The Fairfax Ledger: A Well of Knowledge


(orchestral music) – I’m Adam Erby, Associate Curator at George
Washington’s Mount Vernon. And I’m sitting in front
of the Fairfax Ledger. One of the most important documents for rediscovering the furnishings of George and Martha
Washington’s Mount Vernon. This is a ledger, kept by George William and Sally Fairfax of neighboring Belvoir Plantation. It contains listings of furnishings that were first at Belvoir and then later moved to Mount Vernon. When Martha Washington died in 1802, the furnishings at Mount Vernon either passed to her grandchildren or were sold off at a
series of public sales. When the Mount Vernon Ladies Association acquired Mount Vernon in 1860, the house was virtually empty. Many of the furnishings that
had gone to the grandchildren and had gone to others
were lost to history. So, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association had a conundrum on their hands. How were they to make Mount Vernon look like it did during
George Washington’s life without all the furnishings? More than 150 years since, The Ladies Association has relied on the best furnishing
evidence they possibly could to restore Mount Vernon as
close to the way it looked in George Washington’s life as they can. We don’t have pristine watercolors of the mansion interiors, showing us what the Washingtons had. Instead, we rely on a variety
of sources of evidence including: original furnishings; Washington’s papers and documents that show us what he purchased, to illuminate those
items that don’t exist; paint analysis; and many
other crucial details that show us what Mount Vernon looked like over the course of Washington’s life. We’re constantly changing
this interpretation because there are
constantly new discoveries. Not everything is before us today, and I’m sitting in front of one of the key examples of that right now. When this document showed up at auction in September of 2013, we were really excited. This document was kept by
George William and Sally Fairfax of Belvoir Plantation, Washington’s nearest neighbors and some of his closest friends. When we looked at the first four pages, it was really interesting to us, because the document shows furnishings that George William Fairfax purchased from a London upholsterer
in March of 1763. It’s really remarkable. These furnishings furnished
the entirety of Fairfax’s home. He purchased them and shipped them 3000 miles across the Atlantic. So why does this matter to Mount Vernon? In 1774, the Fairfaxes
returned to England, not because they were Loyalists, but because they had business connections that took them back to England. When they went back, they decided to leave
their furniture here, and George Washington
presided over a sale in 1774. Now, Washington at that point had just added two
additions to the mansion, bringing it to its current size. He was badly in need of
furniture, but this is 1774. At that point, the non-importation
agreements are in place. Also, the American Revolution
is getting ready to break out, and Washington’s not
able to import furniture from his traditional sources in London. So, when Washington
presided over the sale, he purchased an enormous number
of furnishings from this, including 169 pounds worth of furniture. We knew about many of these because they were listed
in Washington’s own hand, but Washington only recorded
small details about them. For instance, Washington purchased one
mahogany sideboard at the sale. But what is that? The ledger really illuminates this. It says that the sideboard was a fine mahogany five foot sideboard with fretwork upon the edges of the top, astragal moldings, and open brackets. And it cost five pounds, five shillings. As curators, we’re able to take that and match it up with surviving examples that survived from the 18th century, as well as his drawings and other things to figure out what that
sideboard looked like, even though its long since been gone. This ledger also illuminates another reference in Washington’s papers that we knew nothing about. At the conclusion of the two auctions that were held at Belvoir, there were a number of the
most expensive furnishings that did not sell. George William Fairfax
wrote to George Washington and as a token of friendship, he offered to give George Washington the furnishings and the dressing chamber or the blue damask dressing chamber. But we didn’t know what that was. That reference has long been known to us, but there was no specific listing. The ledger has really
illuminated this for us. It lists out that furniture over here on this side of the document. And it says that the furniture included eight mahogany,
Marlboroug Stuff back chairs, stuffed in the best French manner. Cushioned, bordered, and welted, and covered with saxon blue
silk and worsted damask; and brass nailed with two rows. These are eight chairs that were upholstered on
the backs and on the seats. There was also a sofa to match. What’s extraordinary about this, is that the textiles used to
make this were so expensive that there are very few
suites of back stools in the colonies, and this may be the first sofa
that came over to Virginia. So an extraordinary suite of
furniture that very luxurious. There were also three matching curtains that went along with
this suite in the room. The Washingtons brought this
furniture back to Mount Vernon and installed it in their parlor. Washington redid the paint in the parlor to accommodate this furniture. He put a cream color paint in the parlor. The Washingtons used this furniture throughout the rest of their lives. But until this document showed up, we didn’t know anything about it. None of the furniture survives, and this documentation is
our first evidence of it. The mission of the Mount
Vernon Ladies Association is to show Mount Vernon as it was during George and Martha
Washington’s life. So when evidence like this comes to light, it’s our responsibility to use these to inform our interpretation
of the mansion. We plan to work to remake this furniture in the way the Washingtons
would have seen it. And to show the luxury of
the Washingtons’ parlor and really focus some
attention back on that space, which was a mainstay of Martha
Washington’s daily life. It was where she presided
over the tea table and she showed off her family with the portraits on the walls. So we will be, over the course of the
next six to eight months, recreating this furniture
and reinstalling it in the room in an attempt
to show the parlor as the Washingtons would have seen it, for the first time since 1802.

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