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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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Toys for the Custis Children

As I described yesterday, a number of recent publications have included a list of toys that George Washington supposedly ordered for his new stepchildren, Jacky and Patsy, on his first Christmas with them in 1759. But no such list appears in The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, which can be searched at Founders Online.

However, I found that John C. Fitzpatrick used some of the phrases on that list in his 1933 biography, George Washington Himself. Fitzpatrick was then overseeing the edition of Washington’s papers put out by the federal government in the early twentieth century.

That encouraged me to revisit the Library of Congress’s American Memory digital database of Washington’s papers, which includes transcriptions of the notes that Fitzpatrick included in that edition. Those notes quote some documents not included in the current edition of the papers (which is in other ways more complete).

And indeed, Fitzpatrick noted a March 1760 invoice to Washington from Robert Cary & Co. that included:
from Unwin & Wrigglesworth—
A Tunbridge Tea Sett ... ¼
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys ... 1/
A Neat Book lash Tea Chest ... 4/6
A Bird on Bellows ... 5d.
A Cuckoo ... 10d.
A turnabout Parrot ... 1/3
A Grocers Shop ... 5/

and from Mount & Page—
6 Small Books for Children ... 3/.
A Box best Household Stuff ... 4/6
A Straw patch box wt. a Glass ... 2/
A Neat dressd Wax Baby ... 3/6
An Aviary ... 1/3
A Prussian Dragoon ... 1/3
A Man Smoakg. ... 1/
For his biography Fitzpatrick plucked out items from that list which were most likely children’s toys. The Mount Vernon Midden blog shows images from those invoices. The 1760 Universal Pocket Companion for Londoners listed Unwin & Wrigglesworth as “hardwaremen” doing business on Cheapside; they probably sold more than toys.

Olive Bailey included a similar list in Christmas with the Washingtons (1948). She also transcribed a list of toys that Unwin & Wrigglesworth had shipped earlier, billing Daniel Parke Custis, Martha’s first husband, who died in 1757:
A child’s fiddle
A coach and six in a box
A stable with six horses
A corner cupboard
A neat walnut bureau
A filigree watch
A neat enameled watch box
A toy whip
A child’s huzzif
So we’re on solid ground to say that Washington bought that list of items I quoted yesterday, and that most of those things were toys. But we can’t say that Washington ordered those toys specifically. The Mount Vernon Midden blog quotes him as vaguely ordering “‘10 [shillings] worth of Toys’ for Jacky and ‘A Fash[ionably] Dres[sed] Baby…& other Toys’” for Patsy in September 1759. The London merchants picked out what they thought those children would like.

We also can’t say those goods had anything to do with Washington’s first Christmas as a stepfather. They were apparently ordered in September 1759 but not shipped until March 1760. In fact, Washington’s papers say almost nothing about Christmas celebrations at Mount Vernon. (In 1769 he won some money on cards that evening while visiting Fielding Lewis.)

Instead, it appears that twentieth-century authors chose to view these goods through the lens of our own traditions. Most Americans give children lots of toys on Christmas, and our culture encourages us to give even more. Therefore, these toys appeared in Christmas with the Washingtons and Reader’s Digest Book of Christmas even though they had no link to the Washington-Custis family’s holiday. Jacky and Patsy were probably glad to get them whenever they arrived.

(The image above shows the remains of two small clay figurines found in an archeological dig at Mount Vernon. Were those some of Jacky and Patsy Custis’s toys? Or the toys of Jacky’s children?)


Garrett said...

Ahhh, that makes sense. Thanks, John.

Peter Ansoff said...

Great sleuthing, John, as always. I hope you are having a splendid holiday.

Joe Bauman said...

Great detective work. I admire your separating the wheat from the chaff of previous writers. -- Joe

J. L. Bell said...

I know my own writing has plenty of chaff, too—if only I knew where it was!

In this case, I'd tweeted the initial posting about Washington's Christmas shopping with a warm feeling in my heart. I was ready simply to quote it without quibble when I thought I should add some of my own content and went looking for more, so it hadn't set off any alarm bells.

Chris Evans said...

Thanks for posting this. This really humanizes the great man.

I too I'm always touched when Washington is seen doing the right thing.

Having just received for Christmas with the excellent miniseries from the '80s on George Washington with Barry Bostwick I thought it captured well Washington caring for these children.

The terrible death of his step daughter in Washington's arms must have been a terrible blow.


Tesmi Yonas said...

Thank you for sharing, very interesting