Browse Exhibits (40 total)

Taverns, Ordinaries, and Inns: The Shaping of Early American Social Life Through Public Spaces


Some taverns were large, extravagant, and considered worthy places to hold balls and art galleries. Others were modest, yet comfortable living spaces in which one could lay their weary head and expect model hospitality and comfort. And still others were called “dens of depravity” in which drunkards engaged in illicit activities and betrayed their religious upbringing through excess and sinful laziness. But a tavern was never just simply a place to drink and make merry.

Firstly, a tavern was, according to Patricia Gibbs of William and Mary in her dissertation, “Taverns in Tidewater Virginia, 1700-1774,” a form of public housing, synonymous with “inns,” “ordinaries,” and “tippling houses.” Taverns were public spaces in which people could gather to socialize, conduct business meetings, or disseminate political news and information. One often had no other options when it came to places to gather with others and socialize. 

Gossip, agricultural prices, political news, and opinions abounded in these social spaces. Taverns were often places where those living more rural lifestyles isolated from others could come to feel a part of their community and the larger world. News about political parties often circulated within taverns. Mailmen passed through taverns and could pass along valuable and casual information while delivering mail. 

Taverns thus were at the political, economic, and social crossroads of early American civilization. They transformed, and were transformed by, American culture. 

[1] Patricia Ann Gibbs, “Taverns in Tidewater Virginia, 1700-1774.” Doctoral Dissertation. College of William and Mary. 1968.

Wine in Early Virginia


Plantations in eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia were all suffering from a stressed tobacco market. Futures in growing tobacco were dim. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that “there is no prospect that the European market for tobacco will improve” (Jefferson 2002a 227). With little hope that tobacco would work as a strong cash crop, as it did back in the earlier days of colonial Virginia, plantation owners decided to shift away from tobacco and experiment with various crops that they hoped would be able to substitute tobacco’s once preeminent position in Virginia’s plantation agriculture. Plantation owners who were a major part of this experimental agriculture movement included premier founders of our nation such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and George Mason. Thomas Jefferson in particular was a major advocate for Virginian planters to leave tobacco, remarking, “Good husbandry with us consists in abandoning Indian corn and tobacco” (Jefferson 2002 a 227). Jefferson in general shifted his plantation to the production of various foods and stated his perception of the state of the Virginia planter to Jean Baptiste Say, saying “Our culture is of wheat for market, and of maize, oats, peas, and clover, for the support of the farm” (Jefferson 2002a 227). However, these weren’t the only crops that Jefferson experimented with.

Probably the most interesting crop that Jefferson and his cohorts tried was grapes for wine. The prospect of growing wine in Virginia was not a new prospect. Before the British came, Spanish explorers reported seeing a Native American village with “a beautiful vineyard, as well laid out and ordered as the vineyards of Spain”(Painter 4). The founders were also left with documents such as Wriothesley’s treaty, dating back to 1622, noting that “Vines doe both grow naturally in Virginia”. (Wriothesley B2) This was mainly due to the fact that at that time there were many grapes that grew out in the abundant and thick forests of Virginia. The idea that Wriothesley and the colonial planation owners had was that the Virginia forest grapes have “bushes and weeds, so much choke and cover them, they cannot come to their full ripeness” (Wriothesley B1) and if they took these grapes and put them in ideal grape growing conditions they would be a solid source of income. There had been little execution on this prospect during Virginia’s early years as producing tobacco was such a safe way for plantation owners to make tons of money. However, as tobacco became less and less profitable, prospective crops that had been hypothesized to grow well in Virginia during the colonial years were coming to the forefront of agricultural conscious at the time. These were the justifications that Virginia plantation owners used to push forward the new culture of agricultural experimentation. Agricultural experimentation, particularly experimentation with wine, was highlighted and pushed forward by the Philip Mazzei Agricultural Company.

Smoke Control: Just a Recommendation

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Smoke control in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was not taken seriously. As the smoke nuisance increased, activists in Baltimore concerned themselves primarily with the value of their properties diminishing due to smoke, and the railroads worried that electrifying would be too expensive. Smoke control laws were put into place, but as will be proven, they went unforced. Really, these ordinances and laws were just recommendations.

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The Assets of George Mason versus George Washington

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The purpose of the present exhibit is to explore how Mason and Washington showed off their wealth. Mason and Washington were close friends. They often influenced one another and visited one another's estates. Some may argue that there were competition and envy between them. While Mason was born into wealth, Washington married into wealth. During the time, wealth was directly linked to social status and it was important for both of these founding fathers to prove themselves to society. As shown through Washington's greater social status, it can be understood that he possessed a greater amount of wealth than Mason. Given their unbalanced relationship, it seems that the two were constantly trying to prove themselves to one another as well. Although there is a sense of competition and envy between them, in the end, it is interesting to see how far Washington went, especially considering that he was not born into wealth like Mason was. It could possibly be implied that Washington may have been influenced by Mason to acquire more land and pursue a greater status socially and politically. 

The estates of Mason and Washington are two sites that are commonly visited by students, families, and researchers. Their homes display what these two founding fathers left behind for history. The exhibit explores their domestic lives, their homes, and their roles as founding fathers. 

Forgotten People: The Erasure and Displacement of American Indians


American Indians have claims to American land, rights, and history that have been historically ignored. The Mason family was part of this erasure. Though a man of noble ideals, George Mason (and his ancestors) often failed to extend those ideals and rights to minorities like Native Americans. From George Mason I’s arrival to Virginia in 1652, the Mason family harassed, fought, forgot and antagonized American Indians. While they were no different than other men of their day, they held positions of power that could have been used to curb the genocide of America’s First Peoples. Instead, they remained complicit to a society that displaced and erased American Indians from this land and its history.

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Exploring Bastardy in Early America and Its Impact Today

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Depending on who you are and what you were taught from a very young age, each American has their own idea of what Early America was like. However, many of the views that we were taught in elementary school about the Founding Fathers and patriotism are being challenged left and right by historians who are discovering lots of conflicting evidence about the stories being told to the children of America. Obviously, many opinions have changed on the subject of children born out-of-wedlock; however, in the 18th century, it was quite the scandalous topic. Depending on your social status, race, and gender, being caught in such a situation could mean bad news for both the person involved and their child. It was such a crime that the children suffered for it. An anonymous bastard wrote to a local magazine stating, “I had the misfortune to come illegally into the world, and am therefore branded with the name of Bastard: but I assure you, I was by no means an accessory in the fornication which gave me birth; and therefore I think it a hardship that disgrace should be imputable to me, who, in the business alluded to, never violated any law, civil, common, or ecclesiastical.” [1] It was such a burden for this man to just be born, because he was punished for the wrongdoing of parents. This is how much of an offense the crime was. Most often women would be caught; however, there are instances when men also had to pay for the consequences of their actions. The laws at the time forbade several things that were considered morally wrong including fornication, bastardy, and interracial marriage. Many were affected by these societal standards. Historians have discussed bastardy and the bigger conversation of controversial laws that have since been amended or forgotten. The conversation is vast and covers several topics from racial prejudice to gender bias.


[1] A Bastard. “Cursory Remarks on Bastardy.” Universal Asylum, & Columbian Magazine, June 1792. 359.

Monument Mania: Memorializing George Washington

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George Washington is certainly considered a hero of American history. He is often seen as the father of this country and is hailed as one of, if not the, greatest founding fathers. In the 18th and 19th centuries in particular, Washington was a celebrity and even before his death the public scrambled to construct monuments to Washington. Despite this perceived greatness, Washington’s status as a slaveholder is often forgotten. Very few, if any, monuments to Washington acknowledge the enslaved people that he owned and even Mount Vernon struggles to associate Washington with slavery. This project examines how George Washington's legacy is constructed through the memorials we construct to him and who is forgotten in his legacy.

This exhibit will focus on three memorials to Washington; the equestrian statue of Washington in New York, the Virginia Washington Monument, and the two memorials to enslaved people at Mount Vernon. These monuments each reveal different aspects of George Washington's legacy and demonstrate the importance of monuments and tha narratives that are told through them. 

"Let our opinions vary as they will": John Randolph Jr and Dissent


Studies of loyalist voices in the American Revolution range far and wide, from the loyalist diaspora across the globe, individual fishing and farming communities in a geographic region, and the many races and cultures of loyalists in the British West Indies. While we increasingly hear different groups of loyalist voices, a micro-history can provide an effective way to understand why well-intentioned people chose to remain loyal.

John Randolph, swimming against the rising tide of American rebellion that his son Edmund Randolph, his brother Peyton Randolph, and his cousin Thomas Jefferson, were embracing, followed the loyalist path that eventually forced him to emigrate to London. However, little evidence exists of how this man, so well-connected to rebels, came to his life-altering decision. Uncovering Randolph's loyalist life and legacy requires understanding how colonists in the late eighteenth century were practicing dissent.

Research into his own writings shows that Randolph was devoted, literally until his death, to the colony of Virginia and what it was and could become. Randolph's dichotomy of loyalty to Great Britain and life-long dedication to Virginia, the land of his birth, is worth exploring. Other reasons to uncover Randolph’s voice include understanding his consistently civil dissent in a turbulent, often violent conversation, and his unique arguments and reasoning for loyalty. These arguments went beyond the thinking of the loyal masses and showed his continuing conviction of the need for security in the eventual independence of the colonies.

This project explores a unique and passionate voice advocating on behalf of the colonies, while placing that voice within the dissenting culture in which it was heard or rejected. This project also acknowledges that dissenting voices that are 250 years old can inform current challenges of navigating civil dissent today.

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