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Like the other buildings in the kitchen yard, this dairy is a replica built in the 1970s. The sunken floor, which you should imagine as being three to six feet deeper than it appears today, helped the space maintain a constant temperature. Since soil is a poor conductor of heat, anything stored on a floor so deep was protected from freezing.
Did you notice the latticed openings at the top of the walls? These openings are not just decorative, they allow warm air to rise up and out of the structure. In the 1700s they were frequently lined with a thin, open weave fabric that kept out hungry bugs, dirt, and debris. The building is designed to stay cool. But in the summer months, these measures could go only so far. The air within this space was nearly always humid and smelled of meat and fat–not unpleasant, but unfamiliar to us today.
In a time before refrigeration, dairies mostly housed fresh milk, cheese, and butter. They were also the space where milk was turned into those products. Milk was rarely drunk and more often used in cooking or preserved as butter and sometimes cheese. Dairying was female work, and at Gunston Hall it was done by enslaved women or girls. Perhaps Poll, Priss, or Cloe did this work to supply the Mason family table.
The walls of the dairy are lined with shelves to hold stacks and stacks of milk pans. These wide and shallow basins were filled with fresh warm milk; their large surface area rapidly cooled and separated the milk from the cream. Tools like washing tubs, sieves for collecting cheese curds, and ridged paddles for shaping butter pats also furnished this space. Covered, ceramic pots filled with processed butter and rendered animal fats took up some shelf space..
All surfaces of the room, all of the tools, and all of the storage containers gleamed. They were frequently used and cleaned by skilled enslaved women and girls who probably lived nearby at the East Yard Quarter. Using clear, fresh, and cold water laboriously retrieved from the nearby well, these workers rigorously scrubbed, scoured, and monitored the space, their tools, and their hands. Dirt, bad bacteria, and mold could easily spoil the carefully tended dairy goods intended for the Mason family and their guests.