Poplar Forest Archaeology

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


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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.

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Artifacts from the Carriage Turnaround: the Long Hutter (19th) Century

“So the ages have their dress and undress;
And the gentlemen and ladies of Victoria’s time are satisfied with their manner of raiment…”

Today the second part of our artifact series on the Carriage turnaround will highlight several Hutter period artifacts. The Hutters owned Poplar Forest for 118 years beginning with Emily “Emma” Cobbs’ marriage to Edward Sixtus Hutter in 1840, and continuing to 1946 when James Watts bought the property. The pair are pictured below. Emma’s parents, William and Marian Cobbs were quite happy to give E.S. Hutter control of Poplar Forest’s estate management upon his marriage to their daughter. The Cobbses continued to live with Edward and Emma at Poplar Forest to the end of their lives. The untimely deaths of Emma and Edward from illnesses in the 1870 and 1875 respectively, left behind their children and grandmother Marian Cobbs. Not long after the passing of Marian Cobbs in 1877, Hutter descendants began renting Poplar Forest to tenants until it came under the care of youngest son Christian Sixtus Hutter in the late 19th and early 20th century (Marmon 1991: 88, 96-97). Little is known about the tenants from this time period. During C.S. Hutter’s ownership, Poplar Forest was mainly used as a “summer house” and farmed by tenant farmers who lived in other houses on the property.

Emma and Edward Hutter in Victorian dress

Emma and Edward S. Hutter. Image date unknown but probably between 1840-1870

Most of the known Hutter-era occupation materials in the Carriage Turnaround are ironstone table and teawares and later transfer printed earthenwares. These are artifacts of the Victorian table, but not objects you can really pin down to usage by individuals. Therefore, while cataloging the turnaround artifacts, I was delighted to find several probable Hutter-era personal artifacts in the Carriage turnaround material.

First up, we unearthed a waistcoat button from under the boxwood rootmat in the eastern part of the turnaround:

Glass swirl inset button from a man's waistcoat

Glass swirl inset button from a man’s waistcoat
c. 1850-1880

This button is composed of a flat-faced glass accent with two canes of colorless or slightly pink/lavender glass and opaque white glass twisted into a spiral, set in a cast or plated(?) copper alloy setting with a wire-eye. The copper setting may have had a wavy decorative edge to it. The button had not been cleaned at the time of the photo above, but it will be sent out for a cleaning by a professional conservator. It is likely to be a waistcoat button due to its small size, less than 9 mm in diameter. Glass-set waistcoat buttons such as this one were popular between 1850-1880 (Hughes & Lester: 155).

Similar glass-swirled "Jewel" waistcoat button in white and black swirl

Similar glass-swirled “Jewel” waistcoat button

Who could have worn a waistcoat? Waistcoats were close-fitting vest-like garments worn under jackets, like the one Edward Sixtus Hutter is wearing. Mr. Hutter’s photograph was taken sometime between the 1840s to 1870s, well within the given time range of these types of buttons. We can’t tell from the sepia tone of E.S. Hutter’s image if it was this very waistcoat, but this button would have featured similarly on some man’s torso at Poplar Forest during the latter half of the mid-19th century. Waistcoats tended to be a male-gendered clothing article, and one of the most colorful parts of the Victorian male wardrobe (Shannon 2006: 76-77). This button is one of the few items from the turnaround we can say was used by a specific gender. Perhaps with these pretty glass buttons, the wearer intended his waistcoat to be an expression of his own unique taste within the strict dictates of Victorian male fashion.

A similar button made with green and white cane twist can be seen in Hughes and Lester’s Big Book of Buttons (plate 59, button 14). A search of Pinterest also yielded one other similar example, pictured above (R.C.Larner Buttons 2014). Collectors today call buttons like this with glass centers and metal rims by the fancy term of “jewels.” An example of a waistcoat with “jewel” buttons can be seen in the below vest from the Metropolitan Museum collections. (I’ve added a button detail inset). These glass buttons don’t have swirls like ours does, but they are similar in form. This waistcoat dates from the 1860s and is titled a “wedding waistcoat.” Waistcoats were not just for weddings though; they were an integral part of the gentleman’s wardrobe. No waistcoat? Not a gentleman! Without a waistcoat on, a gentleman was considered “undressed”, even in his own home. Note that “undressed” by the Victorian definition often meant that one was wearing clothing to work in for an occupation (Victoriana 2013). Showing oneself in polite company in “undress” implied a person was not a proper gentleman, or was of a lower socioeconomic class.

Waistcoat with similar type of glass button embellishment but with flower inset, not a swirled inset (c. 1860s)

Waistcoat with similar type of glass button embellishment (c. 1860s) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections

The second artifact I’m highlighting today is another gendered clothing fastener, which could have belonged to one of the female occupants of the Hutter household. It is from a corset busk and would have been part of the metal fasteners on the front of corsets that provide rigidity to the front of the undergarment. Several pieces of busk hooks and eyes were recovered from the turnaround, indicating at least one or more busks were discarded in this area. Other fragments have been recovered from the Clumps and Oval Beds project and the Wing of Offices. This type of busk was a dividing busk, composed of two stiff steel ribs with metal hooks and eyes, which enabled better ease of removal. An example of a dividing busk corset from the Met Museum collections is also shown below. The Met museum example dates to 1860, but dividing busks were available by the 1830s; this specific type of “slot and stud” fastening busk was patented in 1848 and in regular use from the 1850s until the early 20th century [Steele 2001: 43].

Corset busk "slot" hook from a Victorian steel dividing busk

Corset busk fragment with a “slot” hook from a Victorian steel dividing busk

Emma Cobbs Hutter could potentially have worn corsets with a steel dividing corset busk during her lifetime at Poplar Forest from adolescence in the 1830s until her death in 1870. The gown shown in the above image of the Hutters and the usual female fashions of the period would have required a corset underneath as a foundation to obtain the proper silhouette. Like the waistcoat to a gent, no Victorian woman of respect would have been caught in public in a dress without a corset underneath to give her the proper figure. Women saw corsets as a necessity to construct an ideal of feminine beauty and respectability (Steele 2001: 35, 42).

Basic mid-Victorian era mass-market manufactured corset with dividing busk

Basic mid-Victorian era mass-market manufactured corset with dividing busk using “slot and stud” fasteners. From Metropolitan Museum collections, c. 1860s

We know that there were enslaved women living at Poplar Forest during the Hutter era. It is certainly possible this busk is from one of the working women in the Hutter household. Many working-class women wore corsets, and free black women in America also adopted the corset. So did some enslaved women (Steele 2001: 49). If any enslaved women at antebellum Poplar Forest wore corsets, they were probably among the house workers. Unlike colorful waistcoats, corsets were almost always made up of plain white fabric from 1800 until the 1870s (Steele 2001: 39). The only real differences between Emma Hutter’s corsets and those of house slaves or tenant wives and daughters nearby would have been in the quality of fabric and the fit and/or comfort.

Although the waistcoat was meant to be visible and the corset itself was meant to be hidden (yet create a visible silhouette), these were both garments that constructed an image of an ideal man or woman of the leisure class. Without these garments on in polite Victorian company the individual might as well have been considered naked. People of the working classes also wore these garments although they may have donned them only for church or special occasions. The working class individual would also have been likely to own fewer, or just one waistcoat or corset. Given the status of the inhabitants of Poplar Forest, it is likely these were garments owned by individuals in the Hutter family.

Thanks for reading and check back soon- Part three of our Carriage Turnaround artifact discussion will get into the Jeffersonian era!


Sources Cited:

1993 Hughes, Elizabeth and Shannon Lester
The Big Book of Buttons.The J.S. McCarthy Company. Augusta, Maine.

1991 Marmon, Lee
Poplar Forest Research Report, Patt I.

2006 Shannon, Brent
The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914.Ohio University Press.

2001 Steele, Valerie
The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT.

1861 William Makepeace Thackeray
“The Adventures Of Philip.” Harper’s Magazine, Vol 23: June To November 1861. Page 689. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=shIwAAAAMAAJ

2013 “Dressing the 1860s Gentleman.” Victoriana. URL: http://www.victoriana.com/how-to-dress-victorian/

Edward and Emma Hutter. Owned by Poplar Forest

2014 R.C. Larner Buttons”Two Mid-19th C. Glass Overlay Waistcoat Jewel Buttons “ Waistcoat Jewels (Pinterest Board) URL: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/477240891735199629/

Corset. Manufacturer: Langdon, Batcheller & Company. (American, founded 1865) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of E. A. Meister, 1950 Online URL: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/175651?rpp=30&pg=4&ft=corset&when=A.D.+1800-1900&pos=93

“Wedding waistcoat.“ The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of The Misses Mary L. and Katherine Gardner, 1958 Online URL: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/91082?rpp=30&pg=2&ft=waistcoat&when=A.D.+1800-1900&pos=42


Artifacts from the Carriage Turnaround: the 20th century

Over the last 3 years, archaeologists at Poplar Forest have excavated the Carriage Turnaround to understand what it might have looked like during Jefferson’s era and what changes the later owners made. We’ve finished cataloging the Carriage Turnaround artifacts and I’d like to highlight several of the interesting items we’ve seen from various periods of occupation at Poplar Forest. Overall, the Carriage Turnaround held less material than our other recent projects like the Wing and the Clumps of Trees and Oval Planting Beds (COB). This is the first of three posts, which will work backwards from the mid-20th century to Jefferson’s time. Today I’m going to show two objects from the Carriage Turnaround that I think might have special interest for those who grew up in the 20th century.

Poplar Forest was owned through the early 20th century by Christian S. Hutter until 1946, when he sold it to Lynchburg lawyer James Watts and his wife Sarah. The couple found it a privilege to live at Poplar Forest with their three children, James III (Jimmy), Key, and Stephen. The Watts not only lived at Poplar Forest but also used it as a dairy farm, which it remained for the next 3 decades. According to oral interviews, they used the Northeast area of the turnaround as parking for their automobiles (Chambers 1989). As we excavated, we found artifacts from the Watts era in the ground.

Poplar Forest circa 1943 showing the turnaround entrance

Poplar Forest ca. 1943 [Poplar Forest 1989.012P]
Image taken by C.S. Hutter of the Turnaround, just a few years before the Watts arrive.
The Turnaround looks much like this until 2012 when the boxwoods were removed.

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