introduced (Rose 2004).

Physical evidence of the bell system at Poplar Forest was found during restoration of the main house in the 1990s and early 2000s. An opening in the dining room floor joists at the east wall aligns with the face of the south wall of the east stair pavilion and the south face of the Wing (Mesick-Cohen-Waite 1994). This suggests that a line ran from the dining room to the south face of the Wing where the kitchen was located (Mesick-Cohen-Waite 1994). A bell pull may have been located somewhere along the east wall of the dining room or on the side of the fireplace, similar to the one at Monticello. It is possible that there was only one bell, running from the dining room to the kitchen but architectural evidence does not preclude the possibility of additional pulls and bells whose wires were run through the same opening in the dining room floor to the myriad of service areas in the cellar and along the Wing of Offices.

A house bell system had many working parts; spring mounted bells were connected by wire to activating devices via system of cranks, almost all of which were made of metal. The iron nuts and bolts used during hanging were the same as those used for any other purpose, and thus cannot be identified as part of the bell system in the archaeological record. However, several parts of the system are distinctive enough to be identified if recovered intact.

PF Bell artifacts

Figure 4: Identified Artifacts related to Servant Bell System from Poplar Forest: a. iron carriage spike, b. brass crank with twisted shaft, c. eared brass crank, d. eared brass crank fragment, e. copper alloy bell fragment, f. copper alloy bell fragment.

Six artifacts in the Poplar Forest collection can be conclusively identified as associated with the house bell system: two eared brass cranks, one twisted brass crank shaft, two copper alloy bell fragments, and one iron bell carriage spike (see Figure 4 and Figure 5). Hundreds of iron and brass artifacts have been recovered from Poplar Forest that are too corroded and fragmented to be reliably identified but may have been components of the bell system. Some of these metal pieces may have once belonged to bell springs or carriage plates. Other items in the collection that could have been parts of a bell system include various escutcheon-like brass hardware and huge amounts of iron and copper wire.

bell table of PF stuff

Figure 5: Identified Artifacts related to Servant Bell System from Poplar Forest.

The bell system at Poplar Forest provides an opportunity to incorporate a wider understanding of the enslaved experience into the interpretation of the main house. Planters generally regarded their domestic servants as privileged amongst their slaves. Because planters and their families had more intimate contact with their house slaves, they were often given better food and housing. The enslaved servant’s appearance and behavior was considered a direct reflection on his or her master, so owners took special care to outfit their domestic staff accordingly. In Jefferson’s account books, he recorded annual gratuities to at least two of his most visible slaves Burwell Colbert and John Hemmings (his head carpenter) in addition to providing credit with local merchants for the purchase of clothing.

The bell system at Poplar Forest would have displayed Jefferson’s and his family’s status and moral values to their visitors and reinforced their authority to their enslaved servants. But for Thomas Jefferson, Poplar Forest was a retreat, a place where he could put away public life and simply indulge in those things that made him happiest: reading, thinking, and spending time with family. In a letter to William Short he states that he is “comfortably fixed and attended, have a few good neighbors, and pass my time there in a tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence” (November 24, 1821).

Jefferson enjoyed lively company and thoughtful conversation over a well-prepared meal and good wine. He believed that not only did the presence of servants in the room hinder such discussion, but that the slaves would then be able to gossip to their fellows later on. Frequent White House guest Margaret Bayard Smith recalled Jefferson’s use of various techniques “…so as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary, believing as he did, that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners” (Hunt 1906). Jefferson likely ordered the installation of the bell system at Poplar Forest to preserve as much of his valuable privacy as possible; he could call for a servant when he wanted one, but could otherwise be left to his own pursuits or hold “a free and unrestricted flow of conversation” with a friend without reserve (Hunt 1906).

The use of new devices and amended designs to improve the quality of life was a trait of Jefferson’s that can be seen throughout his life. He bought wheeled serving trays known as étagères during his time in Paris, installed “a set of shelves…so contrived in the wall, that on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants” in the President’s House during his first term, and a hidden hand-and pulley operated wine dumbwaiter in his dining room fireplace at Monticello. A year after signing the patent for Thomas Moore in 1803, Jefferson paid $13 to purchase an early refrigerator. The same year he acquired a polygraph (in which the writer’s hand moves one pen which is attached to a second that duplicates the original writing) and used it for the rest of his life. Jefferson also had workers build alcove storage in his homes and chairs with swivel seats and tables with swivel tops. It is not surprising that he would look to technology to communicate ‘better’ with his slaves.

Just imagine if he’d had a cell phone.


Baker, Abby Gunn. 1913. “The Erection of the White House.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 16 :120–149

Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2011. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

Crowley, John E. 2003. The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America. Baltimore: JHU Press.

Farnham, Christie Anne. 1994. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: NYU Press.

Hunt, Gaillard S., ed. 1906. The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the Collection of her Grandson, J. Henley Smith. New York: Scribner.

Knight, Henry Cogswell. 1824. Letters from the South and West. Boston, Massachusetts, Richardson and Lord.

Madill, Wendy Danielle. 2013. Noiseless, Automatic Service: The History of Domestic Servant Call Bell Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, 1740-1900. Masters Thesis submitted to Clemson University and College of Charleston.

Mesick-Cohen-Waite-Architects. 1994. Report on Phase III-C Investigations, Vol. II, July 1994. Internal Document.

Murdoch, Tessa Violet. 2006. Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses. England: J. Adamson Publishers.

Murtha, Hillary. 2010. “Instruments of Power: Sonic Signaling Devices and American Labor Management, 1821–1876”. Ph.D. dissertation submitted to University of Delaware.

Roberts, Robert. 1828. The House Servant’s Directory. New York: Munroe and Francis.

Rose, Anne C. 2004. Voices of The Marketplace: American Thought And Culture, 1830-1860. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Seale, William. 1986. The President’s House: A History. vol 1. New York and Washington DC: White House Historical Association and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Stanton, Lucia. 2012. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Trollope, Frances. 1832. Domestic Manners of the Americans. Whittaker, Treacher.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1982. Segmented Worlds and Self: Group Life and Individual Consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weiner, Marli F. 1998. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.