J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Shopping with George Washington?

This month HistoryTube shared a heart-warming glimpse of George Washington, the just-retired young colonel of the Virginia forces, as a new stepfather:
In 1759 George and Martha Washington spent their first Christmas together at Mount Vernon. They had been married less than a year. A list of presents George Washington intended to purchase for stepson John (Jacky), age 5, and stepdaughter Martha (Patsy), age 3, shows a heartfelt appreciation for the joys of childhood. His list reads:

A bird on Bellows
A Cuckoo
A turnabout Parrott
A Grocers Shop
An Aviary
A Prussian Dragoon
A Man Smoaking
A Tunbridge Tea Sett
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys
A Neat Book fash Teas Chest
A box best Household Stuff
A straw Patch box w. a Glass
A neat dressed Wax Baby

The items on the list would have likely been handmade and imported from Europe. Many mechanical and hand-carved toys of this period were produced in the cities and towns of northern Germany, such as Hamburg and Hannover. Although we can’t be sure what each one looked like, several were fairly common. The bird on bellows, cuckoo, turnabout parrot and “smoaking” man were probably mechanical toys made of metal. The bird and parrot would have contained whistles and may have had flapping wings. The grocer’s shop also likely was made in northern Germany, where elaborate miniature toy room settings were crafted and sold. The Prussian dragoon was probably a metal toy soldier, and the wax baby doll would have been made of poured, tinted and painted wax, a common method for doll construction in the 1700s.

The three Tunbridge toys were probably made in Tunbridge, Kent, England. They may have been puzzle boxes, yo-yos or small decorative chests, made in the Tunbridge fashion, of many small pieces of wood glued together to create a mosaic effect. The tea set and tea chest may have been toys or could have been for a dowry for Patsy. The patch box contained small cloth patches to apply to the face as beauty marks. Were these for Patsy to play with, or meant as a present for Martha?
I’m always touched by watching Washington try so hard to do the right thing. Here he was achieving his social and economic aims by marrying wealthy widow Martha Custis, and he’s suddenly thrust into the role of patriarch responsible for providing for two young children as well.

Since I usually like to add a little something when I quote from other blogs, I went looking for more context for that list of toys. And I found that phrases like “Prussian Dragoon” and “turnabout Parrott” don’t appear in Founders Online, which includes the latest edition of Washington’s colonial papers.

Instead, my searches found this list appeared in a lot of recent books, in the 1973 Reader’s Digest Book of Christmas, and in a 1969 editor’s note at the start of an issue of the American Bar Association Journal. None of the publications I saw indicated a source. So I started to worry.

TOMORROW: It’s a Christmas miracle. (Sort of.)


Garrett said...

This is interesting. From what I have found on 18th century Christmas, gifts tended to be given by people like Washington to their social inferiors. Anglican Virginia's Christmas celebrations did not resemble what we know as the holiday today. The exchange of presents within families seems to have been a product of New England's Victorian Christmas of the next century. It seems unlikely to me that this would have happened, so I am curious to hear if you found any support for the story.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point. Stay tuned.

John L. Smith said...

From your set-up, I'm really wondering where you found the source(s) for the items!