The term “rat’s nest” makes you think about a real mess – be it a hairstyle or a messy room. But in our world, the term can be a welcome one, especially when the rat in question had such good taste in what she collected.
Like other historic houses, Stratford’s Great House has hosted a variety of residents through its history – from the Lee family, to the enslaved and servant population, to later owners like the Stuart family, to domestic animals and so-called vermin and pests. One such resident (or series of residents) during the 18th century was a rat who moved around the house, collecting scraps of fabric, ceramics, glass, nails, animal bones, and a pewter button. Her nest was discovered in the 1980s in the attic above the Great Hall. We’re not the first historic house to find a rat’s nest. Curators love them – the contents can tell you so much about the lifestyle, furnishings, and foodways of a house’s residents.
When completing work in the Great House in 1984, architectural historians Paul Buchananand Charles Phillips located a rat’s nest behind the paneling of the Great Hall and accessed it through the floor of the attic. Brave board member Ellen Hunter, who was then head of the House Restoration Committee, reached her hand into the small opening to remove some of the artifacts.
For more information, see Travis McDonald, Rat Housing in Middle Virginia: The Diffusion of Everyday Life
Photo of store room by Terry Cosgrove.