Topic: Domestic life

What I learned from keeping an eighteenth-century correspondence in the twenty-first century

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
December 22, 2016

I understand that to many of our readers, the idea of writing handwritten letters to a friend is not so much a fun challenge as it is a (very recently) outmoded form of communication. But as someone who grew up in the computer age and spends most of her work hours reading and transcribing Martha Washington’s letters, I was inspired to write some of my own. I also hoped keeping a correspondence would provide me with a glimpse into the culture and practicalities of letter writing in the eighteenth century.

And so, I decided to write a letter every week for about a month to my friend Rachel, hoping this would help me reach a deeper affinity with Martha Washington and her correspondents.

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Lettuce Enjoy the Lettis Tart

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
September 27, 2016

During my search for documents and letters relating to Martha Washington, I’ve stumbled upon numerous interesting articles. One of the most attention-grabbing pieces was a short recipe for “lettis tart.” The article was published in 1906, under the “Domestic Science in Household” column in the Omaha World Herald. The recipe itself came from Martha’s cookbook, which safely resides at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

“To Make a Lettis Tart,” Omaha World Herald, June 24, 1906, 8, Link to source.

“To Make a Lettis Tart,” Omaha World Herald, June 24, 1906, 8, Link to source. Image courtesy of Newsbank.

To begin, I had to wonder – what exactly is “lettis”? I assumed it simply was “lettuce” misspelled, but when I googled “lettis” to confirm my hunch, I found a blog post about a modern attempt at the recipe. I was not surprised to find that it was written by a former intern at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.1 The post broke the recipe down to an understandable guide for a modern cook—a significant improvement from the short instruction in the 1906 article. It also identified “lettis” as iceberg lettuce. Though a little research suggests that iceberg didn’t exist in Martha’s time, the post was all I had to go on, and by this time  curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I added the ingredients to my grocery list. I was excited to try the recipe, but my enthusiasm quickly wavered when I remembered an important truth.

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“Went to Church at Alexandria”: George Washington and Christ Church

Christ Church exteriorBy Neal Millikan, Assistant Editor
March 31, 2016

As the Washington Papers editor headquartered at Mount Vernon, I live and work in the community where George Washington spent his happiest times as an adult. Along with physically being on Washington’s estate during the week, I also serve as a docent at Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria on some weekends.1 Originally part of the Church of England (the Anglican Church), today Christ Church is part of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (formed after the American Revolution).

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To Make a Great Cake

From Wikimedia Commons

Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons. Link to source.

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
November 24, 2015

Martha Washington’s “Great Cake” recipe is a sweet document, written in a careful hand by her granddaughter on a piece of folded scrap paper. Its instructions are incredible to the 21st century eye. It asks for forty eggs, four pounds each of sugar and butter, five pounds of fruit and flour, a pint of wine, an ounce of nutmeg and mace, and plenty of French brandy.

I knew that I had to try and make it.
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Three-Dimensional Insights at George Washington’s Boyhood Home


The historical marker for Ferry’s Farm

By William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
November 20, 2015

Having shepherded “George Washington, Day-By-Day, 22 February 1732-14 December 1799” into existence as a website featuring information on Washington’s daily whereabouts and activities, and eager to learn more about his early life when documentary evidence is scant at best, I very much looked forward to visiting Washington’s childhood home bordering the Rappahannock River directly across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. This visit finally occurred on Monday, November 9, as a prelude to my attendance at a lecture on James Monroe as a military commander that evening (the immediate reason for my trip from Charlottesville). Continue reading

George Washington on Love and Marriage

By Christine S. Patrick

History classes have given Americans some familiarity with Washington the Revolutionary War general and Washington the first president of the United States, but most people have little knowledge about the more personal aspects of his life. While Washington was not exactly the “cool dude” in the new golden dollar coin ads on television and in the newspapers, neither was he the somewhat grumpy-appearing man on the dollar bill. Washington was a loving husband, a doting father and grandfather to his wife’s children and grandchildren, and a patriarchal benefactor to nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.

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Indian Corn: Growing Pains

By Mary Wigge
April 14, 2015

Mary Wigge is a Research Editor at the Papers of George Washington.  

Over the centuries, corn has evolved into an important agricultural commodity in the United States. From food production to making ethanol, corn plays a featured role in multiple aspects of today’s world. For Washington, however, corn, specifically Indian corn, became emblematic of the wasteful practices of early American farmers.

Washington had a keen interest in the state of his farms, especially upon his return to Mount Vernon in 1784 following the Revolutionary War. Beginning as a tobacco planter, Washington soon realized that growing solely one crop exhausted the fertility of his soil. In a letter to Arthur Young, an English agriculturalist, dated 1 November 1787, Washington described the general practice of farming in America:

The cultivation of Tobacco has been almost the sole object with men of landed property, and consequently a regular course of Crops have never been in view. The general custom has been, first to raise a Crop of Indian Corn (maize), which, according to the mode of cultivation, is a good preparation for wheat; then a crop of wheat, after which the ground is respited (except from weeds, & every trash that can contribute to its foulness) for about eighteen months; and so on, alternately, with out any dressing; till the land is exhausted; when it is turned out without being sown with grass seeds, or any method taken to restore it; and another piece is ruined in the same manner.

This three-crop rotation, on a naturally thin topsoil and clay foundation, proved harmful to the state of his fields. Tobacco had damaging effects on the soil, and corn’s natural absorption and depletion of nitrogen from the soil also placed a great strain on it. To restore the soil nutrients and improve his crop yields, Washington began experimenting and relying on the guidance and insight of others, including Young and other British agricultural reformers, as well as Thomas Jefferson.tri color corn

In his 28 June 1793 letter to Washington, Jefferson states that “good husbandry with us consists in abandoning Indian corn, & tobacco, tending small grain, some red clover & endeavoring to have, while the lands are at rest, a spontaneous cover of white clover.” Washington’s letter to Alexander Spotswood, 13 Feb. 1788, notes how his “Experience has proved that every soil will sink under the growth of [Indian corn]; whether from the luxuriancy and exhausting quality of it, or the manner of tillage”; he meant to “introduce other plants” and rely on variation so “that not one sort, more than another, may have the advantage of Soil”. In the same letter, and in his letter to George William Fairfax from 30 June 1785, Washington emphasized that he decreased the growth of tobacco and intended “to raise as little Indian corn as may be” in order to find a more sustainable crop. Washington believed that the “course of Husbandry in this Country, & more especially in this State, is not only exceedingly unprofitable, but so destructive to our Lands, that it is my earnest wish to adopt a better” (30 June 1785). His crop variation and change in planting location and method, as seen in his 4 October 1795 letter to Jefferson and his lease terms for Mount Vernon farm properties, highlighted his overall intent to find more suitable crops to the soil and climate.

Fertilizer was also necessary for re-nourishment of the soil, especially to feed corn’s high demand for nitrogen. Washington experimented with different forms, primarily manure, which he compared to gold in his 30 June 1785 letter to Fairfax. Young also noted the importance of manure, stating that Washington’s “expression concerning manure being the <f>irst transmutation towards gold, is good, and shews that you may be as great a farmer as a general” (7 January 1786). Washington also turned to John Spurrier’s 1793 publication of The Practical Farmer for ideas on the rotation of crops and the best uses of manure and other matter.

By the end of his life, Washington was practicing a seven-year crop rotation and continuing his experimentation, principally with buckwheat, potatoes, and clover. Although wheat became his principal crop, he never completely stopped growing Indian corn because he thought it was better quality food for his enslaved workers, useful feed for his livestock, and because he utilized it himself (see GW to Spotswood, 13 Feb. 1788). Washington likely used the Indian corn variety known as Virginia Gourdseed (see Diary entry 12 May 1760). This variety was a blend between dent corn and flint corn, producing a starchy but softer white kernel. Several letters and documents, including an observation from his granddaughter, Nelly Custis, reveal Washington’s enjoyment of hoecakes, eating “three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey” (see Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 23 December 1823 [typescript, ViMtvL]).

As a farmer, Washington wished to find the most effective, productive crops that would provide high yields and maintain soil sustenance. From a larger perspective, Washington wanted to find alternative and better modes of agriculture that would benefit farmers in Virginia and the country overall. Considering his troubles with Indian corn, it’s curious to wonder how Washington would have responded to the fate and transformation of this particular crop over time.


George Washington’s Advice to his Grandson

By Neal Millikan
March 26, 2015

Neal is an Assistant Editor for The Papers of George Washington. She is currently editing volumes for the Presidential Series.

George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857), the youngest child of John Parke and Eleanor Calvert Custis, spent most of his youth with his grandparents George and Martha Washington and in the fall of 1796 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Washington, as he was called by his relatives, was not a particularly diligent student and the family worried that he might not properly apply himself to his studies. While Washington Custis’s letters to his grandfather during his first months away at school have not survived, George Washington’s letters to his grandson provide insight into his role as father figure to the young man. Both the president and the grandson lost their fathers at an early age: George Washington at eleven, and George Washington Parke Custis at only six months. By writing these letters of advice the father of our country was imparting wisdom similar to what he might have received from his own parent.

George Washington, who never attended college, explained to his grandson the importance of making the most of his education. He encouraged Custis to show obedience to his professors and the president of the college and to devote his time to reading serious, not trivial works: “Light reading (by this, I mean books of little importance) may amuse for the moment, but leaves nothing solid behind.” According to his grandfather, the purpose of Custis’s schooling was to “see you enter upon the grand theatre of life, with the advantages of a finished education, a highly cultivated mind; and a proper sense of your duties to God & Man.”[1] George Washington knew the hours Washington Custis spent studying “may feel irksome at first,” but the president advised him that “the advantages resulting from”[2] his education would outweigh the irritations. Washington warned his grandson to avoid acquiring habits that would lead to “idleness and vice,” but equally instructed him not to “deprive yourself in the intervals of study, of any recreation … which reason approves.”[3]

As an adult George Washington had many acquaintances but few whom he considered close friends; this fact explains the guidance he gave his grandson about forming ties with his classmates. While he advised Washington Custis to “Endeavor to conciliate the good will of all your fellow-students, rendering them every act of kindness in your power,”[4] he also counselled him to reserve friendship until he knew his fellow students well, and then to “select the most deserving only,” noting that “True friendship is a plant of slow growth.” He cautioned his grandson against becoming friendly with immoral youths who might become “a stumbling block in your way; and act like a Millstone hung to your neck.” However, he also advised Custis not to form “hasty, & unfavourable impressions of any one: let your judgment always balance well, before you decide.” If adequate time had not yet occurred to form an opinion, the grandfather suggested that “it is best to be silent; for there is nothing more certain than that it is, at all times, more easy to make enemies, than friends.”[5]

George Washington, himself a life-long (albeit laconic) diarist, encouraged his grandson to keep a diary while at school to make a record “of the occurrences which happen to you, or within your sphere.” Writing from personal experience, Washington noted that while the practice may appear “Trifling” at the time, “by carefully preserving” his thoughts Custis would gain more “satisfaction” in returning to these diaries at a future date “than what you may conceive at present.” The grandfather also recommended entering all his expenses into an account book, which would “initiate you into a habit, from which considerable advantages would result. Where no account of this sort is kept–there can be no investigation; no correction of errors; no discovery from a recurrence thereto, wherein too much, or too little has been appropriated to particular uses. From an early attention to these matters, important & lasting benefits may follow.”[6] Washington further instructed Custis to promptly acknowledge receiving letters “to remove doubts of their miscarriage”[7] by the sender, and implored him to “Never let an indigent person ask, without receiving something”[8] if he had the means.

Writing on 27 February 1797, shortly before he left the presidency, George Washington was gratified to hear that Washington Custis seemed to enjoy his studies and hoped his grandson would “reward my cares & anxieties to see you a polished Scholar, & a useful member of society, by persevering with assiduity & steadiness in the course you are now in.”[9] Custis, however, only attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton until October; he subsequently matriculated at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, but left in September 1798 without graduating.

[1]19 December 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[2] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[3] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[4] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[5] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[6] 11 January 1797, ViMtvL.

[7] 28 November 1796, ViHi: Custis Papers.

[8] 15 November 1796, George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, New York, 1860, 73-75.

[9] ViHi: Custis Papers.

Holiday Cooking with Washington

By Caitlin Conley
December 5, 2014

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

What’s the best thing about the holidays? The food, of course! In our 1999 inaugural newsletter, we celebrated holiday food by talking about one of George’s favorites: the Yorkshire Christmas pie.

Martha would have seen the recipe for the pie in her cookbook: Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery. It was published originally in England in 1747 and went through several editions, being one of the most popular cookbooks in both England and America. Take a look at Martha’s edition, which dates from the early 1770’s:


“Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery, made plain and easy: which far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published,” in Martha Washington, Item #67, (accessed December 4, 2014).


And here’s the recipe that she would have used–do you think you could make this dish?

“To Make a Yorkshire Christmas Pie”

“FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone  turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the curst, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours.”

And we all think that a turducken is a lot of protein! The Yorkshire pie was a lot of food even for George. He wrote to his friend David Humphreys on the day after Christmas in 1786 about Humphreys not being able to spend the holiday at Mount Vernon: “Although I lament the effect, I am pleased at the cause which has deprived us of your aid in the attack of Christmas Pyes. We had one yesterday on which all the company (and pretty numerous it was) were hardly able to make an impression” (see the Confederation Series 4:477-81 of the Papers of George Washington).

Happy holidays!