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Household decoration is a bit of a catch-all category, containing such diverse items as decorative and ornamental china, flower pots and house plants, wall paper remnants, and miscellaneous objects such as bird cages. The common thread among these objects is the impulse to embellish households beyond nearly any other category of object. While many or most of the household furnishings found in elite Chesapeake households were also decorative to some degree, decoration was not their primary function. Chairs provided seating, looking glasses reflected light, window and bed curtains controlled light and enhanced warmth and privacy, and table and beverage wares held food and drink. Only art objects, as a category of furnishings, might be said to be similar in nature, but even they carried a burden of meaning beyond simply being pleasing to the eye.


None of the items in this group appear with any degree of frequency in the inventories studied. Bird cages, which are found in 10% of Rural Elite Inventories (REI), are the most common. The average is 1.6 and the median is 1.

Among the family inventories, there are no listings for bird cages; however, a letter written in 1789 by George Mason to his son John who was in France implies that the planter owned such an object. He wrote:

We have had a Mocking-Bird for you, ever since last Summer; which is quite tame and domestic; and intended to send it out this Spring; but it proves a Female, and they seldom sing; this hardly attempts a single Note; and therefore we shall not send it abroad, to disgrace it's native Country. I wou'd turn it out of the Cage, but I am afraid it's liberty, after such a long Confinement, wou'd only make the poor thing a Prey to the first Hawk, that came in it's Way. We will endeavour to raise some young ones this Summer, if we are lucky enough to catch any. . . . (1)

Not only does Mason clearly state that the mockingbird was kept in a cage, but the tone of the letter implies that it may not have been the first, nor would it be the last time, that the Mason family would attempt to catch and keep wild birds as household pets or curiosities.


Bird Cage: 1
Origin, Date, Style and Material: Specialized Form/ Requires Additional Research


Among the objects which descended through the Mason family with a family history of having been part of the furnishings of Gunston Hall are two pair of deer antlers. (2) According to family legend, these antlers were from two deer killed by George Mason with a single shot. While there is no way to verify this story, it is known from son John's Recollections that his father maintained a deer park on the grounds of Gunston Hall and that he hunted regularly. (3) Mason himself wrote of the family involvement with deer in the same letter in which he referenced the caged mockingbird. In addition to trying to send birds to France, Mason was going to try to ship a male and female deer. He noted that:

I will also endeavour to raise a Buck & Doe Fawn for you this Summer, if we are lucky enough to catch any; the few tame Deer we now have are Stags, that is they have been castrated; an Operation which prevents the Growth of the Buck's Horns & consequently lessen his Beauty, as well as his Dignity. (4)

Additional strength is lent to this family tradition by early 19th-century evidence that prowess in shooting and hunting was a valued skill among the men of the Mason family. Numerous entries dating from the 1830s in The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine describe such feats by George Mason's sons and grandsons. At least two of these accounts detail two dear killed simultaneously; grandson George Mason VI was purported to have slain two deer with one shot and his brother, Richard Barnes Mason, from horseback, was reported to have “fired a double-barrel bird gun and shot two deer at one time.” Such stories must, of course, raise the possibility that the Gunston Hall antlers date from a later generation. However, one of the entries includes the statement that “George Mason was one of the best shots and sportsmen of his day.” (5) No similar objects have been identified in the inventories in the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database, but it is probable that inventory takers would have deemed antlers and similar objects to have no intrinsic value and therefore would not have included them.

If these objects indeed date to the eighteenth century, it is difficult to know where and how they might have been displayed. Several paintings of nineteenth-century British interiors show sets of antlers hanging in the “Great Halls” of various country estates; (6) however, few, if any, American houses included comparable spaces. One intriguing American reference occurs in a New England context. Mary Palmer, who was born in the middle of the 18th century, remembered that in the entrance to her grandfather's house hung “a splendid pair of buck's horns, on the crags of which my grandfather and his guests hung their hats, and across which lay grandpa's gold headed cane whenever he was not walking with it.” (7)

It is not clear that George Mason would have used antlers in the same manner, but the quotation does raise interesting possibilities. Additional research needs to be done into this question.


Antlers: 2 pair
Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research



The fad for collecting pieces of china to use for strictly decorative or ornamental purposes was firmly entrenched in aristocratic English houses by the 17th century. (8) It is difficult to know how far down the economic ladder this craze had spread by the 18th century or how widely the practice was followed in American homes. The objects which fall into this category could be of several types. They might be of Chinese or European manufacture. Some were used as garniture to decorate mantels, overdoors and even the tops of case pieces of furniture. Also falling under this umbrella were the small decorative figures meant to be used as decorations for dinner and dessert tables. By the eighteenth century, these later figures were often the work of English ceramics factories and might be done with either polychrome finishes or left in the white “biscuit” or unglazed state. The latter were sometimes imitated with sugar paste figures, which might be fashioned at home but which were much more often the handiwork of professional confectioners. Also grouped with this category for statistical purposes were objects made from stone such, as alabaster or marble, but which were clearly meant to be ornamental in nature. Only 14% of REI listed items of decorative or ornamental china or stone. It is not possible to break the numbers down into an average or a median because two of the entries listing such items do not include definite numbers. AMBLER69 included “sundry pieces” of ornamental china found in the parlor and DWNMN81 listed a parcel of “ornamental china” among the valuable household furnishings removed for fear of an invasion of British troops during the Revolution.

Among the family inventories, two (40%) MASON97 and MASON00, owned such objects. MASON97 included three different groupings of china images. There were four images in each group, leading one to speculate whether they might have represented the four seasons, or the continents. Such groups were produced by a number of ceramics factories in England and Europe, as well as being made in China for the Western market. MASON00 included a listing for “2 small stone pyramids (mantle piece ornaments).” While there is no documentary evidence to support George Mason's ownership of such forms, the presence of the five hoods in the Chinese room at Gunston Hall (9) and the swells over the windows invites speculation. These spaces in English households would surely have held some type of ornamental china. Might not have they done so at Gunston Hall as well? (10)


Ornamental China: 5-7
Material, form, and style determined by origin and date.
NOTE: Future archeology may provide additional information about Mason's ownership of these objects.



Another subcategory in this group relates to the issue of the possible presence of household plants in Chesapeake homes. Like other natural objects similar to the deer antlers, the plants themselves would, no doubt, have been viewed by inventory takers as having little value; however, the pots in which the plants were kept, even if only from fired terracotta, would have had a monetary value. In the period, some pots were also made from more elaborate ceramic types or even glass. There is the possibility that those listed as being made of more expensive materials may also have been part of sets of decorative garniture or vases for holding cut flowers rather than potted plants.

As with ornamental china, only 14% of REI list this form with an average of 4.2 and a median of 4.

Only two (40%) of the family have such items. MASON86 owned three “old” flower pots and MASON97 had five china flower pots (possibly garniture), six glass flower pots, and six pots listed as blue and red which were certainly ceramic and possibly oriental.


Flower Pots: 6-8
Material, form, & style determined by origin and date.
NOTE: Future archeology may provide additional information about Mason's ownership of these objects.

decorative element

1. George Mason to John Mason, 14 May 1789, in Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, 3 vols., (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:1153.

2. These antlers were mounted by the Smithsonian in 1965 on walnut plaques which are partially covered in antique red velvet.

3. "Recollections of John Mason," transcribed by Terry Dunn and Estella Bryans-Munson, Gunston Hall Plantation Library and Archives, 1989; revised, 1999, 4, 16.

4. Papers of George Mason, 3:1153.

5. The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 1, no. 8 (April 1830): 400; ibid. 1, no. 10 (June 1830): 495; ibid. 2, no. 2 (October 1830): 92; ibid. 4 (June 1833): 531; (from microfilm at Library of Congress).

6. See for example illustrations 44, 51, and 90 in John Cornforth, English Interiors 1790-1848, The Quest for Comfort (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978). For other examples of deer antlers used as decoration see such mid-18th century prints as Hogarth's “Election Entertainment” and “The Curate & Darker Disguising Themselves to Convey don Quixote Home” and Robert Sayers “Love and Opportunity.” Copies of these last three examples are found in the object file G-571 at Gunston Hall.

7. Quoted in Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home The American Family 1750-1870 (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1990), 37.

8. Anna Somer Cocks, “The Nonfunctional Use of Ceramics in the English County House During the Eighteenth Century,” in The Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989), 195-215.

9. The association of Chinoiserie and the use of ornamental china was strongly established in this period and adds weight to the idea that the Chinese Room at Gunston would have been a particularly good candidate for this type of ornamentation. See for example, George Edwards and Matthias Darly, New Book of Chinese Designs (London, 1755), plate 67, and Dawn Jacobson, Chinoiserie (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1993), 142, 149.

10. Note, there is also the possibility of crossover here with the issue of sculptural figures. For a discussion of these forms see the ART section in this report.

© Gunston Hall Plantation 2002