Category Archives: History

Parties with Punch

By Educational Programs Coordinator Tara Owens

‘Tis the season for holiday parties, and no party would be complete without punch. This party staple is more than just a mere thirst quencher. In fact, punch has a rather interesting history. The exact origin of punch is debatable, but the most popular theory is that 16th-century British soldiers discovered the drink while in India. The word punch is said to derive from the Hindi word ‘paanstch’ meaning ‘five,’ implying an alcoholic concoction made from five key elements – Sweet, Sour, Alcohol, Water, and Spice. Punch could have also originated as the shortened version of the word “puncheon,” which refers to a wooden cask that holds 70 to 80 gallons.

Another take on the origins of punch dates back to the Anglo-Saxons of early Germany who would give a toast of “waes haeil,” literally meaning “be healthy,” while drinking a heavily spiced mead or ale punch. This tradition, in conjunction with the Pagan festival of Wassail, developed into the tradition of Wassailing. It was likely brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons and, over time, Wassailing became associated with Christmas. In the early days of the Christian Church, Christmas was not an observed holiday but Wassailing was. Wassail was celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6; this Twelfth Night celebration now commemorates the adoration of the Magi before the infant Jesus.

Punch is regarded as the first cocktail drink, and whether it dates back to the first millennium or the 16th century, has been making an appearance at parties ever since.

The Peggy Stewart punch bowl in the Hammond-Harwood House dining room (and a sneak peek at a beautiful holiday arrangment)

The Peggy Stewart punch bowl in the Hammond-Harwood House dining room (and a sneak peek at a beautiful holiday arrangment)


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Historic Day Off

A beautifully interpreted space at James Madison’s Montpelier

As you read this, I am on a jaunt to Orange, Virginia to visit Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison. Over the past several years, the staff there has been conducting exhaustive research to determine how the Madisons decorated the house and using the research to install appropriate finishes, wallpaper, and furnishings. Since you can’t come see it in person with me, read more about it, and all of the other amazing work going on at the site, on their blog.

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Historical Halloween

Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise, 1833.
Snap-Apple Night was a kind of Halloween celebration.

Since it’s October, our thoughts have turned to the annual Hammond-Harwood House Pumpkin Walk, which will take place on October 26 from 4-6pm. In preparation for our celebrations, former Marketing Coordinator Elisabeth Berman did a bit of research on the historical origins of Halloween…

Halloween has quite the spooky history. Also known as “All Hallow’s Eve,” the annual holiday dates back to the 16th century. The term is derived from the fact that, in Christian religions, November 1 and 2 are typically celebrated as All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. These two days allowed people to honor saints and pray for the recently departed.

However, it was believed that the souls of those departed wandered the earth until All Saints Day. All Hallow’s Eve gave them one last chance to exact revenge on their enemies before moving on to the afterlife. How could Christians in the 16th century avoid being recognized by a dead soul they had wronged? Wear masks and costumes! This tradition has carried on to present day.

They may not have had Snickers bars back then, but trick-or-treating does have a meaningful past. On November 1, the late-medieval poor would go from door to door in a practice known as “souling.” They would receive food in return for their prayers for the dead. Jack-O-Lanterns served a purpose as well – they were originally turnips carved into lanterns as a way of paying respect to the souls held in purgatory.

Halloween certainly has a darker past than I imagined, and I will be sure to pay my respects this year while handing out candy! Have a safe and happy Halloween!


Filed under Friday Photo, From the Intern Desk, History

18th Century Marriage

Wedding scene from Ramsay’s The gentle shepherd, Act V, Printed for G. Reid and Co., 1798
From The Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University

By Tara Owens, Educational Programs Coordinator

According to U.S. Census data for 2009, the average age of first marriage for men is 28.4 and 26.5 for women. I was married in 2009, when I was 22 and my husband was 24. As a married 22-year old woman, I felt out of place since most people my age were still single. My husband and I were both four years ahead of the 21st-century average. But, if we were living in 18th-century America, we would have been typical.

In 18th-century America, the typical age of marriage for middle-to-upper class white women was 22 and 26 for men. Women began courting as early as 15 or 16, but most delayed marriage until their early twenties. The years of courtship were a time when 18th-century women could enjoy some freedom and power. They had the right to refuse any suitors and were not bogged down with running a household. Thus, it is easy to see why women began courting at such a young age but did not usually marry until several years later.

The actual wedding day for white 18th-century Americans looked quite similar to the weddings we attend today, although it should be noted that most weddings did not take place in a church as it could be difficult to travel to one, especially for those living in rural areas. The custom of the father giving away his daughter, the exchanging of rings, and having a reception were all practiced in 18th-century America. Typically, the reception was held at the bride’s house where toasts were made and games and dancing entertained the guests. So, some of the wedding rituals and traditions we partake in today were already  in existence in the years prior to 1800.


Filed under Friday Photo, From the Intern Desk, History

Own a Piece of History?

Anyone have one of these sitting in their house? Someone brought us this advertisement recently, and it was the first I had ever heard of furniture pieces from the Hammond-Harwood House collection being reproduced. I would love to see one of them, and plan on keeping my eyes peeled at consignment stores and thrift shops from now on.


Filed under Collections, Friday Photo, History

18th Century Healthcare

By Tara Owens, Educational Programs Coordinator (Formerly Intern Extraordinaire)

All the attention surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the healthcare bill made me wonder about what type of medical treatments were available during the 18th century. People living in urban areas such as Williamsburg, Virginia, would have had access to an apothecary, who provided medical services, prescribed medicine, performed surgeries, and even served as man-midwives. In essence, the apothecary was the 18th-century equivalent to our modern doctor. Some of the remedies prescribed by apothecaries are still in practice today. These included chalk for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, and cinchona bark for fevers. It was later discovered that cinchona bark contains quinine, still used today to treat malaria.

Those living in more rural areas ultimately relied on self-diagnosis and treatment that was based on folklore and tradition. For example, headaches were often treated by vinegar of roses, a remedy made of rose petals steeped in vinegar and applied topically.

The most surprising fact I discovered was that doctors in the 18th century actually performed inoculations on patients to protect against smallpox. Inoculation is based on an easily observed medical fact – that those who contact an infectious disease and survive are protected against catching it again. In fact, George Washington had his Revolutionary troops inoculated following a smallpox outbreak in his camp.

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress by Jean-Etienne Liotard, ca. 1756
Lady Montagu is credited with bringing the practice of smallpox inoculation to England from Turkey, where her husband was the British ambassador

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Cleaning House

Susanna Whatman, painted by George Romney in 1782

You would expect a woman this elegant-looking to be renowned for her beauty or gentility, but Susanna Whatman’s fame derives from a very different source. Susanna Bosanquet married James Whatman, a wealthy paper mill owner, in 1776 and began keeping a manual on housekeeping in order to better manage her servants. It is one of the few surviving primary source documents that reveals how 18th century homes were maintained. While some of her notes about the duties of housemaids and cooks no longer apply today, some still seem very helpful. I’m going to remind myself of this tidbit next time I can’t find something in my kitchen:

“There should be a place in the Kitchin for everything kept there, otherwise it will be lost or mislaid without being missed, and [this] holds good for every other department, and saves many things, and much trouble. “

From The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, page 44

Available for purchase here

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