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Welcome to the History Is Fun blog. Our topics will range from historical insights to short articles about topics of interest in 17th and 18th-century history at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

George Washington – Two Christmases

George Washington – Two Christmases

A doll like this finely made, hand-painted English example may have been on the Christmas gift list of a wealthy American family in the late 18th century. The circa 1770 doll is on exhibit at Jamestown Settlement through January 20, 2014, in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution.”

A doll like this finely made, hand-painted English example may have been on the Christmas gift list of a wealthy American family in the late 18th century. The circa 1770 doll is on exhibit at Jamestown Settlement through January 20, 2014, in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution.”

In 1759 George and Martha Washington spent their first Christmas together at Mount Vernon. They had been married less than a year.  A list of presents George Washington intended to purchase for stepson John (Jacky), age 5, and stepdaughter Martha (Patsy), age 3, shows a heartfelt appreciation for the joys of childhood.  His list reads:

A bird on Bellows
A Cuckoo
A turnabout Parrott
A Grocers Shop
An Aviary
A Prussian Dragoon
A Man Smoaking
A Tunbridge Tea Sett
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys
A Neat Book fash Teas Chest
A box best Household Stuff
A straw Patch box w. a Glass
A neat dressed Wax Baby

The items on the list would have likely been handmade and imported from Europe. Many mechanical and hand-carved toys of this period were produced in the cities and towns of northern Germany, such as Hamburg and Hannover.  Although we can’t be sure what each one looked like, several were fairly common. The bird on bellows, cuckoo, turnabout parrot and “smoaking” man were probably mechanical toys made of metal. The bird and parrot would have contained whistles and may have had flapping wings. The grocer’s shop also likely was made in northern Germany, where elaborate miniature toy room settings were crafted and sold. The Prussian dragoon was probably a metal toy soldier, and the wax baby doll would have been made of poured, tinted and painted wax, a common method for doll construction in the 1700s.  The three Tunbridge toys were probably made in Tunbridge, Kent, England.  They may have been puzzle boxes, yo-yos or small decorative chests, made in the Tunbridge fashion, of many small pieces of wood glued together to create a mosaic effect.  The tea set and tea chest may have been toys or could have been for a dowry for Patsy. The patch box contained small cloth patches to apply to the face as beauty marks. Were these for Patsy to play with, or meant as a present for Martha? If even half these things were purchased, it must have been a jolly and exciting first Christmas at Mount Vernon.

Contrast this with the events of George Washington’s Christmas in 1776.  He was then Commander-in Chief of the Continental Army, encamped along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.  His army was ill-supplied, exhausted from marching, and suffering from poor morale after a series of defeats. In addition, many of his men had enlistments that would soon run out. In a desperate move to rally support for the Patriot cause and seize the initiative, Washington, with a cadre of able officers and about 2,400 men, planned and carried out the successful Christmas attack on Hessian forces wintering in Trenton, New Jersey.  Washington’s forces secured the surrender of the infamous Colonel Rahl of the Hessians, with only four Americans wounded and no fatalities on the American side. This remarkable Christmas Day victory revived the spirits of the Continental Army and renewed support for the Patriot cause.

 


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