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The desire and need to measure everything from money to temperature was intertwined though out the lives of the eighteenth-century Chesapeake gentry. Some of these measurements were practical in nature. They focused on monetary value in an economy which honored a variety of coinage or on the boundaries of land purchases in a society which equated property ownership not only with wealth but also political power. Other types of instruments were used to offer greater control of or understanding of one's environment by allowing one to see at distances which exceeded that possible with the naked eye or to measure the fluctuations in climate.(1)



Tools for measuring length were an important component in the kit of necessary tools belonging to woodworkers of all types and to those interested in recording architecture and landscape features on paper. They allowed for precision in assembling a variety of objects from wagon beds to tables and chairs and for scale drawings of everything from buildings to maps. Such tools often included markings to aid in mathematical and lumber calculations.(2) It seems likely that ownership of these objects was more wide spread than the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database would show. In part, this is due to the fact that the presence of tools as a category was indicated only with a yes/no entry in the main data report. Only those tools which were tallied among the contents of drawers or other household storage areas would have found their way into the individually tallied objects in the database. The fact that contents of drawers, etc., were consistently overlooked or listed as “sundry” by period inventory takers simply compounds the statistical anomaly.

Rules or rulers occur in 10% of Rural Elite Inventories (REI). Both the average and median is 2.

Among the family inventories, only ELBCK65 includes this form, listing two carpenters rules. The form is among the tools purchased by George Mason from the Glassford store in Piscataway, Maryland in 1767. Mason bought “2 carpenters 2 foot rules” valued at 8.(3)


Rules: 2 - Carpenter's Rules
Origin, Date, Style,and Material: Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research

Scales and Weights

According to Colonial Williamsburg historian Jay Gaynor, “weighing devices were among the most common implements owned by colonial Virginians.”(4) This was due, in large part, to the fact that products ranging from spices to thread were most often sold by weight. Manufactured goods were often valued by weight and agricultural products were sold using weight as the primary measurement. Many types of household stores from thread to paint to tea were sold by weight. In addition, within gentry households the preparation of both food stuffs and medicines might have required the weighing of ingredients.

Scales and weights were among those items ordered by individuals and imported by regional Merchants. In 1752, Dr. Charles Carroll ordered “A Beam & a pair of Scales Copper or Brass, with Chains to weigh Sugar or other Grocery, viz--Ten pounds on each scale, the Beam to be good & well steeled in the Ballance parts.(5) Wallace, Davidson & Johnson ordered 3 pair of scales and weights large enough to hold 2 M of tea.(6) The Alexandria firm of William Hartshorne and Company included what were probably intended as replacement weights, described as “sets of small brass weights, from 4 lb down” among the extensive list of goods “lately imported” included in their August 1784 advertisement.(7)

Scales and weights (including physic scales, but not money scales which were tabulated separately) occur in 60% of REI. The average is 1.7 and the median is 1. Like other small objects which could have been tucked into drawers, it is quite probable that scales and weights were under counted by inventory takers.

All five of the family inventories have scales of this type. Most of the family inventory references are described in terms of size--large or small, or by material--brass or tin, rather than by usage; however, MASON86 includes a pair of “physic scales” for weighing medicines. The family average is 1.6 and the median is 2.


Scales and weights: 1 pair
Origin, Date, Style, and Material: Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research

Money Scales and Weights

Like other types of valuable commodities in eighteenth-century life, money, i.e., coinage, was weighted to ascertain value. Gaynor describes the monetary situation as a “ragtag lot of silver and gold coins” circulating in colonial Virginia.(8) Not only were these coins from a variety of different nations, but they were likely to be underweight for the amount of gold and silver that they were supposed to contain. The way to guard against this type of short fall was to weigh them with money scales, a small type of beam and balance scale which came with special weights. Merchants imported these important articles for resale to their customers. Wallace, Davidson & Johnson ordered six sets in 1771.(9) Alexandria merchants M'Crea and Mease listed “money-scales with weights” among the goods they advertised in 1785.(10)

Money scales were found in 48% of REI with an average of 1.5 and a median of 1. These small speciality scales, like similar weighing devices for other types of commodities were probably overlooked by inventory takers.

Among the family inventories, only two (40%), ELBCK65 and MASON63 specifically indicate money scales. However, since there are two pairs each of scales undesignated as to type in both MASON97 and MASON00, it seems likely that one or both also owned this form.


Money Scales and Weights: 1 pair
Origin, Date, Style, and Material: Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research


Spy Glass

Telescopes or “spy glasses” were among the “scientific” instruments owned by members of Elite households which had both intellectual and practical applications. Philip Fithian, tutor in Robert Carter's family in the early 1770s, recorded the following conversation:

. . . the day being smoky introduced, at Coffee, a conversation on Philosophy, on Eclipses; the manner of viewing them; Thence to Telescopes, & the information which they afforded us of the Solar System; Whether the planets be actually inhabited &c.(11)

It is likely, however, that most people who owned these devices for improving one's ability to see distant objects were using them for more mundane purposes. Merchants and planters with substantial sums invested in shipping and commerce were concerned with being able to determine the identity of vessels sailing up rivers to planation wharfs or into town harbors. The ability to look closely at distant land features must also have been a boon to both land owners and surveyors riding across the Chesapeake area's sometimes rugged terrain. Such instruments also had military applications for observing troop movements. Jefferson is said to have used his to watch British troops in Charlottesville(12) and this usage may also help to explain the extraordinary fifteen examples which occur in George Washington's 1799 inventory.

Virginian Henry Fitzhugh, in a 1770 order, specified that he be sent “A good Spie glass to cost abt. 3 or 4 guineas with two sights one for fair weather & the other for hazy.”(13) Such goods were also among the goods occasionally offered by local merchants. In 1784, Samuel M'Pherson, in an Alexandria store offered “achromatic telescopes” and “4 glass ditto.”(14)

Spy glasses occur in 46% of REI. The average is 1.6 and the median is 1. Only WSHGTN99 owned more than one example.

Two (40%) of the family inventories include this form -- MASON86 and MASON00. Both owned a single example.


Spy Glass: 1
Origin, Date, Style, and Material: Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research



The movement to record the daily temperature was a scientific endeavor pursued by numerous elite Virginia men. Part of the exercise was intellectual curiosity, but there may have also been a belief that a complete recording of meteorological information might well lead to advances in fighting diseases, guidance in crop planting, and an increased understanding of whether or not mankind's activities affected the environment.(15) Thomas Jefferson was an ardent proponent of the value of studying weather phenomena. His papers record the purchase of approximately twenty different thermometers during his lifetime. Beginning in 1776, he recorded the daily temperature twice a day, together with other types of weather related information, for much of the rest of his life. He apparently introduced others, including James Madison to the practice.(16) The Jones Family Papers recorded the purchase, in 1770, of “a Theomometer with Farenheits Scale in a Mahogany box” which cost 1.11.6.(17)

It is not clear just how widespread such interest was among the Chesapeake gentry; however, only one household inventory (2%) in REI records the presence of a thermometer.

Among the family inventories, only MASON97 owns this instrument; however, his father's ownership of such an instrument is implied in a letter to son John in 1791 in which he wrote, “ . . . The Mercury is now at 40 Degrees in Farenheit's Thermomiter. . . .”(18) While the date of this letter puts it outside the selected interpretative period for Gunston Hall, it is highly unlikely that Mason would have acquired an interest in such things so late in his life. It is more likely that he had owned a thermometer for some time prior to the date of his letter.


Thermometer: 1 - Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research
Origin: Britain
Date: 1760-1788
Style and Material: Determined by date


Throughout the eighteenth century, the ownership of land continued to be the foundation for economic and political success. Men with large families put energy and financial resources into acquiring acreage to pass on to their sons.(19) The opening of the frontier in Kentucky and points west for settlement, spurred land acquisition and speculation. In addition, local lands continued to change hands, requiring new or more accurate surveys.(20)

There were professional surveyors, indeed, young George Washington began his career learning and exercising these skills; however, many gentlemen and planters found it beneficial to have the tools and presumably the skills to use them. The same order which records their purchase of a thermometer, shows that the Jones family also acquired “a Circumfirenter with ball & Socket, in a wainscott box, Lock & key” costing 3.10.0 and a “four pole chain, made strong” for 12 -- both essential surveying tools.(21) Such instruments were among the goods imported for resale by regional merchants. Wallace, Davidson & Johnson in their orders of 1771 included “2 cases surveying instruments in the goods he wanted.(22)

Among REI, 22% have some type of surveying instruments. It is difficult to do a full statistical analysis because five of the eleven households contain an entry which is unspecified as to exact type or number, i.e., “A set of surveying instruments.”

Among the family inventories, only one contains instruments of this type. ELBCK65 contains a listing for a pocket compass and “1 old Chain for measuring Land.” It is clear, however, that George Mason, like many of his contemporaries, was involved in the process of surveying lands. A 1754 document in Mason's own hand entitled “Field Notes upon a survey of Dogues Neck . . .” suggests that Mason was involved with the actual survey. In 1766, he purchased a pair of compasses from the Glassford Company. Scottish tutor, David Constable, in February of 1780, apparently ran a survey at Mason's direction.(23) Yet another intriguing clue was the recent archeological discovery of an early brass compass face in the Gunston Hall garden. This object remains a bit of a puzzle, since it was probably made in the 17th century; however, its presence in an 18th-century level excavation suggests that it may have belonged to George Mason.


Compasses: 2 -Specialized Form / Requires Additional Research (SF/RAR)
Origin: Britain
Date: 1766
Style and Material: SF/RAR

Surveying Instruments: multiple --
Origin, Date, Style, and Material: SF/RAR

decorative element

1. See Brooke Hindle, Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (NY: Norton, 1956, rev. 1974); see also Gerard L'E Turner, Scientific Instruments 1500-1900, An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

2. James M. Gaynor and Nancy L. Hagedorn, Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-Century America (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993), 65.

3. Col. George Mason, 5 August 1767, R9, C25, Piscataway Maryland Ledger, 1767, John Glassford & Company Records, 1753-1844, MssD, Library of Congress, (hereafter LC).

4. Jay Gaynor, “Measure for Measure” Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, 10, no. 2 (March 1989): 3.

5. “Invoice of goods for Dr. Charles Carroll . . .” 29 February 1752, Maryland Historical Magazine 24, (September 1929): 273.

6. Order-Braziery, 25 April 1771, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson Order Book 1771-1774, Chancery Papers Exhibits 1773-1776, MSA No. 528-27, Maryland State Archives, 9.

7. Advertisement of William Hartshorne and Company, Virginia Journal & Alexandria Advertiser, 19 August 1784.

8. Gaynor, “Measure for Measuer,” 3.

9. Order-Braziery, 25 April 1771, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, 9.

10. Advertisement of M'Crea and Mease, Va. J. & Alex. Advert., January 1785.

11. Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774, ed., Hunter Dickinson Farish, (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1968), 117.

12. Stein, Susan, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (NY: H.N. Abrams in assoc. with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1993), 352.

13. Order of 9 October 1770, Henry Fitzhugh Letter Book, 1746-1774, “Bedford” Stratford County, Special Collections, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University.

14. Advertisement of Samuel H. M'Pherson, Va. J. & Alex. Advert., 4 November 1784.

15. Robert A. Rutland and William M.E. Rachal, et. al., The Papers of James Madison, 17 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 8:514-515.

16. Stein, Worlds of Thomas Jefferson, 363; Papers of James Madison, 8:514-515.

17. “Bought of Edwd Nairne, London 19 July 1770, Papers of the Jones Family, Northumberland County, Virginia 1749-1810, Roger Jones Family Papers, 1649-1896, MssD, LC, item no. 3704.

18. Letter George Mason to John Mason, 15 December 1791, Rutland, ed., Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, 3 vol. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3.

19. In most cases, daughters were left household furnishings, money, and sometimes slaves.

20. See Beth Mitchell, “Beginning at a white Oak . . .: patents and Northern Neck grants of Fairfax County, Virginia (Fairfax: Available from Fairfax County Administrative Services, 1977), for an excellent discussion of the practices and problems of colonial land survey.

21. A circumferentor was the British term for a surveying compass, see Stein, Worlds of Thomas Jefferson, 360; Bought of Edwd Nairne, 19 June 1770, Vol. 18, Papers of the Jones Family, Northumberland County, Virginia 1749-1810, Roger Jones Family Papers, 1649-1896, MssD., LC, item no. 3704.

22. Order-Cutlery, 26 November 1771, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, 56.

23. The Papers of George Mason, 3: n 699; 25 January 1766, Colchester, Virginia Ledger, 1766, Glassford.

© Gunston Hall Plantation 2002