At a Glance
In 1700s Maryland and Virginia, farmers lived and died by the quality of their tobacco. Teachers tour Maryland's Piscataway Park, learning about farmers' struggle against their environment to grow and cure the perfect crop.
Piscataway Park and Tobacco Farming
- Status Symbols
- Neither Time Nor Taste
- Mastering the Environment
- Status Symbols
- Neither Time Nor Taste
- Mastering the Environment
Guide: This home is a wonderful example of what they call vernacular architecture, which means if you generally go outside of the southern Maryland area you’re not going to find any homes built like this. It was actually built around 1770 and it’s a great example of a kind of home that the lower middling sort would have lived in. One architectural historian said it is not the kind of house that you would find on a house and garden tour, nor are you going to find chatty hostesses with artfully-arranged flower vases. Spinning wool was the one thing that they would do, process all the wool and actually knit things from it, which is great. To go from, you know, A to Z. And just about everything that we have in here is all based on a lot of inventory analysis. Head of household dies, people come through, they take a true and just inventory of everything that they owned, assigned a value to it, and that was for the purpose of settling debt. They are not the end all and be all of what people owned. But when you go through '54 you start seeing trends and so it’s those trends that we followed when setting up this room. You’ll notice that they have a looking glass, but not enough people had basins or razors to justify putting them in the house. Glass had to be imported and glass things could be relatively expensive, so to just have a looking glass and nothing else to go with it is sort of a little status symbol. The only thing that separated the small landowner from the tenant farmer was the fact that small landowners actually owned their lands and more importantly they owned at least one or two slaves. All slaves of families of this wealth level, male or female, were field slaves and they would be right outside the field alongside the master of the farm or the plantation doing the work. From day one, we had to be able to address the idea of slavery because otherwise you just come here and you’d think that it was just your typical colonial family living off the land doing everything themselves. The family that we're based on had Kate Sharper and her young son, John. John was probably ten pounds sterling and with that low amount, that probably puts him around eight years old. Kate was probably 37 pounds sterling. She probably came with Mrs. Bolton as part of her dowry; basically made Mrs. Bolton marriable, that she came with a slave or one of these, a bed. Sometimes bedsteads in inventories that we read are worth more than what the family brought in in a year on tobacco. The pillows, the pillowcases, the bolster, the counterpane, all that factors into the value of the bed and all that is imported. Biggest misconception about colonial people is this whole idea of self-sufficiency. They grew their food and that’s it. But make no mistake, they had access to a foreign market and they loved it. There was one study that came out and the conclusion was basically that the last thing that they would put money into was the house itself. They would put money in things to put in the house. They would put money into maybe building a corn house or a milk house and the reason for that is you’re basically showing your mastery of the agricultural endeavor, advertising your success. The same thing with the brick chimney. Reason why a family like this would have a brick chimney was basically they were showing off to anybody that was going by. And if you can imagine that you spend most of your time out in the fields working and dealing mostly with your family, to have somebody come through from England or France or whatnot, man, you wanted to show off. You wanted to talk to them. You wanted to feed them and that’s what people commonly did. A traveler through Virginia in the 1750s wrote in his diary that one was much more likely to find lodging and victuals at houses where brick chimbles showed then elsewhere.
Guide: In the 18th century this would be step one. They would always want to add more to it. They would always want to turn the upstairs into a place to live for rooms and things like that.
Teacher 1: Just like we do.
Guide: Exactly! Does anybody have any questions? Yes?
Teacher 2: Like, do people write about oppressive heat—
Guide: Oh, yeah!
Teacher 2: 'Cause I feel like that’s the main topic on the news every time you turn it on.
Guide: They did all the time. And the great thing was that—
Teacher 2: How did they deal with that?
Guide: They would go on and on.
Teacher 2: Sort of like they do now.
Guide: They weren’t foolish about it. At midday they would come in from the fields for about three hours and then they would go back out when it wasn’t that hot. You know only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.
Teacher 1: Can you talk about the doorways being so small?
Guide: Yes! It’s not because they were short. They’ve been here for over a hundred years, the diet has improved, they’ve acclimated to it. The doorways are small to keep heat in. We know within two years of being built that the walls and these exposed ceiling beams were covered in soot from the constant smoky haze that was in here during the winter time when they were burning 30 to 40 cords a winter to keep warm.
Colonial people generally didn’t bathe that often; they thought it was actually bad for you, it washed the essential oils off your body. They did laundry maybe once a week. You could have anywhere from two to 15 people living in here. That’s just the way it was. And so this idea of sitting around and doing cutesy little things, it’s like, no, they were actively involved in everything that went into farming this land and becoming a success.
The kitchen is often where the family’s slave would have slept in here with her young son John. But there’s absolutely no reason to believe that they also might not have allowed her to just simply sleep in the house with the rest of the family. That happened from time to time.
Sometimes if you’re a house museum you focus on the house, the things that are in the house, the stories that involve the house, but a lot of times one of the things that they forget about is the farm that the house actually existed on. And believe it or not, more and more house museums now are resurrecting the farms simply because, you know, you might as well bring the farm to life because it’s a much more complete picture.
Travelers even when they went to the homes of the very, very wealthy and looked at their gardens said that they were ugly. You know, that they paled in the comparison to what was going on in England. If you were spending the lion's share of your time out in the field cultivating tobacco, you do not have time for a fancy pretty garden. Mounds of earth with pumpkin, squash, and beans in it are sometimes all that the gardens consisted of. We've got a few more things 'cause we’re not that far down the totem pole.
Teacher 1: I know this is all colonial but the Piscataway that lived around here, they did, like, the Three Sisters?
Guide: They did.
Teacher 1: Do you have any Three Sisters?
Guide: We do very little Three Sisters simply because it’s never worked for us. Most everything that we grow in here are all heirlooms. Many 18th-century varieties of vegetables have gone the way of the dodo, they simply don’t exist, too many hybrids now, but they wrote so extensively about things and described them in such detail that the things that aren’t 18th century are things that most closely resemble them.
Most of the things on the borders are going to be your medicinals, such as that white flowered thing growing there is called Feverfew. Pretty much tells you everything about it. The red Wethersfields that are in there closely resemble another variety. Melons, these are called Anne Arundel melons just because they figure prominently in Peale family still lifes. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, one of my favorite colonial names, said, and I quote, “We are very deficient in our gardens for we have neither time nor taste. Besides the labor is too dear."
Guide: These fences only were used on farms. And of course the reason why colonial planters and farmers had these fences was to keep animals out, not to pen them in. English travelers happened to say in their diaries, when they looked at the way the colonial people were 'farming' in general, was they just wrote about the deplorable way in which they treated their animals, doing nothing with them, just turning them loose. No management, no skill, no nothing.
But this is what life here demanded from them. And the number one reason for that was tobacco. In April, they would plant their corn. And then May was time for planting tobacco. Once the tobacco's in the ground, they don't do anything with the corn any more.
So if you come at a certain point of the year, you'll see tobacco growing in the field, corn growing in the field, but there'll be weeds up all around it and people will be like, oh my gosh, what is that? And it challenges the way that they think that a field should look, that everything should be, you know, clean and precise. But that wouldn't be an accurate representation of the way that they did it.
They weren't thrilled with it. They didn't think that this was the bee's knees, this way of farming. It's not—it doesn't take a lot of this, it takes a lot of this. The difference between curing, which they called an art, and farming it, is that curing was all up here.
You harvest something, the agricultural year is over. Harvest corn, done. Harvest wheat, done. But cut tobacco, it's followed on almost immediately by the process of curing it. And your reputation was joined with this, because everybody's going to know what price your tobacco got. Is it too wet? Is it too dry? If it's too wet, sometimes they thought that they might have to light fires in here. But if you light a fire in here, that's going to flavor it, which means you're going to get less of a price. What do I do, what do I do, what do I do. Will you be known as a miserable planter? Will you be known as a crop master? Because if you mess this up, all that work that you did, out in the field is going to be for naught.
When you cut the tobacco, you want to leave it outside for about four or five days to kill it. That's the term that they use. Then you would bring it into the barn, you would stake it, stack it, and store it. Once it was cured, they would prize it, or press it, in these hogsheads. And then the hogsheads would be taken to the town of Piscataway over here, and the inspector would break it open, he would pull out the tobacco, and anything that he deemed trash was burned right there on the dock.
England loved Virginia sweet-scented tobacco. They loved it. The soil and the climate around the James and York Rivers was so different that the tobacco took on this sweet-scented variety that England prized. After the French War, the French and Indian War, it was widely known that Colonel Washington, when he took up residence at Mount Vernon was very desirous to be a successful tobacco planter. That's what Virginians did. That is what your reputation is, that's how you define yourself, by the kind of tobacco planter you are.
He was an absolute failure at it. He was not a bad planter. Maryland's soils have always been known as stiff, which is a reference to the amount of clay in here. So the tobacco took on this much more robust flavor. Where is Mount Vernon? Right across the river. He shared our soils. He tried for 10 years before he finally quit. That shows you just how important it was to everyone's reputation that they be successful at it, and show good judgment in their ability to master and command their environment.