Picking Through George Washington's Trash

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 12 2013 2:00 PM

Picking Through George Washington's Trash

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Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

Here are five things found in a garbage pile excavated at George Washington’s plantation home in Virginia between 1990 and 1994. The Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association has put a collection of these finds online, in a searchable database, along with item descriptions. Over 300,000 artifacts have been unearthed in all.

Workers at Mt. Vernon found the midden (a word archaeologists use to describe a pile of waste produced by the normal activities of daily life, including cooking and eating) in 1948 when they dug a hole to plant a tree. Located in a spot near the former location of the Washingtons’ kitchen, the midden contained materials dating from 1735 through 1990. (Washington owned Mt. Vernon between 1761 and his death in 1799.)

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Browsing the website is an oddly hypnotic experience. The best way to do so is to visit the “objects” page and hit “refresh.” The trash—fragments of pots, buttons, pieces of ladies’ fans, nails, thimbles, animal bones, marbles—flashes by in a neatly arranged digital heap.

Clicking on a particular piece yields a surprisingly deep history about the way that the Washingtons lived.  A cherry pit: Washington “grew several cherry varieties in his fruit garden” before the Revolution. A bit of broken wig curler: Colonial men and women would wrap these in wet paper and then wind wig hair around them, before setting the whole wig into an oven to dry. Parts of a pig skull: Colonial elites used to eat pig heads “boiled, hashed, or roasted.”

The most interesting objects are those that, like the cowrie shell below, bear some witness to the presence of enslaved laborers. This particular species of cowrie was native to Africa, and probably came to Mt. Vernon along with a newly purchased person.

Cowrie shell
A "Gold Ring" cowrie shell, with natural (rather than human-made) hole. Possibly used as currency or decoration by a recently-arrived African. More information here.

Image courtesy of Mt. Vernon Preservation.

Silver Leaf
A silver decorative leaf, perhaps once attached to a piece of furniture or a sword scabbard. More information here.

Image courtesy of Mt. Vernon Preservation.

Shot
An array of shot and gunflints, used by the Washington household and possibly by enslaved laborers to shoot game around the plantation. More information here.

Image courtesy of Mt. Vernon Preservation.

Trunk plate
A copper alloy plate once affixed to the lid of a trunk to identify its owner, engraved with the words "Gen: Washington." More information here.

Image courtesy of Mt. Vernon Preservation.

Toothbrush handle
A bone handle for a 19th-century toothbrush, which has lost all of its horsetail-hair bristles. More information here.

Image courtesy of Mt. Vernon Preservation.

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