Reflections on Kenmore

Kenmore is opened to the public as the home of Fielding and Betty Lewis. Betty was the sister of George Washington and she married Fielding Lewis in 1750. The home of the Lewis family is not typical of wealthy Chesapeake planters. The building is a large Georgian, two story brick building with interior end chimneys and a basement. However, the interior is where the surprise is as on the first floor the chamber, dining room, and parlor have amazingly intricate plaster ornamented ceilings.  Over the years, the George Washington’s Fredericksburg Foundation (hereafter GWFF) has done a great deal of work to interpret the house circa 1775-1800.

In the autumn of 2007, I was fortunate to spend a small amount of time working on cleaning the ceiling in the chamber. In 2008, I did some other tasks between Kenmore and Ferry Farm. In this internship I was privy to guided tours (and some neck fatigue and politicking but that’s not the point here). Generally, because a team of us were actually working in the chamber the tour tended to focus in that space on the restoration and rehabilitation efforts of the GWFF.

Please note that this is an off-handed criticism of the GWFF. In fact, there are some really intelligent people working at the Foundation. They have done an incredible job in hiring contractors to install a state of the art, concealed HVAC system; do a long-needed paint analysis and restore the rooms to appropriate eighteenth century colors and wallpapers, and are going through a methodical restoration of the room’s ground floors.  Furthermore, the archaeologists have been doing wonderful work at Ferry Farm, where George and Betty Washington grew up. However, it is a reflection on my part to encourage deeper understanding of the Lewis family and their time.

Today, most visitors imagine Kenmore as a beautiful, ornamented house. In the time that the Lewis family owned Kenmore, it was more than a house. With nearly 1300 acres which had “a kitchen, a dairy, a laundry, a meat house, store houses, farm buildings, and slave quarters,” Kenmore was the most prominent economic feature for Fielding Lewis to sustain his family including Betty and four of their eight surviving children.[i] Furthermore, Fielding owned more than eighty enslaved laborers. However, following the death of Betty Lewis in 1797, property passed through a series of owners including folks who sold off the agricultural land and the places where most of the outbuildings were, disappeared. The houses of the early 20th century along Washington Avenue now obscure appreciation or understanding of the plantation system that the Lewis family needed to have a house like Kenmore.

Where and/or how can Kenmore be interpreted with slavery as a part of the tour:

1. The Dining Room. Dining in eighteenth century Virginia in a gentry household could be a very elaborate affair. Even simple family meals could be elaborate than the family meal of the 21st century.  Display of the landholders’ gentility and slaveholding practices worked together in the dining room. It may be impossible to determine exactly which of the enslaved people worked in the dining room due to lack of family documents. However, it is possible to use the 1782 household inventory to the Foundation’s advantage. Two books listed on the inventory of Fielding Lewis but most certainly used more by his wife was Hannah Glasse’s cookbook and “Compleat HouseWife” which is most likely Eliza Smith’s publication. If the foundation chooses to use faux foods (in the furnished dining room) again one item they may choose to illustrate is pound cake. It appears in Glasse’s cookbook and the recipe illustrates the amount of work involved by the cook.  The Lewis family enslaved cook would have to:

Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthern pans with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream: then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few caraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.[ii]

The very act of consumption of sugar links the Lewis family into Atlantic World trades with the Caribbean’s sugar culture.

Whatever the article of food, slave gardeners planted it, tended it, and picked it before it was turned over to an enslaved cook who prepared it for a meal. If the item were meat, it was likely killed and preserved by enslaved people on the plantation before the enslaved cook received it to be turned into a part of the meal.

2. The narrow passage which lay between the drawing room and the small room. This dark space was shielded from view when a visitor entered the passage through the front door facing out toward what is now Washington Avenue. This is in fact how tours go through the house as of my last time there in 2008. The space lacks ornamentation and obviously was not intended for most people to marvel at. The side door illustrates the need for domestic servants to enter and exit the building through this passage and door. This could be easily discussed on tours in relationship especially to the exterior outbuildings.

3. The chamber. Compare and constrast the lives of the Lewis family with their enslaved laborers from the start of the day to its end. In fact, all three rooms’ plaster ornamentation features tobacco leaves; though none to the level of that in the chamber. Visitors can be encouraged to imagine how the Lewis family awoke in the morning and saw plaster tobacco leaves and imagined the money to be gained from the real ones in their fields. Their enslaved field hands saw real tobacco leaves and saw year long work. Indeed depending on the season, interpreters could detail what field laborers were doing with tobacco at that time. It is obvious to me that the Lewis family clearly saw how important tobacco production was to the foundation of the world as they understood it.

4. Exterior. It is likely enslaved laborers provided the labor needed to churn clay into bricks and to construct the building’s exterior and interior. The “Stucco Man” was hired of George Washington and thus introduces the story of indentured servitude. I have however always found the guides to discuss indentured servants such as the “Stucco Man.”


[i] “Kenmore History,” http://kenmore.org/kenmore/history.html (accessed April 16, 2011).

[ii] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747). Glasse’s work was popular and went through multiple editions. A 1774 edition has the pound cake recipe on page 272. That edition can be found online here: http://tinyurl.com/3s32374 .

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Reflections on Kenmore

  1. Interesting from the “inside scoop” perspective. What a fascinating opportunity you had working there.

  2. You do an excellent job of pushing people to be more aware about the actions involved in use, something people tend to forget about when they forget to engage [at least on a very simplistic level] in the reenactment process.

    While I have toured–and watched some of the ceiling work occurring at–Kenmore, I failed to make several of the connections you were able to illustrate so well. For example, I understood slaves cooked and served meals, but I didn’t connect that to the interpretation of space in the dining room. Indicating the presence of household slaves in that room would enrich a conversation that remains rather cursory and superficial.

    Your suggestion of incorporating sugar consumption into an opening for discussion of slavery is brilliant because it is so connected to so many interpretive sites. But, this does call for a need for a higher level of understanding both for visitors and interpreters. A necessary but achievable goal to create a truer understanding of history. You have done a good job of indicating how one site can use brief asides to include slavery in tours without making the tour into a sideline “Slavery at Kenmore” tour. Unfortunately, I do not see this much balance in some of the proposals I have heard elsewhere.

    Increasingly, we seem to be pushing the limits of how to blend the highest levels of scholarship with public programming. It seems a more nuanced, detailed history is required to give a meaningful portrait of the past. While I would like to think this means we have more informed visitors arriving with greater background and engagement at historic sites, I have to admit I have my doubts on this aspect.

    So, how do we overcome the need to teach both many more nuanced pieces and the basic overview? I have struggled with this writing narrative background history lately, but you seem to have a clear sense of how to accomplish this–quite an achievement!

  3. Thank you Andrea for your thoughtful commentary. I’m so excited considering it’s the first real post for me! 🙂

    The dining room is an excellent place where those of European descent and African descent merged together often at the same time.

    In regards to merging sugar cultivation even in Fredericksburg…thank you! I am fascinated by the sugar production in the Caribbean and just how far sugar traveled from the Caribbean. One potential way to link the Lewises to the Caribbean in a visual sense I have suggested through the use of faux foods. Another option is to have a map that shows Virginia and the Caribbean and show on the map through employment of arrows how sugar traveled to Fredericksburg.

    In regard to the nuancing of our historic interpretations…that’s the whole purpose of the blog. I hope that collectively we will be able to discuss methods and manners of failures and successes in complicating the historical narrative beyond comfort zones and traditional narratives. I don’t have the answers but I do think these are useful suggestions for ways to tie slavery directly into Kenmore’s very construction, appearance, and the material display of the important of indentured servitude and slavery to the Lewis family.

  4. Emmanuel,
    I thought someone else beat me to it… but I’m thrilled to be a part of your blogging foray!
    I did see the issue of nuanced interpretation as the purpose of your post, and at least a connection to future posts (from the description I’d read about the goals of your blog), but it did seem like an opportunity to push the issue further forward, perhaps even beyond Kenmore.
    I think using Kenmore as a case study is very effective because it allows you to pick apart each aspect of daily life, and I think the strategies you are using are useful to apply elsewhere, but I also think your readers will need to practice applying some of the ideas you are proposing.
    I’ve actually seen what you’re proposing done in a less involved manner with a sugar cone at the Customs House in Eastern Long Island run by the rather lacking SPLIA. Basically, the sugar cone is brought up to reference the “triangle trade” (accompanied by a map of the routes with light up buttons) and there’s a mention of sugar being produced by slaves on plantations in the West Indies. Your proposal would be much more integrated and much less of an aside.
    I would also assume the gardens would merit a mention that the beautiful designs were enabled if not entirely created (I no longer remember which) through slave labor.

    • Precisely, Andrea. I would like to see slavery and indentured servitude at Kenmore integrated into the tour, not a separate tour necessarily but just the tour.

      Indeed you will find more (and even more) posts in the future regarding incorporating servitude (enslaved or free) into tours and exhibits at historic sites. I think sometimes it may be shocking to see what is left out and it could be truly thought-provoking to think of the ways public historians can integrate the stories of those not wealthy into specialized as well as the “normal” tour.

  5. I would look forward to hearing some discussions about sites you think do a good job of discussing servitude (and slavery, although that seems to be less evolved). I believe I have visited some sites that have done a better job of incorporating servitude–the Rufus King home and Liberty Hall (Queens and NJ respectively) come to mind as places where references to extensive work done by servants occurred on a regular tour. I think you suggest a good model–evolving the discussion of servitude to include more discussion of enslaved servants. And you are right, most sites do not give enough time to the work done in spaces by servants.

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