ROOM USE AT GUNSTON HALL - THE DOMESTIC SPACES
FIRST FLOOR — PRIVATE SPACES
Comprising the Chamber, Side Passage, Service Stair, and Little Parlor, the suite of ground floor domestic rooms is located in an elongated rectangle of space on the east side of the Passage. In these rooms the Mason family conducted an enormous amount of plantation business and George Mason pursued both personal and political interests. Not open to casual visitors or acquaintances, these spaces shielded family matters from the public eye, including the most basic activities of human life —birth, sex, sleep, food consumption, personal hygiene, work, illness, and death. As the principal arena of family life, the private rooms of the house were a space where family, slaves, and servants mixed on an intimate basis.
Since the doors of the central Passage normally would have been kept closed, the domestic spaces of an 18th-century gentry house generally would have been screened from public view. Thanks to the "Recollections" of George Mason's son John, many uses of the two principal private spaces on the ground floor—the Chamber and the "little Parlour"—are known. Perhaps, it is not surprising that John's "Recollections" focus on the private rather than the public areas of the house for he never resided at Gunston Hall as an adult. His are the remembrances of childhood; he concentrates on the family and their doings, the emotional ties of his youth, not on the parade, display, and formality implicit in the public spaces.
The presence of at least one ground floor chamber was typical in most rural Virginia gentry houses in the 18th century. During the residence of Ann Mason and probably Sarah Brent Mason, the room was occupied by the plantation mistress. It undoubtedly served both women not only as a bed chamber but as a place to socialize with family members and intimate friends. Centrally located, the room played a vital role in the domestic management of the Mason's large plantation. The master probably shared this space with his wife when the exigencies of family life permitted. The room must have had strong emotional ties for George Mason and his children as several Mason babies were born in this room and Ann Mason died here. Additionally, as the idea of the nuclear family became increasingly strong throughout the century and the mother's role became more concerned with raising and educating her children, the Chamber would have been an important focus of mother/child relationships.
As George Mason was married to Sarah Brent throughout the interpretive period selected for the house, the site should call the first floor chamber, the "Chamber," and discontinue the use of the appellation Mother's Chamber. There is no period or family documentation for the phrase Mother's Chamber; and since Ann Mason died in 1773 it is unlikely to have been called that later in George Mason's lifetime.
Looking at the period of 1780 to 1788, the room should be interpreted as if George Mason sleeps here most of the time. Since the physical appointments of the room will represent the 1780s, Ann Mason should be interpreted as a memory through her son John's "Recollections."
Referring to his mother, John notes that the room to the left of the land front door was "her Chamber."(1) By the last half of the 18th century, the word "chamber" generally referred to a bedroom. According to architectural historian Carl Lounsbury:
In a house of two or more rooms, the principal ground floor sleeping space [was] often referred to as the inner room or parlor. Early in the 18th century these terms were dropped in favor of chamber. Initially [the chamber] served not only for sleeping, but also for a place to socialize on more intimate terms than was possible in the outer room or hall. Though sleeping arrangements varied greatly, the mistress often occupied the chamber while her husband slept in the hall. As a result, the chamber acquired a feminine association that informed its use by women and children throughout the 18th century, even though husbands often cohabited there. In the last half of the 18th century, the creation of additional domestic spaces made it possible to draw some social functions out of the chamber. The narrowed role of the chamber was reflected in the growing use of the term bed chamber and bedroom.(2)
During George Mason's lifetime, it was usual to have at least one chamber on the ground floor of rural Virginia gentry houses. By the beginning of the 19th century, bed chambers were being removed to the upper floors of Southern houses. The presence of the best chamber on the ground floor during Mason's lifetime probably mirrors earlier traditions surrounding the concept of the state bed. In lesser homes the parental bed was still an icon as the scene of essential family events, such as wedding nights, births, illnesses, and deaths. A carefully contrived combination of textiles and furniture, the best bed in an elite household was often the most expensive item in the house and, as such, it was designed to be seen.(3) Ann Mason did have her bed in this room for John writes that, in the weeks before his mother's death she was ". . . confined to her room . . ."
He notes later that in her last illness he "was called sometimes to her Bed side" to drink a bit of the milk punch prescribed for her by the doctor.(4)
Further clues in John Mason's "Recollections" suggest that his mother oversaw the management of the household from her Chamber. It served her as a combination bed chamber, dressing room, and work room. Perhaps close friends also visited with Ann Mason in the more private surroundings of this room.
The Chamber certainly included storage facilities that promoted inventory control. John Mason records that among the furnishings of the room was a "large old fashioned Chest of Drawers" in which the younger children's clothes were kept as follows:
the lower Tier consisted of three Drawers- the middle and longest of these was the Stocking Drawer- that on the right and smaller was the Towel Drawer, and that on the left of Same size was the Shoe Drawer, next above, a thin one & the whole length of the case was the Cap Drawer next above this a Deep one & also of the whole length was the Gown Drawer- next above was the Shirt Drawer, and next to that the Jacket Drawer, Then above all came two Drawers each of half length which were kept locked and the only two of the whole were- these were devoted to my Mothers own private use and her matters of greater value The others Drawers were always unlocked Applied exclusively to the purpose its name designated-, and by that name it was known and called by all the Family(5).
The "Recollections" also tells us that Ann Mason had a closet whose function was central to the management of the household, serving as a distribution point for goods whose quantities needed to be tracked. This closet, which John notes ". . . would have I suppose be called, an upper pantry," was probably also designed to protect the contents from both theft and random usage. John describes the closets in the room as follows:
There were also two large Deep closets one on each side of the deep recess afforded by a spacious stack of Chimnies- the one on the right of the Chimney, contained the current part of my Mothers wardrobe- and was called- her Closet- as the case might be, by the Children or Servants- Momma's Closet, or Mistres's closet- the other on the left was emphatically designated The Closet- It held the smaller or more precious stores for the Table- . . . . I can't forget one of articles Deposited in my Mother's Closet- It was a small green Horse Whip- with a Silver head and ring- by which it was hung there against one of the walls- and which my Mother used to carry when she rode on horseback- as she often did when in health- This little Instrument was applied sometimes to other purposes as occasion required among the Children, and we used to call it the green Doctor.(6)
In studying room-by-room inventories of the 18th-century Virginia gentry, the presence of a first floor closet with pantry-like functions is quite common. Terry Dunn in her study of the presence and storage of "smaller . . . stores for the Table" in upper echelon Virginia and Maryland households observes that, in about two-thirds of households, there were caches of these stores in the first and second floors of the house; many in closets whose contents suggest they functioned as "upper pantr[ies]." In about one third of the cases, these stores were kept in a first floor chamber. Typically, "smaller stores" seem to include tea and tea containers, sugar and sugar containers, pepper boxes, butter pots, mustard pots, spice boxes and/or spices, and "physicks" or medicines. The larger stores for a household, including volume and bulk commodities of alcoholic beverages and foodstuffs, were normally located in cellars or outbuildings.(7)
The location of the Chamber helped to promote easy oversight of the many domestic activities at Gunston Hall. Its windows looked out over the land front entrance where most visitors arrived. Being adjacent to the Side Passage and the Service Stair, its position allowed the mistress to keep track of the comings and goings of household members not only in the ground floor domestic spaces, but on their way to the cellars, second floor, and domestic yard. With the probable exception of a wine cellar, the mistress would have supervised the functions of all these spaces. In fact, the Chamber's centrality to the entire sphere of domestic spaces must have been an advantage in managing the household.
A question of great interest to visitors is if George Mason shared the ground floor Chamber with his wife. No document has yet come to light to provide a definitive answer. John Mason describes this room as the chamber occupied by his mother. John also notes that his father ". . . always shaved himself- and used to shave his whole head which was covered by the Wig twice a week- . . . His habit was to bathe his head in cold water winter & summer, in an open porch every morning immediately after riseing-. . . ."(8) The "open porch" is almost certainly the porch at the end of the Side Passage. The question is: does this indicate that George Mason was convenient to the Side Passage porch by virtue of sharing the ground floor Chamber with his wife or by simply descending the Service Stair each morning? Or, perhaps, both?
It is interesting to consider that in describing the contents of the closets and chest of drawers in the ground floor Chamber, John does not mention any of belongings of his father. Were these then stored in a bed chamber on the second floor or did John omit to record that some of his father's clothes also were kept in the chamber closet? Or, could they have been folded in a trunk or six board chest in the ground floor chamber? Would this type of storage be unlikely for the clothing of the master of the house? As usual, questions still remain, but widower George Mason does provide one further clue in a February 1780 letter when he notes that "this cold weather has set all of the young Folks to providing Bedfellows . . . I wish I knew where to get a good one myself; for I find cold Sheets extreamly disagreeable."(9)
Given this quote and the nature of his family in 1780 to 1788, the interpretive period selected for the mansion, it seems likely that George Mason shared the first floor Chamber with his second wife Sarah. She was older and bore no children. While Mason may have spent many nights, even a majority, sleeping in the first floor Chamber with his first wife Ann, there were reasons for him to vacate that bed Chamber at frequent intervals. Recent scholarship suggests that most members of a household were unlikely to have their "own" bed chamber. A frequent exception to this was the mistress of the family, and seemingly, less often, the master. After giving birth, a woman was most often confined to her bed chamber for a least a month, a period usually called "lying in." During this time, she would receive a stream of visitors who expressed their felicitations or sympathies, depending on the outcome of the birth. She would usually occupy the bed chamber by herself, a condition which might continue past her lying in if she was nursing her baby. In addition, if children were ill, they were often cared for in their mother's bed. On all of these occasions, the father in elite households would generally use another chamber. Since there were no births from Mason's second marriage and other family members, including three daughters in residence, who could help care for the sick, it is probable that Mason slept in the best bed Chamber throughout most of his second marriage.(10)
Additionally, by this period Mason was suffering "smart fits" of the gout and bouts of either a stomach or intestinal disorder as well. As he may have been a frequent patient, it is likely that ground floor Chamber was more convenient for his care.
Side Passage / Service Stair
The Side Passage and Service Stair were two additional features which promoted circulation and controlled access to both the public and private spaces in George Mason's plantation house. They provided connecting links to the other domestic spheres in the house — the cellars and the second floor — and out into the domestic yard which supplied many of the support services for the mansion.
As features which were of paramount importance to the smooth operation of the domestic realm of the plantation house, the Side Passage and Service Stair should have a prominent role in the site's interpretation. Allowing the visitors the opportunity to ascend the service stair would promote a greater understanding of the role of this important conduit which funnels people and services through three floors of the house. In use by the slaves, servants, children, and probably even adult family members who were not attired to receive guests, these features can assist the site in presenting a more well-rounded picture of the entire plantation community.
The side passage functioned totally as a service space. It promoted ease of circulation through the house by providing direct access to the domestic yard and service stairs as well as to the public areas of the house, yet, at the same time, it controlled admittance to the Chamber and Little Parlor. Both the Service Stairs and Side Passage were also designed to segregate the activities of the house slaves and paid servants, such as the tutoress and housekeeper, from the public spaces of the house. The service stairs, which ran from the cellar to the second floor, gave the servants access to these areas without requiring the use of the main staircase.
Both the Side Passage and Service Stairs extended the domestic area of the house beyond the Chamber and Little Parlor. A quote from John Mason's "Recollections" offers several revelations: ". . . to the East was a high paled yard, adjoining the House, into which opened an outer door from the private front, within or connected with which yard were the Kitchen, well, poultry Houses and other domestic arrangements. . . ."(11) The description, "private front," strongly conveys the domestic nature of the east side of the house. In addition, the quote
underscores the importance of the connection between the house and the domestic yard where slaves and servants carried out many of the functions necessary to the smooth running of the household.
The presence of a Side Passage between the two principal domestic spaces on the ground floor is not a common feature in Virginia houses. It is interesting that a virtually identical configuration, including a service stair, appears at Carlyle House in Alexandria, built by merchant and first generation immigrant John Carlyle and finished in 1753. Was Mason influenced by the plan of Carlyle House? Did this floor plan have British origins which Buckland may have promoted? Did Buckland even arrive in time to influence this feature? Another first floor plan very similar to Gunston Hall in the inclusion of a side passage, as well as the alliance of the suite of public rooms on one side of the house, is Landon Carter's Sabine Hall. However, in both Sabine Hall and Mount Airy, its near neighbor in Richmond County, Virginia, the main stair is relocated to a side passage as well. Robert Beverley's Blandfield offers another variant. George Mason's floor plan certainly gave the servants and family greater access to the entire house, but it also made the first floor domestic spaces less private and probably noisier.(12)
The Service Stair, too, provided an important link to other domestic spaces—in this case, the cellars and the second floor. The cellars were where many foodstuffs and household goods were undoubtedly stored. In fact, George Mason mentions in a 1790 letter to his son John that ". . . a Pot of baked White Fish, & a Pot of soured white Fish Roes, we put up for you in the Spring, have already spoiled in my Cellar. . . ."(13) The result of a brief archaeological investigation done in the 1970s in the land front portion of what is now the undivided center room in the cellar suggests that this space may have been a wine cellar.(14) Although architectural and archaeological research has yet to be done on the southwest room in the cellar, that space may have incorporated a fireplace and a ceiling to insulate the room above from noise, smoke, and smells. Should future research corroborate the existence of these features, the room could have functioned as a servants' hall, adding other activities to the uses of the cellar. Of course, as the second floor bed chambers are where a majority of the family bathed, dressed, played, worked, and slept, the service stair undoubtedly saw a certain amount of family traffic as well. These two spatial conduits — the Sides Passage and Service Stair — features not seen in most Virginia houses, must have added to the ease of household management, but they also increased the swirl of activity through the domestic rooms by linking the domestic yard, the cellars, and the second floor with the two principal command centers on the first floor — the female-oriented bed Chamber and the male-oriented Little Parlor.
The Little Parlor is known to have been the "small Dining room commonly used as such by the Family" and George Mason's office/study. Additionally, scholarship points to the use of similar family spaces as informal sitting rooms or parlors, as the name "little parlour" suggests. The Little Parlor was central to Mason's role as a planter and business man, his public career, and his political and governmental concerns. Undoubtedly a nexus of life in the Mason household, the room saw intimate interaction between parents and children and between slaves, servants, and family.
The site should interpret the Little Parlor as the family dining room, George Mason's office/study, and an informal parlor. In order to conform with modern American usage, the room name should be spelled "parlor" not "parlour," except when quoting George Mason's June 1787 letter.
As is the case for the Chamber, John Mason left wonderful insights into the uses of the Little Parlor. In a June 1, 1787 letter to his first born, George Mason refers to papers he wants sent from “my Desk & Book Case in the little Parlour.” Less than a half century later, John Mason provided more detail:
Opposite to my Mothers Chamber which I have just described and which was at the lower Floor- across a passage was the small Dining room commonly used as such by the Family . . . the small Dining Room was devoted to his service when he used to write, and he absented as it were from the Family sometimes for weeks together- and often untill very late at night during the revolutionary War . . . This room so occupied by him, looked by two windows immediately on the Garden, which adjoined the House on its South Front and into which it opened by an outer door and porch that were communicated with by a door and short passage from that room, so that it was in a measure detached from the rest of the House, having a direct, and a degree private way into the Garden-(15)
It is clear from John Mason's remembrances that the "little Parlour" was on the river side of the house across from the ground floor chamber.
Inferences drawn from John Mason's "Recollections" suggest that the Little Parlor was the center of family life in the house. His writings certainly document several uses of the room. He clearly states that the room functioned as a “small Dining room commonly used as such by the Family.” As John explains, the room was not employed for family dining when George Mason was occupied with weighty problems nor undoubtedly when "there was company" for he notes there was another "larger" dining room for that purpose.(16)
It is probable that on most days Mason's daily ritual of mixing and drinking a "Bowl of Toddy" with his sons took place in the Little Parlor.(17) However, in noting the proper responses required of the participants in this little ceremony, John Mason says they were performed ". . . in all good Company, when the Bowl was first produced." This and other period references to toddy drinking underscore this as a custom designed to promote male bonding in English and Chesapeake society. So, when there were guests, in all likelihood, the toddy ceremony was relegated to whatever space was appropriate to the occasion.
The Little Parlor undoubtedly also served as what today might be considered an "office" for George Mason. This supposition is borne out not only by the reference George Mason makes to "my Desk & Book Case" in the room in the June 1787 letter to his oldest son, but by John Mason's memory that ". . . the small Dining Room was devoted to his service when he used to write, and he absented as it were from the Family sometimes for weeks together- and often untill very late at night during the revolutionary War. . . ." John Mason goes on to write that "my Father in good weather would several times a day pass out of his Study and walk [in the garden]
. . . and return again to his Desk. . . ."(18) Here again, John mentions George Mason's desk in this room as well as using the word "Study." Lounsbury defines "study" as:
A room in a dwelling house or other building devoted to reading, writing, and the storage of books and papers . . . The term was gradually eclipsed by library in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but did not entirely disappear from usage in the South to define a room for contemplative exercise.(19)
The "little Parlour" certainly seems to have provided a private refuge for George Mason when working on legal matters and legislative concerns; however, in all likelihood, the planter managed his landholding and business enterprises from here as well. The "Recollections" state that "My Father kept no Stewart or Clerk about him. He kept his own books and superintended, with the assistance of a trusty Slave or two, & occasionally of some of his Sons, all the operations as about the home house. . . ."(20) As George Mason's surviving correspondence and accounts indicate that he was an energetic businessman and a careful record keeper, his private business would have required as much or more paperwork and letter writing as public matters. Mason probably used "my Desk & Book Case" in the "little Parlour" to administer to both.
Aside from serving as work space for George Mason and a less formal dining room for the family, the question is: was this room used for other family activities as well? For instance, on days when the planter was not closeted in the room in concentrated work and study, could the family have gathered here, rather than in one of the formal spaces? Why did George Mason call this room the "little Parlour?" Does the use of the term parlor connote society? Could the room have witnessed a variety of activities, including afternoon tea for the family, reading aloud, musical offerings, sewing, socializing, cards, and games? Or, would the idea of study prevail and this room have functioned more as a contemplative space for the master of the house? The latter appears unlikely to be true, unless Mason was hard at work on his writings, for John Mason clearly notes that the room served at least one social function — that of family dining. It seems very probable that the Little Parlor was also the scene of familial sociability not associated with meals. In the winter months when the formal rooms were probably unheated and closed off, except when in use for entertaining, the Little Parlor would have given the family a place to assemble and enjoy each other's company.
A number of scholars have documented the presence of a second parlor or dining room in many elite American homes after mid-century. Upper class houses tended to have a formal dining room or parlor or both devoted principally to ceremonial activities and another space reserved for more familial functions. These second parlor/dining room enhanced family privacy, comfort, and intimacy in a time when the nuclear family was becoming increasingly important.(21) Elizabeth Garrett sums up the pattern: "The second parlor . . . was variously termed parlor, sitting room, keeping room, living room, dining parlor, and back parlor . . . The role of this apartment was family room, the intent was convenience, the atmosphere was informal, and the use was frequent."(22) In employing the term "little Parlour," George Mason is very much in keeping with this concept as is John Mason's portrait of the room as a "the small Dining Room commonly used as such by the Family." As discussed in the "summary conclusion" in the section on the Parlor/Dining Room in Chapter Two, the roles of parlors and dining rooms often overlapped.(23)
The interchangeability of certain functions of parlors and dining rooms is seen in another type of usage as well. Garrett observes that ". . . in most houses books, bookcases, and a desk or desk-and-bookcases were found in parlors, often the back parlor."(24) Scholars who have analyzed Virginia dining rooms have noticed that even in the formal dining room, including the dining room at the Governor's Palace, that desks and other furnishings devoted to study and business are frequently found in these spaces.(25) This trend seems to be true in both of George Mason's dining rooms as his June 1, 1787 letter to his eldest son makes specific mention of important papers being stored in both "my Desk & Book Case in the little Parlour" and in "the Pigeon-holes in the Book Case in the Dining-Room" as well as "loose Papers in one of the dining Room windows."
Although scholars like Garrett, Hood, Leviner, and Wenger delve into room use issues from different points of view, as a group their observations and hypotheses seem to be based on two corresponding perceptions. One is that in many gentry homes the functions of dining rooms and sitting rooms overlap, in either the private or public manifestations of these rooms or sometimes in both. Two is that the secondary parlor is often host to the functions of library, office, and study. Given these common trends, in all likelihood, George Mason's "little Parlour" served not only as a family dining room and a "Study," but as a family parlor as well.
Questions for future consideration do arise, however. By the 1780s, did George Mason have so much public and private business on his hands that he required more space in which to conduct business? During much of this period three grown sons, George, Jr. (V), William, and Thomson, were still living in the house. They assisted George Mason with his plantation business, but they were also attending to business of their own. Each had his own plantation to oversee and, in the case of George, Jr. (V) and Thomson, the construction of new dwellings as well. By this period, could there have been a significant expansion of business into the formal dining room as the presence of the bookcase might suggest? Or, after the last tutor left Gunston Hall in 1781, could the schoolhouse have been made into a plantation office?
Additionally, as the Mason family expanded with the presence of two daughter-in-laws and grandchildren, could they have been in habit of sitting in the formal rooms in the evening? Even looking backwards to the 1770s, one has to take note of John Mason's mention of the devotion of the "little Parlour" to George Mason's service ". . . when he used to write, and [was] absented as it were from his Family sometimes for weeks together- and often untill very late at night during the revolutionary War. . . ."(26) Given George Mason's exclusive, though apparently episodic, appropriation of the Little Parlor, was the rest of the Mason clan accustomed to using the public spaces for family gatherings in the afternoon and evening as well as at dinner? Interpretively, until further evidence presents itself, it seems reasonable to think that the family used the Little Parlor as an informal sitting room when George Mason was away from home or
when he did not claim the room for intellectual pursuits, including the very real work of land law studies, protest, and government.
The spatial configuration of George Mason's second floor suggests a response to several 18th-century social and architectural trends. The unusually large number of bed chambers reflects the growing desire for greater privacy; there are more, but smaller, bed chambers. No one large room provided bed space for all the sons or all the daughters as was done in some other planter households. The narrow corridor-like Upper Passage is primarily a circulation space providing direct access to all of the rooms; however, it probably also housed storage furniture and served as a sitting and play area. The four corner bed chambers with their fireplaces and multiple windows were hierarchally more important than those in the center of the house. The inclusion of a "lumber room" furnishes additional storage in a house already well endowed with closets and beaufats.
In the 18th century, sleeping arrangements were far different than those today. In general, family members did not have rooms of their own. Family and guests would have moved from chamber to chamber as the exigencies of life demanded, although family members, particularly the mistress or the elderly, might have a room they occupied most of the time. People were not accustomed, or indeed even comfortable, sleeping alone. Children shared rooms with adults, often slaves or paid employees.
The room arrangements in the second floor should reflect the specific composition of the Mason household during the interpretive period as well as the current scholarship on sleeping arrangements and chamber usage. In portraying various scenarios the staff should consider the architectural hierarchy of the rooms before assigning them to various family members or guests. The site should rename the second floor rooms to reflect period naming practices for bed chambers. The Upper Passage should be actively included in the interpretation of the second floor.
John Mason is almost silent about the upper level of his father's mansion, just disclosing in passing that there were ". . . a number of Chambers and one long passage on the second [floor]."(27) In fact, the large "number of Chambers" at Gunston Hall is quite uncommon. Despite the increasing amount of private space appearing in houses in the second half of the 18th century, most wealthy Chesapeake planter households contained five or fewer chambers, the average being five. Only one quarter of the Rural Elite room-by-room inventories in the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database list more than five chambers. Five inventories indicate six chambers, but in the database only Stephen West, who died in Prince George's County, Maryland in 1791, had more. He had eight. Built in the 1770s, Blandfield in Essex County, Virginia, with a second floor configuration related to Gunston Hall by the presence of a long through passage, provides another example of seven or eight chambers. Above the scale of private domestic residences, the Governor's Palaces in both Virginia and Maryland had seven and nine bed chambers, respectively. All of this makes George Mason's eight bed chambers uncommon, especially in a one and a half story house. Also, unlike many Virginia gentry houses, the room configuration on the second floor of Gunston Hall does not mirror the first floor layout.(28) In the late 1750s when George Mason was building this house, he could not foresee that twelve children would be born to him and Ann, and that nine would survive childhood. Why did he use this plan? With this in mind, in the future, more study should be made of possible architectural precedents for multiple rooms lining each side of a central "long passage."
Wenger postulates that the growing importance of the ground floor central passage required new solutions in the arrangement of domestic spaces. Earlier houses generally had the same layout on the first and second floors, with the passages on both levels serving principally as circulation spaces. As the ground floor passage increased in size and elaboration to reflect new social uses, the second floor passage remained a space whose primary function was the control of access. At first, many homeowners continued to build second floor passages that mirrored their mate on the first floor, but not so with Mason. The second floor design at Gunston Hall shows a reaction to the changing role of upper passages; here, the Upper Passage is reduced to a long, rather narrow corridor, fundamentally a circulation space.(29)
As architectural finish is indicative of gentility as well as hierarchy in 18th-century houses, it is instructive to look carefully at the details of George Mason's second floor. Architectural historian Edward Chappell states: "Degrees of permanence, size, allowance for privacy, and finish employed in rooms for specialized domestic activity all reveal people's priorities as well as their ability to pay. Ideas about light, cleanliness, and warmth are of special significance."(30) Chappell has observed that chambers designed for use by family and guests, at the very least, had plaster walls and ceilings even if there was no wainscot or mantels. The second floor rooms at Gunston Hall more than meet Chappell's criteria for being "decently fitted."(31) They are plastered as well as embellished with chair rail and baseboard, and the four with fireplaces had surrounds or mantels. Additionally, although physical evidence does not survive, given the propensity for the use of wallpaper in gentry houses, it is quite probable that at least some of the second floor rooms and perhaps the Upper Passage were hung with paper.
For clarity, a floor plan including room numbering assigned during the Phillips-Buchanan architectural investigation follows. The two rooms on the east end of the house (202 & 204) are the largest; each has three windows and a fireplace. One would suppose this automatically makes them lighter and airier than the two rooms on the west side (208 & 209) which have two windows and a fireplace; however, the rooms facing the west side get more sunshine. All four rooms would have been lighter and warmer than the three chambers occupying the center of the second floor, each having one window and no fireplace. Additionally, the chamber across from the staircase (211) includes the jut for the service stairs (212) and a ladder to the attic. Both of these features would have made this a noisier, less private space as well as being L-shaped. Even though the room is larger than the narrow chamber overlooking the garden (207), the room with attic access probably would have been the least important of the second floor chambers, especially as it is possible that one or more of the slaves or servants slept on the third level under the roof. Following the narrow chamber in importance would have been the land front room to the west of the room with attic access (210). It is roomier and unencumbered by other walls even though it, too, has only one window.
The four corner rooms provide mixed signals as to hierarchy. Although there is no documentation for the decorative firebox surrounds that once probably existed in the land side rooms, there is evidence of the fireplace treatments in the two river side rooms. Interestingly, the larger room on the southeast corner (204) seems to have had a shaped and beaded molding around the opening while the smaller room on the southwest (208) had a full-fledged mantel. Color also provides a contrast; the woodwork in the southeast room was painted dark olive green whereas the southwest room had Prussian blue trim; both paints were based on relatively expensive pigments — verdigris and Prussian blue, respectively. It may be that the sunny aspect of the chambers on the west offset the extra window.
In a sense, the second floor Passage is divided into two discrete sections. The landing at the top of the stairs is separated from the "long passage" by a screen composed of two fluted piers. This elaborate device forms a small gallery overlooking the back Passage on the first floor. Looking up from the ground floor, the screen provides a visual continuation of the double elliptical arch (at one time possessed of a central column which was replaced by the pendant pine cone probably before circa 1775) and echoes the classical detailing of the lower front Passage. On the second floor, the long Passage behind the screen is endowed with a cornice and baseboard but no chair rail. The Upper Passage is further enhanced by the two-color paint scheme on the doors to the rooms, a polychrome treatment which highlights the raised panels. The baseboards on the second floor were painted with a lesser color — black — rather than the brown of the first floor baseboards.
Of course, the storage or lumber room shows the lowest degree of finish with no chair rail and unpainted shelving. It is likely to have been used for miscellaneous storage of out-of-season, out-of -use, and discarded objects as well as household textiles. Currently, the storage closet is called a "Lumber Room." While "lumber" is a period term for "anything useless or cumbersome or anything of more bulk than value,"(32) it is not known what name the Mason family actually applied to this space. Chesapeake inventories do indicate the use of other terms for second floor storage areas. In fact, in searching the inventory database, the term lumber room only appears in four of approximately 100 inventories with closets.
No documentation exists to tell us who slept where in the Mason household, and, without a doubt, this changed over time. The above architectural hierarchies should inform any interpretive decisions. Since visitors, including among them friends and extended family, constantly changed the mix of household occupants, the Room Use Study team has not recommended one static arrangement for the second floor. As outlined in Chapter Five, the interpretive period encompasses two distinct subdivisions — 1780-1784 and 1784-1788.
Briefly, during the 1780 to 1784 period Mason was newly remarried to Sarah Brent. From then until 1783 all but one of his daughters was still living at Gunston and presumably so was Mrs. Newman, their tutoress. Until 1781 David Constable, the last of the Mason tutors, was also in residence. Eventually, John and Thomas went to school away from Gunston Hall, but probably not until the end of the Revolution. The older boys were coming and going, in part because of the war and, in the case of George Mason, Jr., because he was in France for his health and on business.
The second sub-period, 1784 to 1788, was a crucial time for Mason politically. It was also an interval when three generations lived in the house. In 1784 three of the Mason children were married — Mary, George, Jr., and Thomson. While Mary went to live with her new husband, the eldest son, George, Jr., and third son, Thomson, both brought their brides to live with their father and stepmother while they were building their own houses. By 1788, the couples each had two children. Although George Mason's second son William had inherited his grandparent Eilbeck's property in Maryland, a careful reading of family correspondence shows that he was still living at Gunston until the end of his father's life. John and Thomas, on the other hand, would have been home infrequently as they were away at school or later on, in John's case, apprenticed to learn the mercantile trade. Additionally, Mason's oldest daughter Nancy and his youngest daughter Betsy were still at home.
Of necessity, the room exhibits will need to reflect the different family make-up of each period. The Room Use Study team has established general guidelines for the second floor for each of these time segments. The changing room arrangements also will need to mirror new scholarship on sleeping habits and chamber usage in the 18th century. Aside from providing space for sleeping, in Virginia houses chambers doubled as dressing rooms, storage facilities, and sitting rooms.(33) As the work of material culture scholar Karin Calvert has shown, the interpretation of the second floor requires new perspectives devoid of the attachment to 20th-century preconceptions about sleeping arrangements and privacy.
What follows is a brief overview of trends and considerations for the interpretation of the second floor. It is by no means complete. In search of the bigger picture, it ignores smaller, but pertinent, themes like sleeping in frigid rooms, dismantling and scalding beds to get rid of bugs, moving a bedstead into the center of a room for better air circulation in warm weather, the overturning of chamber pots, and a myriad of other future interpretive possibilities.(34) As the staff establishes different room arrangements to suit the interpretive period, special events, and specific interpretive objectives, they will need to look at the details of Mason's family life at a particular point in time as well as general trends in the use of the second floor spaces.
It is important not to forget the Upper Passage in the interpretation of the second floor. This corridor permitted control over the access to all of the second floor rooms as well as providing a general circulation space.(35) This Upper Passage was probably used as a sitting area, particularly in the warmer months. The windows at either end of the Passage provide good light for activities such as writing, reading, and sewing. In all likelihood, the corridor included some sort of storage furniture, probably trunks or six-board chests. Additionally, this space would have offered children a place to play, especially in bad weather.(36) At night, it may have been utilized as an extra sleeping space. One or more slaves or servants may have slept in the Passage on a palette kept rolled up during the day. In this way, at least one domestic slave would have been available should he or she be needed by the family. Also, in times of family illness, one or more slaves may have slept in the Passage or one of the rooms while helping to nurse the invalid. The question of whether at least some of the household slaves commonly slept in the bed chambers is worthy of more research. There is some suggestion that this is the case, but not all scholars agree. Slaves caring for children did sometimes sleep in the house with their charges. The slaves of guests staying the night may have slept in the rooms of their masters or mistresses. This practice is suggested by a March 10, 1775 quote from tutor John Harrower talking about a visit by Mrs. Priscilla Dawson and her daughter. "This Night the young Ladys Mama died her[e] and none knew it until the morning notwithstanding her Daughter and a Niger waiting maid was in the room all night."(37) Although it is not clear whether the waiting maid belonged to the Dawsons or Harrower's master, the former seems most likely. Other period references indicate that young slaves sometimes slept in the rooms or beds of family members, but was this the norm? Also, did this custom continue once a slave grew to adulthood?
The second floor chambers at Gunston offer the opportunity of presenting a more accurate picture of 18th-century sleeping habits. As Calvert has determined, most individual family members, especially children, did not have their own rooms. Calvert postulates that there was no "my" chamber until well into the 19th century. Instead, 18th-century sleeping arrangements addressed what was happening in the family and the house. People moved from room to room to suit the current situation. Individuals were unaccustomed to sleeping alone; indeed, it was neither expected nor desired. Sharing beds and sharing rooms were common practices, ones that did not depend on age.(38) In her diary of 1797, Virginian Frances Baylor Hill records being kept awake while sharing a chamber with Hetty Row, a baby in the process of being weaned, and Thomas, presumably a second child also occupying the room.(39) On a happier note, Lucinda Lee's 1787 journal chronicles numerous examples of sharing rooms including the night of November 10th when "Nancy (her cousin) sleeps up stairs to-night with her Sister Pinkard (probably Nancy's half sister). Milly (a friend), Miss Leland (a visitor Lucinda had just met), and myself have the nurcery to ourselves. We want Nancy very much, but she is obliged to sleep up stairs. I had forgot to tell you the second night at Blenheim, Milly, Nancy, and I had a room to ourselves." This is but one of many entries in her journal which depict the ever changing sleeping arrangements in an 18th-century upper class house. At one point, after enjoying a riotous evening of hilarity and feasting in bed, Lucinda mentions that at Bushfield her cousin Molly and she slept “. . . in the old Lady's room too, and she sat laughing fit to kill herself at us.”(40)
Children were viewed as “lower” beings within an 18th-century household. Not only did they not have their own chambers, but they frequently slept with a slave, servant, employee, or apprentice, all other types of “lower” class citizens in period homes. Eighteenth-century child rearing theories did not encourage children to be on their own, rather they presumed that children required an adult role model to encourage genteel behavior. An entry in Fithian's journal suggests that sleeping in the “Nursery” at Nomini Hall were several Carter daughters as well as Sukey, “a young likely Negro Girl maid to Mrs. Carters youngest son,” and “Miss Sally the House-Keeper.”(41) If you were unmarried, you were still a “child” in your parents' house no matter how old you were.(42) For many years the Mason girls who remained at home probably shared a room with Mrs. Newman, the Masons' “tutoress,” and, if she departed when they grew older, probably with each other. However, like Lucinda Lee and Frances Baylor Hill, the Mason girls would have moved their sleeping quarters to suit the visitors and the household arrangements of the moment.
Once George, Jr. (V) and Thomson married and brought their brides to live at Gunston, each of the couples probably had a bed chamber they occupied together most of the time. However, even habitual sleeping arrangements were easily overturned by the arrival of guests. As Lucinda Lees's journal aptly demonstrates, often a family member would share a room with guests of the same sex.(43) As visiting was a common occurrence in gentry homes and as guests often arrived unexpectedly or were forced to spend the night to avoid inclement weather, sleeping arrangements were frequently in flux. On February 1, 1797, Frances Baylor Hill notes that eleven guests come to call and eight of them “staid all night.”(44)
Given all of these factors, most family members, especially children, did not have a particular room in which they always slept with all of their belongings. Furthermore, in the 18th century, chambers were not decorated with any gender biases. In inventories and diaries one does see rooms which are designated by people's names. They are few and far between, however. As mentioned previously, the mistress of the household was most likely to have her own space. Although other family members sometimes did have rooms which bore their names, Calvert believes this may indicate the person who used the room most frequently. As age conferred respect and privilege, it may be that, in some gentry houses, older members of the household had a chamber in which they normally slept. The great majority of chambers listed in inventories have no special modifying words; however, if they are present, they usually denote color, like the Blue Chamber, or location, like the Chamber Over the Parlor.(45)
Tutor Fithian records in his journal that four of the Carter boys slept out in the schoolhouse with him, although each of the five had a bed to himself.(46) As tutor, he would have served as a surrogate parent who was expected to guide and discipline his charges.(47) This practice does raise the question of Mason's arrangements with his tutors. Did the tutor sleep above the schoolhouse? If so, did one or more of Mason's sons sleep there as well? Could the tutor have slept in the main house in a room with several of the boys? As the last tutor left in 1781, this does not much affect the interpretive period, but it does raise a question as to what use the schoolhouse was put after that date.
Infants frequently slept in their mothers' room so they could be nursed and tended in the night. In a gentry house, a nurse (either a slave or a paid servant) might have shared the room with mother and child as well. The birth of Mason's grandchildren probably meant a reshuffling of rooms as the husband went to sleep elsewhere for the period of lying-in or even longer. Toddlers and very young children may have slept with a nurse and/or older siblings in a separate room, sometimes called a nursery. According to Calvert, the title “nurse” did not connote any special training, but merely a woman assigned to take care of the children.(48) Additionally, women switched rooms to tend the sick. Frances Baylor Hill writes about having a “housefull of sick people” and setting “up with sick children all night.”(49)
Since the 18th century, Americans have adopted very different sleeping traditions, ones based on the idea of privacy as a right, bedroom decor linked to gender, a preference for children
having their own rooms, and infants no longer sleeping with their mothers.(50) These deviations offer excellent interpretive opportunities for the site.
One caveat, though: the anomalously large number of bed chambers in Gunston Hall do affect the room furnishings in several ways. In large elite houses with fewer bed chambers, each second floor room would have been relatively bigger than those at Gunston Hall. They would have accommodated more occupants and more furnishings. The chamber in which the Carter daughters slept at Nomini Hall, a house which apparently had four chambers, is but one example. Additionally, the second floor rooms at Gunston are characterized by the low raking ceilings and dormer windows typical of one and a half story houses. These features, too, would have limited the amounts and types of chamber furnishings. Certainly, it would have influenced the number and placement of high post bedsteads and even the number of beds per room. In one sense, the Mason family probably experienced more privacy in that there were fewer people sleeping in a each second floor chamber, but, in all likelihood, they were at least as crowded as the occupants of bed chambers in houses with fewer but larger upstairs rooms. While goodly numbers of chairs were part of the furnishings of most bed chambers, the smallish spaces in Mason's second floor rooms would have reduced the average number. Trunks and chests may have doubled for seating furniture in the smallest chambers.
A more accurately furnished second floor offers the site a sterling opportunity to correct many common misconceptions about 18th-century bed chambers and sleeping habits and to help visitors understand more about the general mindset of the period. It also will allow the site to
focus on private family moments of great emotion and importance, such as births, deaths, and illnesses and daily customs that took place in the increasing number of domestic spaces in an 18th-century upper class home.
In attempting to re-examine George Mason's house without preconceptions as to use, the Room Use Study team, with the help of many other scholars and members of the Gunston Hall staff, has come to some new understandings about George Mason and Gunston Hall. It is no surprise that not all the questions have been answered. However, in wrestling with the dilemmas, a new baseline for continuing inquiry has been established.
Several larger truths also have come to the fore. George Mason lived a life of immense privilege. While this seems obvious, it is often overlooked in historic site interpretation, since so few houses except those of the rich and famous survive from the 18th century. George Mason and his family were members of the elite echelons of society. But Mason bought his lifestyle through the labors of others, including a large number of slaves. Gunston Hall was not simply George Mason and his family, but an entire plantation community.
The Study sought to rely on exacting scholarship. The Room Use Study team developed the inventory database to enable repeated and rapid queries from a large body of evidence. By using the five Mason/Eilbeck inventories as a yardstick against which to measure the results of data searches in the entire group of Virginia and Maryland inventories, the team kept in touch with family taste.
Although the site has learned much through this Study, there is still a future of learning ahead for Gunston Hall. As new scholarship and technology evolve, there will be fresh opportunities to expand upon this work. Archaeology alone offers new touchstones to the reality of George Mason's taste and life on his plantation. Understanding the past is like trying to see through layers of gauze. Glimpses of the past are offered, but much is hidden. The future offers the opportunity to implement all that has been learned through this Study.
The future also promises a continued quest for additional knowledge of the man and his house, both of which beg for more documentation for the Study also reveals how much the form and furnishing of any house relies on personal taste. Absent direct documentation from the house, manuscripts, family objects, and the like, one can look to current scholarship. But, most scholarship examines general trends. It pulls broader patterns from many details. It does not entirely account for deviations in the “norms” it proposes, for those who are in the forefront from those who lag behind general trends. So continuing to search for additional documentation brings with it the hope of finding out what Mason actually did, not what scholarship supposes he did.
1. "Recollections of John Mason" transcribed by Terry Dunn and Estella Bryans-Munson, Gunston Hall Plantation Library and Archives, 1989; revised, 1999, 33.
2. Carl R. Lounsbury, An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape (New York, University of Oxford Press, !994), 69.
3. Karin Calvert, "Sleeping Around: Sleeping Arrangements in the 18th Century," (paper presented Gunston Hall Decorative Arts Seminar, 18 November 1994); Conversation with Karin Calvert,17 November 1994.
4. "Recollections," 33, 40.
5. "Recollections," 33-34.
6. "Recollections," 34.
7. Terry K. Dunn, "The More Precious Stores for the Table" (unpublished paper: George Mason University, 1989), Gunston Hall Plantation Library and Archives, 1-12.
8. "Recollections," 16.
9. Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2: 618.
10. Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home: The American Family 1750 -1870 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990), 122, 126-127; Calvert, "Sleeping Around;" Calvert, Conversation, November 17, 1994.
11. "Recollections," 45.
12. Floorplans for several of the houses discussed may be found in Mark R. Wenger, "The Central Passage in Virginia: Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Living Space," Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, 2, ed., Camille Wells (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1986).
13. Papers of George Mason, 3:1206.
14. "Archaeology/Investigation/Construction: Cellar - Wine Vault, 1975," Inactive Administrative Files, Gunston Hall Plantation Library and Archives.
15. "Recollections," 12-13.
16. "Recollections," 12.
17. "Recollections," 15. The full quote may be found in the previous chapter under Interpretive Recommendations for the Parlor and Dining Room.
18. "Recollections," 13.
19. Lounsbury, Glossary, 361.
20. "Recollections," 49.
21. Mark R. Wenger, "The Dining Room in Early Virginia," Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, 3, ed., Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman, (1989), 155; Kevin Sweeney, "High Style Vernacular: Lifestyles of the Colonial Elite," in eds., Cary Carson, et al., Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1994), 23-24.
22. Garrett, At Home, 39, 61.
23. Garrett, At Home, 62.
24. Garrett, At Home, 65.
25. Graham Hood, The Governor's Palace in Williamsburg: A Cultural Study (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991), 156-161; Betty C. Leviner and Jan K. Gilliam, Furnishing Williamsburg's Historic Buildings (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991), 28-29.
26. "Recollections", 12.
27. "Recollections," 42.
28. Bed chamber analysis using the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database, September 1998; Edward Chappell, "Rosewell's Architecture Reevaluated," in Discovering Rosewell: An Historical, Architectural and Archaeological Overview ( Gloucester, VA: The Rosewell Foundation, 1994), 14.
29. Wenger, "Passage," 146-147; Dell Upton, "Early Vernacular Architecture in Southeastern Virginia" (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1979), 285.
30. Edward A. Chappell, "Housing a Nation: The Transformation of Living Standards in Early America," Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1994), 168.
31. Chappell, "Housing a Nation," 218-219.
32. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (Dublin, 1775), vol. 2, "lumber."
33. Leviner and Gilliam, 41, 44.
34. Sarah Fouace Nourse, Diary, 1781-1783, transcr. Lou Powers, typescript (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1983), 27 (12 March 1782), 41 (10 September 1782) [Nourse & Morris Family Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, #3490-b]; Landon Carter, The Diary of Landon Carter of Sabine Hall 1752-1778, ed., Jack Greene (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1965), 1080; Betty Bright Low and Jacqueline Kinsley, Sophie du Pont: A Young Lady in America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), 50.
35. Upton, "Early Vernacular Architecture," 285.
36. Garrett, At Home, 38.
37. Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 134. Many primary sources and a number of secondary sources were read for more information on slaves sleeping in chambers or passages. The secondary sources included Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1986) and Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1998). However, very little came to light. The subject merits a continued search for additional material.
38. Calvert, Lecture: "Sleeping Around;" Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994.
39. "The Diary of Frances Baylor Hill, of Hillsborough, King and Queen County, Virginia, (1797), ed. William K. Bottorff and Roy C. Flannagan, typescript, [Ohio University, n.d.], 8.
40. Lucinda Lee, Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia (Stratford, Virginia: Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, 1976), 52, 44-45.
41. Fithian, 86, 184-185.
42. Karin Calvert, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), 37, 68-69; Calvert, Lecture: “Sleeping Around;” Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994.
43. Calvert, Lecture: “Sleeping Around;” Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994.
44. Frances Baylor Hill, Diary, 12.
45. Calvert, Lecture: “Sleeping Around;” Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994; Leviner and Gilliam, 34.
46. Fithian, 81.
47. Daniel Blake Smith, Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 108-109.
48. Calvert, Children in the House, 67; Calvert, Lecture: “Sleeping Around;” Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994.
49. Frances Baylor Hill, Diary, 44.
50. Calvert, Lecture: “Sleeping Around;” Conversation with Karin Calvert, 17 November 1994.