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Gunston Hall, built by George Mason (1725-1792) with the aid of English carpenter/joiner William Buckland and carver William Bernard Sears, was completed in 1759. It is a house with imposing first floor public rooms, a neatly segregated first floor chamber, family parlor/dining room, and service stair, and a surprisingly capacious second floor with seven bed chambers and a lumber room. Here George Mason, together with first wife Ann Eilbeck and later, second wife Sarah Brent, raised a family, entertained friends and political colleagues, managed a successful plantation operation, and did much of his political writing. Gunston Hall served as the base and the rock from which George Mason reluctantly pursued a public career that ultimately led to his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It was a house intended to fill a variety of needs and support a wide range of activities. These activities were shaped, in part, by the physical space that surrounded them and by the furnishings which supported and enhanced them. The hope of better interpreting the complex world of 18th-century Gunston Hall to the 20th-century visitor sparked the research which has led to the Gunston Hall Room Use Study.

The interpretive needs of Gunston Hall defined and focused the room use study research. The specific questions, i.e., what types of tables and chairs? how many of each and of what types of woods? which types of tablewares would be most appropriate? in turn led to the asking of larger questions. How would Mason's household have compared to that of his neighbors? Would visitors to his household have been impressed? What messages would have been conveyed by the way in which Gunston Hall was furnished? What role did personal taste play? How important was economic standing? Did it matter that Gunston Hall was in the country rather than in town? Coming full circle again, what bearing would the answers to these questions have on the way in which the house was used and furnished?

In the fall of 1990, Gunston Hall Plantation, in an attempt to answer these questions and a myriad of others, launched the research effort which culminates in this report, the Gunston Hall Room Use Study. The study was intend to complement and extend the ongoing program of architectural research and physical restoration at Gunston Hall with its goal of returning the structure to its 18th-century appearance. To accomplish this work, a multiyear research program was designed.

This effort encompassed many parts. All known objects and documents associated with George Mason were carefully reviewed. A wide range of documentary period sources were collected, including an in-depth survey of 18th-century newspapers in Virginia and Maryland. Noted scholars in the fields of 18th-century decorative arts and architecture, especially those with expertise on the Chesapeake Region, were consulted. A ground-breaking probate inventory database was developed. Finally, the results from the preliminary archaeological surveys and comprehensive architectural investigations of Gunston Hall were integrated into the room use study.

Efforts to collect all documentary material related to the domestic life of George Mason and to Gunston Hall's furnishings had been ongoing since the 1930s. No estate inventory for George Mason of Gunston Hall was found, and only a limited number of other documents related to his household furnishings had been discovered. During these years, objects with family provenances were recorded.

As part of the room use research, all previously collected Mason material was reappraised. The results of this re-examination are discussed in detail in Chapter Two of this report and in the expanded narrative recommendations in Chapter Six. It quickly became apparent that the limited amount of Mason material would necessitate broadening the room use study scope to look at the upper-class lifestyle of George Mason's contemporaries in the Chesapeake region.

Clearly, to accomplish this goal, a wide variety of period documents would need to be consulted. Types of materials such as newspaper advertisements, merchant account books and other records, personal letters and diaries, travelers' accounts, and household inventories were targeted, and research trips to repositories with large Chesapeake holdings were scheduled. At each institution, indexes, catalogs, and finding aids were searched for materials of possible interest. Name files were checked for possible references to George Mason, other family members, friends, and individuals with whom he did business. Subject headings were surveyed for collections which could provide insights and information about broader topics including furnishings, family life, servants, slaves, and housekeeping practices. In addition, listings for specific types of documents, i.e., account books, letter books, diaries, invoices, and journals were evaluated.

Research was conducted in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress, the Virginia Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, the Lloyd House (the history division of the Alexandria Library), the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Maryland State Archives, the Maryland Historical Society, Duke University, and the evidence files in the Fredericksburg Circuit Court (a compilation of records from thirteen different early courts). At some of these institutions, all major collections identified as being of possible interest have been checked. At others, time constraints restricted research to key collections. In total, some 549 groups of manuscript papers were examined. All material collected from these manuscript sources were transcribed, cross-referenced and/or indexed, and filed in hard-copy form in the Gunston Hall research files. The result of the room use research, coupled with other work such as that done on George Mason's land holdings and business enterprises, has resulted in over 250 different file categories on topics ranging from Art/Artists to Writing Materials. This material is not only the foundation for this report but also serves as an invaluable resource to Gunston Hall's educational and interpretive programs. In addition, these files have been consulted by independent scholars and staff historians from a variety of institutions, including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Fairfax County Park Authority, Carlyle House Historic Park, Kenmore, Hammond-Harwood House, the Octagon, Gadsby's Tavern Museum, and Mount Vernon.

Among the hundreds of documents surveyed, with pertinent information added to the files, are the following:

  • Newspaper advertisements and articles from the Alexandria Gazette, 1784 (first issue) -1806; the Virginia Gazette, 1745-780; and the Maryland Gazette, 1745- 1799.

  • Collections of personal and business papers including the Jones Family papers, the Galloway Family papers, the William Lee letterbooks, the Francis Taylor diary, the Charles Carroll letterbook, the George Washington financial papers, the Robert Beverley letterbook, the Richard Bland Lee papers, and the Robert Carter letterbooks.

  • Merchant Records including all available Alexandria account books, selected John Glassford & Company account books, Huie Reid & Company account books, the John Norton & Sons account and letterbooks, the Neil Jamison papers, and the Wallace, Davidson & Johnson orderbook.

  • Primary and secondary information selected from issues of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1906-1978), The William and Mary Quarterly (1898-1970), and The Maryland Historical Magazine (1894-1942).

It should be noted that those items listed here represent only a fraction of the collections surveyed. For complete listings of the materials examined at each repository, see the files at Gunston Hall.

In an effort to be sure that the project did not overlook pertinent materials and that important issues were being addressed, a scholar's brainstorming session was held in February of 1992. Participating in this session were Ron Hurst, chief curator and vice president, Collections and Museums at Colonial Williamsburg,(1 ) Barbara Carson, professor in American studies at George Washington University and the College of William and Mary, Mark R. Wenger, architectural historian, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Charles Phillips, restoration architect for Gunston Hall. Also taking part were Gunston Hall and Room Use Project staff, including Susan Borchardt, Mickey Crowell, Sue Murphy, Barbara Farner, and Ellen Donald.

Among the issues discussed in this day-long session was the question of an interpretative period.(2) Arising from this session was a consensus that the interpretation of the story of George Mason and Gunston Hall could be best told by focusing on a single interpretative period. The selected interpretative period would guide the choice of furnishings used as physical evocations of the past but would not preclude the verbal interpretation of other periods of George Mason's life. For example, guides would still be able to use the description of "mother's chamber" recalled in John Mason's recollection of his childhood or discuss the building of the house even though these events might predate the chosen interpretative period.

After weighing all available information about the physical development of the house, the ebb and flow of Mason family life, and the small amount of documentation concerning Mason/Gunston Hall related objects, and taking into consideration Gunston Hall Plantation's mission to "educate the public about George Mason and his unique contribution to the universal cause of human rights," a recommendation was made to the Board of Regents to establish the years 1780-1788 as Gunston Hall's interpretative period. This proposal was approved by the Board of Regents at their April 1994 meeting. In endorsing this recommendation, the decision was made that the house, room use designations, furnishings, and decorative finishes would reflect the life of George Mason and his family during this period. For a full discussion of the interpretative period, see Chapter Five of this report.

In addition to the initial brainstorming session, there has been continuing consultation with other scholars, especially those specializing in the Chesapeake region. One-on-one sessions were held with a number of staff members of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, including Ron Hurst, then Curator of Furniture, Janine Skerry, Curator of Ceramics and Glass, Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles and Costumes, Betty Leviner, independent museum consultant (3), Margaret Pritchard, Curator of Prints, Maps, and Wallpapers, and John D. Davis, Curator of Metals. Questions related to specific decorative arts forms have also been discussed with Dwight Lanmon, director of Winterthur, and Pat Halfpenny, Winterthur's curator of ceramics.

Discussions about architectural and social history topics were held with noted scholars in these areas, including Camille Wells, professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, Karin Calvert, Director of the National Faculty, and Willie Graham and Mark R. Wenger, architectural historians with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The lack of a probate estate inventory for George Mason has always been a serious impediment to understanding the way the Mason family lived at Gunston Hall. An investigation into comparable inventories for the Chesapeake region was viewed from the beginning of the project as an essential component of the research. The decision was made to collect and analyze selected probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland for the period 1760-1800.(4) This date range reflects the years between the completion of Gunston Hall in 1759 and George Mason's death in 1792. As this material was intended to contribute to the larger research efforts of furnishing and interpreting Gunston Hall, the decision was made to include only those inventories which would reflect households of individuals of comparable social and economic standing to that of George Mason.

Since the focus of this project was the household itself and not a larger economic perspective, a method of selecting inventories for inclusion was sought which would concentrate upon the furnishings and not be dependent upon the bottom line value of the inventory or upon the total value of the decedent's estate. The decision was made to follow the methodology established by Barbara Carson in her book Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington, which used dining equipage to divide estate inventories into five subgroups. This approach reflected individual decedents' decisions about how to spend disposable income as well as their ability to pay for their choices.(5) Barbara Carson consulted with the Room Use Team several times during the inventory study.

Two of the five groups, those designated as Aspiring and Elite, owned enough tableware and other household furnishings to be able to entertain at dinner parties. This ability not only reflected sufficient wealth to afford the requisite equipage and foodstuffs but also proclaimed an individual's knowledge of the genteel manners and correct behavior essential to the proper execution of this complex social ritual. Based upon information about George Mason's family, wealth, household possessions, and social standing, it was concluded that these two groups would be the most appropriate to include in a comparative inventory analysis study; however, no predetermination was made as to which of the two groups George Mason belonged.

The initial questions posed were whether the inventories would show differences between the Aspiring and Elite groups, whether they would reflect change over time, and whether patterns of household possession would be different in those inventories of individuals living in town versus in the country, and in counties adjacent to the Potomac River in contrast to those from other areas within the Chesapeake region.

The first group of documents was compiled from inventories already collected in the files at Gunston Hall and from other individuals and institutions including Mark R. Wenger at Colonial Williamsburg and Carlyle House Historic Park in Alexandria. Initially, particular interest was paid to collecting room-by-room inventories, as these are frequently among the most informative. In some cases, inventories which fell outside the date range or preferred group distinctions were collected if they were organized in a room-by-room format or if they were particularly descriptive. It was clear, however, that these inventories did not encompass a full range of Aspiring and Elite inventories either geographically or chronologically.

The next phase consisted of the systematic collection of all Elite and Aspiring inventories, using microfilm of original court records, from Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford counties in Virginia and Charles and Prince George's counties in Maryland for the period 1760-1800. These counties were considered to be of particular importance because they reflected jurisdictions in which George Mason owned land and/or was known to have transacted business. In addition to the counties cited above, the inventory database contains inventories from the following Virginia jurisdictions: Norfolk, James City, Elizabeth City, Fredericksburg, Lancaster, Surry, Richmond, Frederick, Charles City, Spotsylvania, Middlesex, Westmoreland, and York Counties. Also included are a number of inventories from Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Photocopies were made of inventories which met the guidelines of the study. These inventories were then transcribed, with both the original photocopy and transcriptions placed in the files at Gunston Hall.

As the group of inventories grew, it became apparent that some organizing mechanism was needed if full advantage was to be taken of the information they contained. With this goal in mind, a search was made for a computer program which would be both user-friendly and flexible in its ability to allow researchers to ask a variety of questions, not necessarily just those anticipated as the data was entered.

Beginning in the fall of 1992, Dick Farner, a computer systems analyst who served as a volunteer consultant, customized a commercial database software system, Alpha Four Version 2, for the analysis of the collected inventories. This software package allowed tremendous flexibility in querying the data and because common terms, not codes, were employed, it was easy to use. The material has now been converted to Microsoft® Access 97 to facilitate the addition of the database to Gunston Hall's website so that the format and inventories can be accessed through the Internet.(6) This step is being taken in response to the overwhelming interest that the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database has generated. Even before it was completed, scholars attended the Gunston Hall Decorative Arts Symposium to learn about this project. Information from the database has been supplied to scholars working with institutions such as the Smithsonian, the D.A.R. Museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the University of Virginia, the Fairfax County Park Authority, and the George Washington University.

Part of the database development was to decide how to organize the information found within the inventories. Since the desire was to be able to retrieve this information in ways that would help direct the refurnishing of Gunston Hall, the Room Use Team developed a nomenclature which combines decorative arts, material culture, and anthropological approaches. The intent was to create a system which would arrange information in ways that would not only be useful for the immediate project but which would be relatively self-explanatory to others who might wish to use the database. This system identifies each item by category, sub-category, and type. For example, an item category might be furniture, the subcategory table, and the type dining.

Once the program and nomenclature were developed, it was decided that for consistency, it was most logical to have one individual enter the data into the computer. Research team member Barbara Farner entered 139 Virginia and 201 Maryland inventories into the database.

This process began with the entry of information into the MAIN report. This report contains the name of the deceased, the date the inventory was taken, the computer filename by which the specific document is identified, the county and state in which the inventory was recorded, the type of currency (if given) in which the inventory values are listed, the class, (i.e., Elite or Aspiring) of the decedent, and an indicator designating the household as Rural or Urban. In addition, there are fields with "yes" or "no" responses which indicate other information including inventory format, room/space designations, outbuildings, ownership of slaves, ownership of certain categories of objects (i.e., books and tools), and a memo line highlighting particularly interesting aspects of the inventory.

Next came the tedious, but all important, item-by-item entry of the objects listed in the inventory into the DETAIL Report. Due to the time constraints of the project, individual inventory listings for books, livestock, tools, slaves, extremely large quantities of stores (fabric, beverages, food stuffs, etc.), meat, leather, thread, and items listed in the slave quarters are not included in the DETAIL report. Researchers wishing to study these aspects of 18th-century Chesapeake life can identify relevant inventories through the use of the MAIN report and then check the photocopies and transcriptions in the Gunston Hall research files. Mercantile store inventories included in individual decedent's estates, though not included in the database, have been transcribed, indexed, and placed in the research files. The MAIN report notes that these inventories include a commercial operation and that only the clearly identifiable household furnishings (by placement or specific notation) are entered into the DETAIL report.

Each DETAIL report entry begins with the computer filename, then each item is identified by category, subcategory, and type. In addition, there are fields for listing quantity, descriptive information, room location or page location within the inventory, material, color, and value. Like the MAIN report, the DETAIL report contains a memo line. It is used to cite other objects associated with a specific entry (under "listed as") or for a note (under "see also") that a particular item is also cross referenced under a second appropriate category. The database consists of over 65,000 entries, containing information about almost 250,000 objects.

Due to the somewhat erratic nature of recording information in inventories and to the free form spelling of the period, certain judgment calls had to be made in order to enter the data consistently enough to be computer retrievable. All entries use standard American spelling. When an entry reflects an assumption, the specific entry is followed by an "=" sign. For example, "chare" would be entered into the DETAIL report as "chair=," as would items which were originally listed as "do" or "ditto." The original listing would either then appear in the description or memo field and would be designated with an asterisk "*".

All inventories collected were reviewed to ensure that they matched the criteria established for inclusion in the study. The deletion of tavern inventories, non-probate inventories, fragmentary inventories, and inventories outside the class framework resulted in the formation of a group containing only Elite and Aspiring probate inventories.(7) All deleted inventories were transferred to a subgroup identified as Option One, where they can still be accessed as needed. Following this evaluation, the primary group numbered 172 Elite and Aspiring inventories.

These inventories were then subdivided into "neighborhoods," reflecting a combination of geographic factors, i.e., Potomac (from counties bordering the Potomac River), Non-Potomac (from counties not adjacent to the Potomac), Urban, and Rural.

Printouts for each subcategory in the nomenclature were run by "neighborhood." Tally forms were developed to allow for the tabulation of each type of household furnishing. Some of this information was extracted by hand given the necessity of exercising judgment about the meaning of many period terms. For example, did "fence" mean the same thing as "fender" when tabulating fireplace equipment or did the term "bed" imply a piece of furniture or a stuffed sack which was part of the bedding? It was possible, however, to do some of the statistical analysis using the database software.

Preliminary analysis of these inventories revealed important trends within the various groups. There were discernible differences in ownership patterns between Urban and Rural decedents and between Aspiring and Elite households. While previous scholarship had indicated the probability of the Urban/Rural dichotomy, prior inventory studies had tended to lump all upper-class households into one group. While both Elite and Aspiring households were, indeed, far above the vast majority of other inventories, there was also a, heretofore unseen, marked gap between these two groups of upper-class individuals. Clearly, a decision would be necessary concerning the group to which George Mason belonged.

Fortunately, among the inventories collected were five of particular interest to Gunston Hall. In the Maryland group is the inventory of William Eilbeck (1765), Ann Eilbeck Mason's father. Among the Virginia inventories were those of George Mason's mother, Ann Thomson Mason (1763), his brother, Thomson Mason of Raspberry Plain (1786), and two of George Mason's sons -- George Mason, Jr. (1797), and Thomas Mason (1800). All five of these inventories were evaluated as belonging in the Elite group. Based upon this determination as well as the architectural elaboration of Gunston Hall and furnishings listed in other extant documentary material related to George Mason, it was decided to treat George Mason as a member of the Elite group.

Given the significant differences between Elite and Aspiring revealed in the preliminary inventory analysis and the decision to place George Mason among the Elite group, it was determined that in-depth analysis of those inventories designated as Rural Elite would be the most productive in providing insights into the furnishings of Gunston Hall. The Rural Elite Inventories numbered fifty-five, including the Mason family group.

The five family inventories were set aside as a control group, leaving a core group of fifty inventories, thirty from Maryland and twenty from Virginia. The individual items of household furnishings from these fifty inventories were then tabulated. The percentage of ownership of each type of item, the average number of items per household having that type of item (HHT), and the median number per household having the item were figured. The same procedure was then followed for the five family inventories. The results of the two tallies were then compared to determine if family ownership patterns were similar to the larger group or showed a lesser or greater predilection for owning certain types of household furnishings.

Initial lists of objects for inclusion or exclusion were made based upon these findings. In all cases, these recommendations were then reviewed in light of contextual material from the research files, known facts about the Mason family, and information about Mason's furnishings from either documents or extant objects. Considered as part of the Mason specific information was any insight gained through the architectural investigations or from the limited amount of archaeological excavation which has been done to date. For a fuller discussion of all aspects of the Mason material, see Chapter Two of this report.

The results of the amalgamation of all these sources resulted in this report. The recommendations are presented in two formats. A condensed version of the Gunston Hall Room Use Study, presented in Volume One, lists specific furnishing recommendations in a chart format. In Volume Two, the recommendations are presented in narrative form, exploring the general context gleaned from the collected period sources, the statistical findings for the Rural Elite Inventories (REI) as compared to the statistics for the family group, and any pertinent Mason information. Both the chart and the narrative sections are organized according to the categories in the Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database Nomenclature.

To accomplish the work described here required a team effort. The project team consisted of Susan Borchardt, Deputy Director for Collections and Education; Mickey Crowell, Curatorial and Research Assistant; Barbara Farner, Research Assistant and Database Coordinator; Ellen Donald, Project Consultant; and Sue Murphy, Research Assistant until her death in 1993. Within the overarching development of the project, individual members undertook specific areas of responsibility.

  • Susan Borchardt directed the project as a whole and wrote the architectural, Mason documentation, and room-use sections of the final report.

  • Mickey Crowell researched and coordinated information about Mason family furnishings, contacted all known Mason family descendants, and sorted out complex family genealogies. She also had oversight of project research files and the tracking of materials consulted at various research facilities.

  • Barbara Farner was responsible for the majority of the inventory transcriptions, entered all inventory information into the database, ran all database search queries, and revised the database to reflect evolving project needs. She also assisted with the analysis of statistical data and provided editorial assistance with the final text.

  • Ellen Donald oversaw the project research effort, developed the statistical analysis of the database findings, made baseline recommendations for furnishings, and wrote the methodology and descriptive sections of the report text.

  • Sue Murphy participated in the initial compilation of research materials.

In addition, Crowell, Farner, and Murphy transcribed and cross-referenced copious amounts of primary source material which forms the Gunston Hall General Research Files.

Although each team member had areas of special responsibility, the final report is in every way, a true cooperative effort. All members shared in the gathering of information, in the development of the database nomenclature, in the tabulation and analysis of the database materials, in discussions with outside scholars, in the formulation of final recommendations, and in the preparation of the final report. Thus, all four project members, in every sense, co-authored this report.

It is the belief of the authors that the completed Gunston Hall Room Use Study provides a guide for the recreation of rooms which will more accurately reflect the taste and lifestyle of George Mason and his family. In a larger sense, these interiors will also become a mirror, reflecting a glimpse of 18th-century elite households throughout the Chesapeake.

1. At the time of the brainstorming session, Hurst was Curator of Furniture at Colonial Williamsburg.

2. For a list of other topics discussed, see transcribed notes from the session in Gunston Hall files.

3. At the time of the consultation, Leviner was curator of exhibition buildings at Colonial Williamsburg.

4. Among the works consulted which explore various approaches to using probate inventories were the following: Mary C. Beaudry, "Or what else you please to call it": Folk Semantic Domains in Early Virginia Probate Inventories, (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1980); Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh, "Changing Lifestyles and Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake" in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1994), 59-166; Harold B. Gill, Jr. and George M. Curtis, III, "Virginia's Colonial Probate Policies and the Preconditions for Economic History," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 87 (1979): 68-73; Anna L. Hawley, "The Meaning of Absence: Household Inventories in Surry County, Virginia 1690-1715," in Early American Probate Inventories, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, XII, Boston University, 1989), 23-31; Holly V. Izard, "Random or Systematic? An Evaluation of the Probate Process," Winterthur Portfolio, 32: 147-167; Alice Hanson Jones, American Colonial Wealth, 2nd ed. (New York: Arno Press, 1977), 1:30, 2:1712-1717; Gloria Main, "Probate Records as a Source for Early American History," William and Mary Quarterly, 32 (1975): 89-99; Lorena S. Walsh, "Urban Amenities and Rural Sufficiency: Living Standards and Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1643-1777" in Journal of Economic History, 43 (March 1983): 109-117; and special thanks to Gary Stanton of Mary Washington College for his Probate Inventory Bibliography, last edit 15 March 1991.

5. For a full description of this methodology see: Barbara G. Carson, Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington (Washington D.C.: The American Institute of Architects Press, 1990), 30-31.

6. The probate inventories are online at

7. This group included inventories judged to be below the Aspiring category and those of the Royal Governors which vastly exceeded even the most elaborate Elite household.

© Gunston Hall Plantation 2002